Ten years ago we met in a restaurant kitchen in Israel, where we were both born. Sarit had just come back from London, having trained there as a chef, working in the classic French brigade system. I thought she was highly strung and uptight . . . We married a year later.
The beginning was all about introducing each other to our favourite foods and places. I took my wife-to-be to Jerusalem, my home town, to Rochelle’s Sandwiches – a hole-in-the-wall canteen where an ancient Tunisian woman and her daughter cooked the most delicious stews, soups and mezze. In Tel Aviv I took her to Big Itzik, the best kebab shop in Jaffa, and we went to the Bulgarian grill by the beach, where we’d have aubergine salad and taramasalata and kofta kebab seasoned with kashkaval cheese, and would reek of garlic for days afterwards.
Our life then, as now, revolved around food. Much has changed – the country, the climate – but food is a constant. We came to live in London on Christmas Day 2004, dreaming of high gastronomy and Michelin stars. We worked hard and earned little. After six years I felt it was now or never. I had always wanted us to open a place: a noisy, crazy, sexy, smoky, messy, food/love/people celebration of a place. Putting an offer on 25a Warren Street was a desperate act of faith in our imaginary restaurant. We scoured eBay for bentwood chairs and equipment. Our only extravagance was the beautiful Moroccan tiles we got from a dealer whose showroom had burnt down. We opened in 2012, six weeks after we signed the lease.
We wanted to write a book to capture the essence of who we are – not just the two of us but also our little restaurant and the hive it is, the people we work with, the people we feed, and the tasty, easy, homey food that brings us all together.
‘Honey & Co: Food from the Middle East’ by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich is published by Salt Yard Books on June 19
More recipes will appear here on June 21
Butternut & tahini dip with roasted hazelnuts
This recipe brings together two great ladies who have never met. We picked up the original recipe from a cookbook by Sherry Ansky (a most gifted cook and an even more gifted writer), and though we prepared it many times with great success, we got the best results with the heather honey we received from our good friend who is now our publisher, Elizabeth.
This is a simple preparation with few ingredients but it is one of the best recipes in the book. The hazelnuts are there for their good looks and crunch, and they add a special nuttiness to the whole thing, but of course you can omit them if you wish. Serves six to eight, as a mezze.
1 large butternut squash (about 700g-800g, to give 600g once peeled and deseeded)
½ tsp salt
60g tahini paste
2 tsp heather honey
30g whole hazelnuts, salted, roasted and roughly chopped
● Peel the butternut squash and scoop out the seeds. Because I have small hands, peeling a whole squash can be quite hard, and I find it easier to cut it into wedges and peel each wedge. Cut the butternut into large dice (about two centimetres square). Try to make the pieces evenly sized so that they cook in the same time. Put in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid, sprinkle with the salt and cover.
● Place the saucepan on the stove on a very low heat and set a timer for 10 minutes. Don’t be tempted to remove the lid before then, as you want some steam to start developing. When the timer sounds, lift the lid and give the squash a good stir, then cover again and set the timer for a further 10 minutes. I repeat this four or five times. If some of the butternut sticks to the bottom of the pan, scrape it with the tip of a wooden spoon, as there is so much flavour down there. You want to stop cooking once the squash has formed a thick paste.
● Remove the pan from the stove and add the tahini and honey. Mix well and allow to cool before adjusting the flavour with more honey or salt, as it will change when cool. You may need to add a little water to get a lighter consistency – it’s a matter of personal preference how light or thick you want to make it.
● Sprinkle the hazelnuts over the dip just before serving. Any leftover dip will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two days.
Feta & spring onion bouikos
Bouikos are little cheese buns from the Balkans. We have had them in our mezze selection almost since day one. They are lovely at room temperature but once you’ve tried them fresh from the oven, you’ll be hooked. Makes 12 small buns or six large ones.
50g cold butter
40g mature Cheddar cheese
100g plain flour
Pinch of salt
50ml sour cream
½ tsp nigella seeds
2 spring onions, chopped (or 2 tbs chopped chives)
Milk to glaze (optional)
● There are two key factors in getting the best texture here: use cold ingredients and work them as little as possible. Cut your cold butter into small cubes the size of playing dice. Grate the Cheddar cheese and crumble the feta, then combine all the ingredients straightaway. You can use a mixer with a paddle attachment or your hands. Work the mixture until it just combines; lumps of butter and cheese are exactly what you want in this dough – when you bake it, they will melt and ooze and be so tasty.
● Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and pat it down to a rough rectangle about two to three centimetres thick (roughly the same height as the first joint of your thumb). I traditionally cut it into triangles like this – flour the blade of your knife, cut the dough in half lengthways, slice across three times to divide it into six squares, then cut each of these from corner to corner to give you 12 small triangles. You can also make squares, rounds or rectangles (if you choose to go with rounds, you will need to re-form the offcuts by pushing them together and patting down, so that you use up all the dough). If you want to freeze any for future use, now is the time – just thaw at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes before baking.
