We went to a friend's birthday party in Oxford recently and he sensibly (and generously) catered for the visiting horde by getting a local restaurant to deliver the food. It came from Al-Shami, a Lebanese restaurant close to the city centre in Jericho and something of an Oxford institution.
Tim had ordered an array of vegetarian mezze and although it was all good, I liked one dish so much I went to Al-Shami the next day to ask how they'd made it, and they very kindly gave me some guidelines. It is zahra maqlia, cauliflower served with a tahini and lemon sauce - you can just see a corner of it in the picture at the top.
My version didn't come out exactly the same as theirs (any departures from tradition are mine) but the family still ate it enthusiastically two days running as I tinkered with proportions and cooking times. It's my favourite new way of cooking cauli, a much under-rated vegetable these days.
We also had another dish inspired by Al-Shami, loubieh bzeit, or French beans cooked with olive oil, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I think both are best eaten cold. Served with hot pitta bread they make an excellent summer lunch.
Each will serve around four people as part of a meal.
Lebanese Caufliflower (Zahra Maqlia)
1 medium cauliflower
About 6 tbsp tahini paste (I used light tahini, less oil)
The juice of 1 or 2 lemons, to taste
Parsley and ground cumin, to garnish
Break the cauliflower into medium-sized florets and steam until almost tender. Drain well, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep frying pan and sauté the cauliflower until it's tinged with golden brown. It should still have a bit of bite. If you cook it until it's mushy you will end up with a cauliflower mulch.
If your tahini paste has separated in the jar, stir it with a fork until it's amalgamated again. Put the tahini in a bowl and stir in plenty of lemon juice. It may seize and stiffen - if so, just add a little hot water to loosen it. You're looking for the consistency of double cream.
Pour it over the warm cauliflower and mix gently. Allow to cool, then chop a big handful of parsley and stir it through. Decant into a bowl and sprinkle over a little ground cumin.
Lebanese Beans and Tomatoes (Loubieh Bzeit)
Lebanese seven-spice mix, baharat, really adds to this recipe. If you can't source it, there are lots of recipes online for you to make your own.
500-600g French beans
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes, chopped
A big handful of chopped parsley
2 tspn Lebanese seven-spice mix (or to taste)
For the yoghurt drizzle:
150g Greek yoghurt
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
Plus toasted pine nuts to garnish, optional
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a deep frying pan and cook the onions until soft and golden. Add the sliced garlic and fry for a couple of minutes more.
Stir in the chopped tomatoes and cook for around 20 minutes or until you have a thick sauce. Add a little water if it starts sticking.
Meanwhile, top and tail the beans and steam them until they are just al dente. Drain well, then add to the tomatoes with a small splash of water. Cook on a low heat for another 10 minutes or so, until the flavours have blended and the beans are cooked but still green and not too floppy.
While they're cooking, stir the crushed garlic into the yoghurt and loosen with water until, again, it has the consistency of double cream.
Spoon the beans and their tomato sauce into a bowl and stir in the seven-spice mix and chopped parsley. Allow to cool, then just before serving drizzle over the yoghurt mixture and scatter with toasted pine nuts, if using.