Introduction

Introduction

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708423
Photographer
Alan Benson

The new feast

It began with a curious moment of synchronicity: at exactly the same time – about a year ago – Lucy and I discovered that we were both, quite independently, changing the way we ate. We were cutting down dramatically on the animal protein in our diets and upping the level of plant-based foods. Not so strange for Lucy, perhaps, who has had vegetarian leanings since her student days, but it was something of a dramatic turnabout for me, a chef and confirmed carnivore.

The reasons for these changes probably won’t surprise anyone: we confessed to each other similar anxieties over advancing years and a desire to be as fit and healthy as possible to meet the challenges head-on, as well as niggling long-held issues of conscience about the excesses in our respective diets.

It’s that word ‘excess’ that’s always been the rub for me. With two heart transplants under my belt, I’m someone who relishes life, who is unashamedly greedy for all that’s on offer – especially when it comes to my tummy. There’s no escaping the fact that I love food – live for it, really. It’s one of the main reasons I became a chef! But I had reached a point where – 25 kg (55 lb) overweight, facing fresh professional challenges in a new country with a difficult climate – I knew the moment had come to face up to reality. It was time for the feasting to stop! Or at the very least, it had to be a different kind of feast.

So what to do?

For me, it was never going to be about cutting out high-fat, energy-dense snacks and sugary drinks; they’ve never been part of my diet. In fact, I’ve always believed that I ate a pretty good diet; the problem was that I was just eating far too much of too many good things! Once I started reading up on the subject, I learnt that most of the current health wisdom suggests that the single most important thing we can do to minimise future health problems is increase the amount of unprocessed, plant-based foods we eat. While other pieces of nutritional advice seem to be endlessly tweaked and revised, this dictum remains a constant. In fact, recent Western government guidelines indicate that even the familiar ‘five-a-day’ model is woefully inadequate and that we should be eating up to ten servings of vegetables and (to a lesser degree) fruit every day.

The flip side of the ‘eat more veg’ equation is to ‘eat less meat’! More and more studies suggest that levels of meat consumption in the modern Western diet – and saturated fats specifically – are way too high and I’d be the first to confess to loving (and eating way too much of) every part of an animal; offcuts, offal and all. I’ve never been interested in becoming a vegetarian because I enjoy eating meat and seafood far too much ever to exclude it from my diet. But instead of cutting it out completely, I wondered how hard I would find it to simply cut down the amount of animal protein that I eat? Could I refocus my attention on quality, instead of quantity?

This was something I thought I could manage easily enough because, despite being a dedicated meat eater, I’ve always been a careful meat eater. It’s always been important for me to know an animal’s provenance – partly this is to do with quality and flavour, but also because I want to know that the animal has been valued. And in the main I’ve been fortunate: as a chef I’ve had access to ethically produced meat and sustainably caught fish delivered by suppliers who really care about their animals.

In fact the ‘eat more veg and less meat’ approach was something I felt sure I could adopt – a part of me even relished the challenge because I knew that my Lebanese heritage stood me in good stead. It turns out that the Middle Eastern diet is actually pretty good for you and, despite the many long years of restaurant gluttony, I grew up in a family where meat played more of a supporting role at mealtimes. And when meat was used, it tended to be the cheaper, less desirable secondary cuts, instead of expensive prime cuts. When I look back now, I see how much we depended on produce from the garden: Dad’s beans were the stuff of family legend, as were his thumb-sized cucumbers and wonderfully tasty tomatoes. I remember the baby cos that Mum used in our fattouche salads, the tiny eggplants that were destined for the pickling jars, the bay and lemon trees, the capsicums and carrots, and the coriander, parsley and mint that ran riot everywhere … Like many Lebanese, my Dad was crazy about his vegetable garden, and while that’s not a passion he passed on to me, I did learn from him the particular pleasure of eating fresh produce that’s only travelled a few yards from garden bed to kitchen bench.

But the real point is that vegetables are in my blood. The Middle Eastern diet (with some regional differences) is largely vegetarian: it relies heavily on vegetables and fruit, herbs and spices and complex carbohydrates, such as pulses and grains. There is some dairy and plenty of olive oil. A limited amount of meat, poultry and fish are eaten, but they are really added extras to the daily diet. This is partly because the climate and terrain suits vegetable production somewhat more than large-scale animal farming. Meat has always been expensive, and so is reserved for special occasions. I think this is why Middle Easterners are such masters of vegetable and grain cookery: through the centuries they’ve learnt endless interesting ways to cook and to present vegetables as the hero of a dish, instead of playing second fiddle to a slab of animal protein.