● Preheat your oven to 220C. You can brush the top of the buns with a little milk if you want them to be shiny, but it isn’t vital for the flavour. Bake on a lined baking tray on the upper-middle shelf of the oven for 10 minutes. Open the oven and carefully turn the tray round, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further six to eight minutes until they are golden.
● You can eat these straightaway, or you can cool them on the tray. They are best eaten the same day.
Apricot & pistachio tabule with orange blossom
This one is autumnal in flavour, colour and feel but as it relies on store-cupboard ingredients, we enjoy it all year round.
80g roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
150g cooked bulgur wheat (Put 75g dried bulgur wheat in bowl, add splash of olive oil and pinch of salt, stir well. Add 75g boiled water, cover with clingfilm for 5 minutes, then fluff up with fork.)
120g dried apricots, cut into strips
1 tbs orange blossom water
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 tbs lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
3-4 sprigs parsley, coarsely chopped
3-4 sprigs mint, coarsely chopped
1 tbs olive oil, plus a little for drizzling
Pinch of salt to taste
● Set aside 30g of the chopped pistachios. Place the rest of the pistachios and all the other ingredients apart from the salt in a bowl. Mix well and taste, adding the salt if you feel it needs it. This dish can be prepared a few hours in advance of eating but is best kept out of the fridge in the meantime, as chilling would affect the flavour significantly and you would have to re-season before serving.
● Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining pistachios just before serving, to keep them crunchy.
Peaches & goat’s cheese with roasted almonds
This is my wife’s favourite salad. She is mad for peaches but for the longest time could not touch them – the feel of the fuzzy skin made her gag. As a child her mom would peel them for her; later in life I got that job. She handles them better now. If you suffer from the same affliction, use nectarines instead, but the flat white peaches (doughnut peaches) that are to be found in midsummer are amazing for this recipe. The combination with fresh coriander and roasted almonds is just perfect. A light starter for three to four people.
1 soft-leaf lettuce (in leaves)
3 flat white peaches, each cut into 8 segments
120g soft rindless goat’s cheese
50g roasted almonds, roughly chopped
4-5 sprigs coriander
Touch of sea salt
Pinch of ground black pepper
For the dressing
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs white wine vinegar
½ tsp orange blossom water
½ tsp Demerara sugar
Pinch of salt
● Arrange the soft leaves on a serving plate, then top with the peaches, goat’s cheese, almonds and coriander leaves. Sprinkle with a touch of sea salt and grind a little black pepper over the top. Shake the dressing ingredients in a small jar and spoon over the salad.
Try this instead of a shepherd’s pie. It is just as easy and, though the flavours are Middle Eastern, it pushes the same buttons of comfort and domestic joy.
350g cauliflower florets
1 tsp salt
For the lamb
200g onions, peeled and chopped
2 tbs vegetable oil
2 x ½ tsp salt
500g minced lamb
1 tsp coarsely ground fennel seeds
2 tbs baharat spice mix (Bake 1 dried, deseeded chilli, 3 tsp coriander, 4 tsp cumin seeds on a tray at 190C for six minutes. When cool, crumble the chilli, then grind all roasted spices. Mix with 2 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp white pepper, ½ tsp ground turmeric and 2 tsp sweet spice mix. For the sweet spice mix: roast 10 cardamom pods, 6 cloves and ½ nutmeg on a baking tray at 190C for 5 minutes; add 1 tsp fennel seeds and 2 tsp mahlab seeds and roast for another 5 minutes. Allow to cool before grinding with 3 tsp ginger and 4 tsp ground cinnamon.)
1 tbs tomato purée
For the topping
200g natural yoghurt
200g tahini paste
1 tbs lemon juice
½ tsp salt
1-2 tbs water (if needed)
2 tbs pine nuts
1 tbs chopped parsley
● Place the cauliflower in a saucepan with the water and salt. Bring to the boil and cook for five to six minutes until the florets are soft. Drain and place in a shallow saucepan or casserole dish.
● Fry the onions on a medium heat in a frying pan with the oil and half a teaspoon of salt until the onions start to go golden. Add the minced lamb and the other half-teaspoon of salt, increase the heat to high and use a spoon to break the meat into pieces. When the lamb starts to brown, sprinkle on the ground fennel and baharat spice and cook for three to four minutes. Stir in the tomato purée and continue to stir while cooking for a further three minutes, then spread all over the cauliflower in the casserole dish. You can prepare this stage up to a day in advance – just cool, cover and store in the fridge.
● Preheat the oven to 180C. Mix all the topping ingredients together apart from the water and pine nuts. If the mixture is very thick, stir in enough water to loosen slightly – the consistency should resemble thick yoghurt. Spread the topping over the lamb in the dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts all over and bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes or until the tahini looks set and slightly golden. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.
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