A good palate is a well-travelled palate. I am a firm believer in the power of food as an insight into other cultures, as there are few ways to experience a foreign land more intimately than tasting the flavours its people have enjoyed for thousands of years. Although I lament the fact that I have yet to visit the Persian Gulf, cooking recipes from Sabrina Ghayour’s first book, Persiana, allowed me to feel like I had wandered with her through the souks of Tehran and sat at a celebratory feast, drinking in the heady flavours of this gem of a region.
With a track record like that, I excitedly awaited the arrival of Sabrina’s second offering, Sirocco, and jumped at the chance to take another culinary adventure filled with Eastern promise. This time around, Sabrina has sought to marry the flavours of the Middle East with her loves from her home town of London, where she moved with her mother when the 1979 Islamic Revolution took hold in Iran.
A self-taught cook who rose to prominence after setting up a London supper club in the fashion of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry at a fraction of the price, Sabrina has captured the hearts of food-lovers world-wide with her down to earth style and unfailingly flavoursome recipes. Sirocco means ‘a hot, dry wind blowing from East to West’, making it a satisfyingly apt title for this book, which Sabrina says is ‘inspired by the flavours of the East but uses the fresh produce, techniques and cookery styles of the West’.
First impressions count, and after ripping the package open like a child on Christmas morning I was greeted with the most striking of covers, kaleidoscopic with rich metallic hues of jade and magenta so vibrant they almost danced off the hard-cover. Everyone in the office commented that it was one of the most beautiful cookbooks they had ever seen. While we shall never judge a book by its cover, before even peeking within I was excited.I had decided in a matter of minutes which dishes I would try first and marked my calendar for that Friday night – a Feast from the East was on the cards. My Sirocco menu was set and I had no shortage of taste tester volunteers!
What I really loved about this book when writing my shopping list was it didn’t require a whole host of intimidating ingredients that I would use once and confine to the back of the cupboard. Many of the spice mixes like za’tar, sumac and tamarind are even available in Tesco. I need no excuse to venture to the Middle Eastern supermarket but I practically ran out to stock up on preserved lemons, baharat, barberries safe in the knowledge that I had plenty of uses for all of them dotted throughout Sirocco.
In my house we eat more hummus than the population of Jerusalem so I was drawn in immediately by a tantalizing alternative – Butterbean and Za’tar dip. Za’tar is a seriously punchy Middle Eastern spice mix with citrusy sumac, sesame seeds and fresh oregano and although it sounds like the name of an evil wizard it is the superhero of this deliciously creamy dip. Blended with butterbeans, Greek yoghurt and garlic, this was super smooth (butterbeans are a great choice for a silky result) and everyone agreed , this was like the younger, edgier sister of hummus, a refreshing way of shaking things up dip-wise.
Having bought a bag of barberries and being a consummate broccoli lover I simply had to make Broccoli Fritters. The batter was extremely quick and easy to put together and emerged from bubbling oil like a delicious Broccoli Bhaji. The barberrries, an Iranian staple not unlike a dried sour cherry, along with loads of lemon zest cut through the oiliness like lemon juice squeezed on fish and chips and although I should have chopped my broccoli into smaller pieces the broken bits were chef’s treat. This is bold broccoli – and I loved it.
When I think of Middle Eastern cuisine baklava immediately springs to mind, flaky filo pastry is a staple in desserts and savoury treats alike so I was easily drawn to Sabrina’s Feta, Artichoke and Mushroom Filo Parcels. I picked up some frozen filo (having made my own in the past, on this occasion life seemed too short) and got to work. Sabrina suggests frying the mushrooms in artichoke oil from the jar and trust me when I say, the herby oil bath made these mushrooms sing.
Crumbly, salty feta was then stirred through along with some lemon and thyme, all to be encased in filo and rolled into a coil shape like a Moroccan M’hencha pastry. Brushed in egg wash and baked to a golden brown, mine suffered from a few minor cheese bursts at the seams, but an abundance of cheese is never a bad thing and who doesn’t love a bulging parcel? These beauties caused fights, as they were completely addictive and utterly more-ish. Dipped in pomegranate molasses, heavenly was the word.
I was delighted to see a recipe for Palestinian couscous or Maftoul included, as it is a seldom championed ingredient which I had only ever tried in the West Bank. Sabrina’s take on this was like Palestinian jewelled couscous, bathed in a dressing of orange and lemon and dotted with dried apricots, dried cranberries (I substituted with barberries), spring onions, chickpeas, chopped parsley and interestingly, dried cinnamon. This addition gave it a real Persian twist and made the dish deliciously fragrant and unique, perfect hot or cold and fabulously summery.
It seemed wrong to put together a Middle Eastern mezze feast without including what Sabrina describes as ‘meat of the Middle East’ so Cumin Roasted Aubergine with Pomegranate Molasses had to make an appearance. Slow roasted to give meltingly tender flesh with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, this dish was as delicious as it was beautiful, finished with a drizzle of sticky and sour pomegranate molasses and Greek yoghurt and completely foolproof – I would eat this all day.
With a fabulous array of savoury dishes completed I decided to gild the lily and produce a showstopping Sirocco dessert – Nectarine Pavlova with Tea Syrup and Toasted Almonds. I have made hundreds of pavlovas in my time so had high expectations and was delighted to see that Sabrina’s method mirrors Nigella’s, placing the pav into a very hot oven and immediately reducing the temperature. This, along with cornflour and white wine vinegar, ensured that the meringue was cracking and crisp on the outside and pillowy in the middle – the perfect pav. Reducing aromatic tea to a drizzling syrup, choosing nectarines over traditional berries and tossing over some toasty almonds put Sabrina’s exotic stamp on this dish which went down a treat.
Although I had set out to make 4 or 5 dishes to get a good feel of Sirocco I ended up making three more throughout the week – Baharat and Preserved Lemon Pork Kebabs (which were devoured too swiftly to photograph) and some Middle Eastern baked goodies – Date and Orange Cinnamon Scones and Parsnip, Walnut and Honey Cake. I really enjoyed the scones and Sabrina’s method is invitingly laid back, as with all her recipes, so for those less accustomed to baking a few tips like being careful to only brush the top with milk may have been useful.
Parsnip may sound like an off the wall addition to cake at first blush but the Taste office agreed this could easily go toe to toe with the ever popular carrot cake. This was a one bowl cake, always a joy when you have an aversion to washing up, and so quick and simple. Subtly honeyed and bursting with cinnamon and ginger spice, parsnips gave the cake both moisture and an almost nutty depth of flavour – this cake was a real hit.
As may be obvious from the above gushing, I was more than a little taken by Sirocco. Sabrina has managed to pull off a feat which so many fail to achieve – making a sequel which is as good as the original, yet completely different and fresh. Her writing style throughout makes the reader feel like she is there in the kitchen, laughing and cooking along with you like an old friend rather than giving rigid instruction. Sabrina hopes that Sirocco will be a companion in the kitchen which ends up with sticky pages and splatters – the sign of a lovingly used book – and having had it for only a week I can happily say my copy is already well worn. Everyone from novice to kitchen whiz can enjoy and learn from Sirocco. This is one book which I will never confine to the shelf.
Order your copy of Sirocco here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!