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'Mezze': A comprehensive invitation to try your hand at Lebanese cooking
November 29, 2013
By Beckie Strum

The Daily Star

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BEIRUT: Barbara Abdeni Massaad took an unorthodox approach to her most recent cookbook, "Mezze: A Labor of Love," by replacing photographs of the well-known dips, salads and finger foods with colorful illustrations. "If a single image could define our unique culture and heritage," Massaad writes, "it would certainly depict an oversized table groaning with small, colorful plates of food, surrounded by happy people caught in the act of socializing and sharing a meal."

Massaad and "Mezze" illustrator Pascale Hares launched the book Thursday evening at Falamanki restaurant in Sodeco, with women lined up from the minute the two sat down to sign copies of the guide to Lebanon's most iconic foods.

This is Massaad's third English-language Lebanese cookbook. She's written on traditional baked goods in "Man'oushé: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery," and preserves in "Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry."

The whimsical illustrations – kibbeh akras with eyelashes and smiles, a young woman sleeping in a pile of okra, silly speech bubbles containing local slang – in a way reflect Massaad's approach to teaching mezze.

Rather than preach the correct way to make each dish, every recipe comes with a caveat or two: You can replace this for that, she writes; or in the south, they do it this way; and of course, some use pomegranate molasses instead of lemon juice.

The pictures offer abstract representations of the food and the genial spirit in which it's eaten without obliging readers to duplicate from a photograph. The words together with the pictures accommodate the varying nature of mezze and strip the ego out of Lebanese cooking – the arrogance that proclaims one regional variation to be the real one.

For her fattoush recipe, for example, Massaad says the beauty of the salad is that it can be made from whatever vegetables are available and in season. She invites cooks to fry or bake their Arabic bread for the croutons.

Wherever she can, she offers people options and tries to incorporate as many variations as she can.

The raw meat section contains seven different recipes, all of which she says can be made with lamb, beef or goat. And the topping options on her hummus read like the fine print in a car owner's manual: beef tenderloin, lamb tenderloin, basterma, sujuk, fried pine nuts, awarma, more chickpeas and on and on.

That's not to say Massaad doesn't divulge her favorites. She explains her affinity for muhammara, a red pepper and walnut dip from Aleppo, and her love of kibbeh orfalieh, which originated in Turkey.

And though accommodating of regional tastes, when it comes to flavor she urges readers to heed her advice. For example, she insists eggplant should never be cooked in the oven to make baba ghannouj – chargrill it on the stove top and remove the seeds, which can produce a bitterness.

Mezze also defies the standard recipe design that separates the ingredients from the method in tidy uniform layout. Thus, she puts emphasis on thoroughly reading her words, which are littered with crucial tips that will make the difference between passable and superb mezze.

She predicts the nuanced challenges her readers might face and divulges tips that only seasoned cooks have learned – the kind of advice for which those of us who don't have Lebanese tetas crave.

So what are some of these secrets? To make hummus smooth, for example, most big producers have heavy machinery to give it that buttery consistency. To do it at home, Massaad suggests pulverizing the chickpeas first in the food processor and then moving them to the blender, where the other ingredients are added.

Similarly, did you know that at Sahyoun, arguably Beirut's most famous falafel makers, the owners use only fava beans? Massaad offers a recipe that mixes fava beans and chickpeas.

The book is realistic and reflects what one actually finds on the table. She includes Lebanese-style French fries, which are not age-old local fare but are part and parcel of today's mezze spread. She also incorporates Armenian mezze that were brought to Lebanon relatively recently, but which she says are here to stay.

Massaad gives a nod to chefs that have remained true to their heritage while moving recipes forward. And she presents the lessons she's learned not as a monologue on mezze done right, but as a dialogue in which she invites readers to participate – readers that she knows will come with their own culinary baggage.

"Food preparation is never about a strict set of rules," she writes. "Cooking is personal, meaning that the character and personality of the cook should be evident in the final outcome."