As it turned out, cutting down on meat and adding more plant-based meals to m y diet was so easy and delicious that I wondered why I hadn’t always eaten this way. As the new food adventure progressed, I found myself returning to favourite vegetable dishes from my childhood and re-reading all my old travel journals for inspiration. Before long I was busily developing new versions in my kitchen at home. Lucy and I started comparing notes and swapping recipes by telephone and, before long, the idea for a new book was born.

One of the things Lucy and I tried to get to the bottom of during our research and recipe testing was why so many people have such an ambivalent relationship with vegetables:they know they should eat more of them – they want to eat more of them – but they find preparing them a bit of a bore and, more often than not, mired in meat-centric food habits, they can’t think of interesting vegetable dishes to cook. Other people worry that it just won’t feel like a properly filling meal without a bit of meat on the plate. If either of these concerns resonate, if you’re interested in eating a more plant-based diet and are looking for new and exciting ways to cook them, then this book is for you.

We’d like to think that the recipes will also appeal to people who already know and love Middle Eastern food or to those who are interested in discovering more about it. Our previous cookbooks all contained significant numbers of vegetarian dishes (of course they did! As I’ve just outlined, vegetables are an important part of the Middle Eastern food canon) but, with a few exceptions, the recipes here are all completely new.

And what about those of you who have already embraced a meat-free way of life? As Lucy and I found out from our reading, being ‘vegetarian’ means different things to different people. Health issues aside, there are all kinds of reasons for eating less or no meat (ranging from political to ethical to environmental, spiritual or religious) and it seems that vegetarianism is a sort of sliding scale, from the strictest regime whose adherents, like vegans, eschew any kind of animal-derived product at all, right through to the ‘selective vegetarian’, who won’t touch red meat or poultry, but will happily eat seafood, and the even wobblier ‘flexitarians’ who consider themselves vegetarian but will occasionally tuck into a steak or bacon sandwich. Whichever kind of vegetarian you are, we hope you’ll find recipes here that will be exciting and inspirational additions to your repertoire. They are all entirely meat-free, although some use dairy and eggs. If you are a vegan, or a vegetarian with vegan leanings, you’ll want to make use of the range of vegan-friendly dairy and egg substitutes. You’ll probably already be very familiar with what’s on offer.

So here it is: our collection of modern Middle Eastern-inspired vegetarian recipes. With very few exceptions, you’ll find that they are all easily achievable in a home kitchen. As I get older I’m leaning more and more towards a simple life and no longer feel the need to flex my cheffy muscles with elaborate, complicated creations. So these recipes are not about technique, but instead they are about celebrating the intrinsic flavour and freshness of glorious fresh produce.

And this, I think, is the key: whatever the motivations for wanting to change one’s diet, for us, first and foremost, food has to be about pleasure. (For this reason alone, we’ve included a generous number of sweet dishes – although we suggest you adopt the Middle Eastern approach of eating them sparingly as the occasional treat, rather than as a daily indulgence.) But if nothing else, we hope to show you just how many things there are to do with vegetables, other than simply to boil them and stick them on a plate with a lamb chop. As you’ll discover from this collection, austerity and denial have no place in the Middle Eastern approach to eating – with its emphasis on sharing, and on combining a variety of dishes of varying textures and tastes it is exciting and satisfying on all kinds of levels. However humble the ingredients, Middle Eastern food is always bold and celebratory, fresh and vital and, above all, has an emphasis on flavour and on generosity of spirit.

Finally, a word about availability. It’s a very different world now, from when Lucy and I wrote our first cookbook, fifteen years ago. Then, Middle Eastern ingredients were hard to hunt down; now, you can buy preserved lemons, harissa, flower waters and spice blends in the average suburban supermarket. And while there are a few specific Middle Eastern herbs and vegetables that aren’t yet being grown commercially in the West, let’s not forget that we live in a world of abundance. To be sure, it’s not an abundance that is evenly distributed, but most of us have easier and better access to quality fresh ingredients than ever before. Markets and farm shops are falling over themselves to encourage us to buy fresh local produce grown, in the main, by people who care. Even supermarkets are responding to consumer demand for greater variety and more information about provenance. Vegetable box schemes can expand one’s vegetable horizons, too. They encourage us to experiment with whatever is currently in season – and it’s delivered right to the front door.

Really, it’s all there for the taking and the making and so we encourage you to join us in trying a New Feast.

Greg & Lucy Malouf

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