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Suzanne Husseini says our feelings about cooking seep into a dish. Image Credit: Silvia Baron/ANM

How many times have you cooked a meal believing you are creating a nourishing experience not just for the body but for the soul as well? An experience that is not just yours to savour but for whoever partakes of it?

If your answer is yes most times, you have great company in Dubai-based celebrity chef, Suzanne Husseini. "Cooking is a sensual experience where the cook has to get all of his/her senses involved. Until you do that others cannot truly relish the resulting dish," she says.

A chef on various regional TV shows and with many cookbooks to her credit, Husseini travels extensively between the UAE and Canada. I caught up with her at the launch of her recent book, When Suzanne Cooks, at the Bloomingdale's Home store at The Dubai Mall where she conducted a cooking demo.

Flourish and flair, two qualities that are entirely in keeping with her vibrant personality, were on ample display. Her philosophy of cooking is simple: "The eyes must first crave for the dish they visualise. Then the other senses need to be keenly aware of the sounds in the kitchen, the aromas and the textures of the ingredients. All of this must then tempt you enough to plunge passionately into the process of creating a dish."

Her book is packed with recipes, is a delightful production and will appeal to everyone who loves Arabic food. As she says in the introduction to her book, "My family emigrated to Canada when I was very young. I remember arriving in the middle of the winter and seeing snow for the first time. A new beginning, where I had to learn a new language, make friends and get used to wearing mittens and boots. While all of this was challenging at times, my constant comfort was coming home to a kitchen filled with the most enticing smells, lovingly created by me mother."

Her book is she says, "a passionate attempt to showcase the diverse cuisine I grew up with, a cuisine that encompasses the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East."

She is proud of the fact that many international chefs are turning to pick themes from Middle Eastern cooking to adapt and enhance their dishes. Ingredients such as sumac, harissa, tahini, pomegranate syrup, and so on, are increasingly finding a global platform.

Her cookbook is divided into four sections - breakfast, mezze, lunch and dinner. Every recipe has an author's note that is warm, engaging and chatty, revealing as much about the dish as also about Husseini's personality as a mother and cook.

"Good food has a lot to do with the love and thought you put into it," she says. She also strongly believes that every individual must be free to adapt a dish to his or her preferences, a view that is the ultimate sign of a true food lover. 

Ruqya Khan is a Sharjah-based freelancer

Recipes

Grilled fish with date and rice pilaf
(Serves 6–8)
Prep time: 25 mins
Cooking time: 45 mins

Ingredients

For date and rice pilaf
3 tbsp clarified butter
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp all-spice mixture
2 red chilli peppers, deseeded and chopped
2 cups basmati rice, soaked and drained
4 cups chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
1 zest of one orange
6 cardamom pods, lightly bruised
salt and pepper
1/4 cup rosewater combined with 2 pinches of saffron
1/4 cup toasted almonds, pine nuts and pistachios,
to garnish
1/4 cup coriander leaves, to garnish
For grilled fish
1 tsp cumin, crushed
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 tbsp sumac
6 hammour fillets (or sea bass or cod) about
2 cm-thick with skin
4 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Method

1. To prepare the date and rice pilaf, melt butter in a large pot and add dates, cinnamon, all-spice mixture and chilli peppers, coating the dates well with the spices.

2. Add the drained rice and stir well. Pour in the chicken stock and bring it to a boil. Add the cinnamon stick, orange zest and cardamom pods and season.

3. Lower the heat and allow to simmer until rice is done, for approximately 20 minutes. Sprinkle the rosewater and saffron mix over the rice about 5 minutes before the rice is done. Do not stir. The rice will take on a two-tone colour of white and yellow. Place the cover back on and leave to finish cooking. When done, garnish pilaf with the toasted nuts and fresh coriander leaves.

4. To prepare fish, combine all the spices in a small bowl. Brush the fish fillets with oil all over and coat with the spice mixture. Season.

