A terrific new cookbook about Middle Eastern cuisine from around the globe, written by an author who lives in London, may at first seem to have little to do with the East Bay. But as with so many things, there’s a Berkeley connection. Anissa Helou, author of Feast: Food of the Islamic World (Ecco, 2018), is a longtime a friend of Chez Panisse chef and Berkeley resident Amy Dencler, who did all the recipe testing over the course of several years for Helou’s cookbook.
In Feast, award-winning chef Helou explores the dishes of North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South Asia and Indonesia in more than 300 recipes. Helou’s reflections and stories are woven into the book, including a particularly intriguing section where she describes her introduction to eating and preparing camel hump. Feast includes scenes from colorful markets and bazaars, together with attractive photos of some of the finished dishes.
A recipe tester is critical to ensuring details are accurate and that the final product actually tastes good. If the recipes I tried are any indication, Dencler’s extensive testing paid off. Instructions are straightforward and easy to follow, and ingredient lists aren’t terribly long. Dencler found many items locally.
“I bought dried limes, rice, tahini, slivered pistachios, mastic, rose water and orange flower water at Middle East Market, just south of University Avenue on San Pablo. Lamb and goat came from Halal Food and Meat Market, also nearby on San Pablo. Most of the spices I bought from Oaktown Spice Shop, and the saffron I used was from Vanilla Saffron Imports in San Francisco,” she said.
Helou provides a glossary with less familiar items (like black stone flower, a type of lichen; and mahlab, the kernel of a wild black cherry, which, when ground, imparts what Helou describes as a “mysterious” flavor to Lebanese and Syrian breads), as well as tips for sourcing those that can be harder to find.
Helou’s book introduces some of the enormous variety of dishes associated with Arab, Persian, Mughal and North African cooking. Recipes include dishes like meatballs in sour cherry sauce, a well-known dish from Aleppo, Syria; chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce from Iran; sardines with chermoula from Morocco; Lebanese orange blossom jam made from more than two pounds of blossoms; a particularly rich, aromatic date ice cream made with rose water and cardamom from the Arabian Gulf; and many curries from India, Indonesia and other regions.
Rice and bread, two staples of the Muslim world, are covered in depth, with recipes for the familiar pita, along with Iranian flatbread, Somali pancakes and Arabian date bread. Featured breads are stuffed with meats and vegetables, topped with herb mixtures, folded, baked, fried and prepared in all sorts of beguiling ways. In addition to suggestions for preparing for meats, vegetables, salads and sweets, Helou provides instructions for cooking animals whole, as is the custom in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly for celebrations.
Dencler and Helou first connected through former Chez Panisse chef, Catherine Brandel, whom Dencler met when she moved to Berkeley in 1995, hoping to work at the famous eatery. There was no job opening, but Brandel offered Dencler a room in her flat. Not long after, Brandel took a job working as a chef-instructor at The CIA at Greystone, where she met Helou.
“Anissa was a guest at Catherine’s flat in Berkeley when I was living there and that’s how we met in the late ’90s,” Dencler said.
Eventually, Helou returned to London but kept up her friendship with Dencler, who would visit the cookbook author in Europe or meet up with her during visits to the East Bay.
“We spend time together here at the markets, cooking together and dining out. I’ve also spent time with Anissa at her homes in London and Sicily,” said Dencler.
Dencler did the recipe testing for Helou’s previous book, Sweet Middle East, and according to Helou, it was only natural she’d turn to her for help with Feast.
“I love Amy, and I love her cooking and her precision in the kitchen. We had cooked together before and I saw her cooking both at Chez Panisse and in the little house I used to rent in Sicily where she visited and in my place in London, so I thought she would make a perfect tester. Her work on Sweet Middle East was so brilliant that I asked her if she would do Feast, too.”
The two worked remotely, Helou providing guidance from Europe and Dencler doing most of the testing at her boyfriend’s (Lore Olds) place, Sky Vineyards in Napa.
“I would test recipes on my days off. I found most of the ingredients at Middle Eastern markets in Berkeley and Oakland. A few things I had to source online,” said Dencler. “Usually I would test three recipes per day. I worked on it for a couple of years. I printed the recipes off my computer and then wrote notes on them as I tested. I would then type up my notes and send them to Anissa along with photos of each dish.”
Both agree, they work well together.
“Amy sent me photographs of the finished dishes. She understood the recipes and executed them incredibly well,” said Helou.
Poussin Tagine with Carrots, Olives and Preserved Lemon
Serves 2 to 4
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (about 5 ounces/150 g), grated on the fine side of a grater
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 bunch flat-leaf parsley (2 ounces/50 g), most of the bottom stems discarded, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
A good pinch of saffron threads
2 poussins or Cornish hens
1 pound 2 ounces (500 g) Chantenay or baby carrots, trimmed and brushed clean
A few sprigs cilantro, most of the bottom stems discarded, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
3 1/2 ounces (100 g) unpitted Kalamata olives
1/2 preserved lemon, peel only, sliced into thin julienne
Moroccan Bread, for serving
Put the olive oil, onion, garlic, parsley, spices, and a little sea salt in a large pot. Mix and spread all over the bottom. Lay the poussins on their backs over the oil-parsley mixture. Add 2 cups (500 ml) water and bring to a boil over medium- high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and let bubble gently for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the poussins are not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Add the carrots, cilantro (reserving some for garnish), lemon juice, olives, and preserved lemon. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 15 more minutes, or until both poussins and carrots are done and the sauce has thickened.
Transfer the poussins to a serving dish. If the sauce is still too liquid, increase the heat and let it bubble uncovered until it thickens and becomes somewhat silky. Arrange the carrots and olives around the poussins and spoon the sauce all over. Garnish with the reserved chopped cilantro and serve hot with Moroccan bread.
Excerpt from Feast: Food of the Islamic World by Anissa Helou. Copyright 2018 by Anissa Helou. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.