5. Heat a large ovenproof skillet. Place the fish skin side down on the skillet and grill until the skin is browned and crisp, about 4 minutes. Turn fish over and finish cooking in a preheated oven at 200°C, about 8 minutes. Garnish with cherry tomatoes, olives and lemon wedges and serve with homemade tomato salsa on the side.

Cauliflower fritters with yogurt and mint dip
(Serves 3)
Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins

Ingredients

1 large cauliflower head, cut into florets
8 eggs
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped
2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
4 tbsp rice flour
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp baking soda
peanut oil, for frying
1 cup full-fat yogurt
1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
salt, to taste

Method

1. Steam cauliflower florets until tender but firm. Transfer to a plate and cool completely. Dry excess water from the cauliflower with clean paper towels.

2. In a large bowl whisk together eggs, onion, garlic, herbs, spices, and both flours. Add the salt and pepper. Then add cauliflower florets, mix well and stir in the baking soda.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet. Using a tablespoon, ladle dollops of the fritter batter in hot oil. Cook on medium heat on each side until crisp and golden, about 2 minutes per side. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fritters on to paper towels to drain excess oil.

4. To prepare the dip, mix yogurt and fresh mint in a bowl. Season and serve with hot fritters.

Ricotta-filled crêpes with mango and rose syrup
(Makes 15)
Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 35 mins

Ingredients

For ricotta filling
500g ricotta cheese
zest of an orange
1/2 cup each, honey and chopped pistachio nuts
For crêpes
1 cup flour
3 tbsp castor sugar
salt, a pinch
2 eggs
325ml milk
100ml double cream
1/2 cup ground pistachios
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp orange blossom water
4 tbsp clarified butter
2 ripe mangoes, peeled, sliced
1 cup rose syrup

Method

1. Mix together ricotta cheese, orange zest, honey and nuts and refrigerate while you prepare the crêpes.

2. For crêpe batter, whisk together flour, sugar, salt and eggs in a bowl. Stir in half the milk, mix well, then add the rest of the milk and cream to make a creamy batter. Add ground pistachios and allow to rest for at least an hour.

3. Now add vanilla and orange blossom water to the batter and stir well. Grease a non-stick frying pan lightly with clarified butter and heat. Using a ladle, pour a little batter on to the pan and prepare thin crêpes. Stack prepared crêpes on a plate separating the layers with wax paper.

4. To serve, spoon 2-3 tsp ricotta filling and mango slices in the centre of each crêpe and fold it twice. Drizzle with rose syrup and garnish with chopped pistachio nuts and serve.

Green salad with fried halloumi, grapes and pomegranate dressing
(Serves 4)
Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins

Ingredients
assorted green and red lettuce leaves, 2 handfuls
purslane leaves, a handful
fresh thyme, a handful
1/2 cup each, green and red seedless grapes, halved
1/2 cup green olives, pitted
clarified butter, for pan-frying
450g halloumi cheese, cut into bite-sized cubes, blotted with paper towels to drain excess water
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

For the dressing
3 garlic cloves, crushed
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp pomegranate syrup
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Method

1. To prepare the dressing, combine garlic, lemon juice, zest, sugar and pomegranate syrup. Whisk in the olive oil and set aside.

2. Arrange lettuce leaves, purslane and fresh thyme in a serving plate. Layer grapes and olives over.

3. Heat clarified butter in a large skillet and pan-fry the cheese cubes until golden brown. Drain excess oil on paper towels and add halloumi cheese to the salad. Drizzle the prepared dressing on top and toss gently. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds and serve immediately.

Moussaq’aa
(Serves 12)
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 30 mins

Ingredients

3 large aubergines, peeled and sliced lengthwise, about 1cm thick
1/4 cup olive oil and peanut oil mixture
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
6 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
12 tomatoes, diced
1 tsp all-spice mixture
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp pomegranate syrup
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
toasted pine nuts and chopped fresh mint,
for garnishing

Method

1. Brush both sides of aubergine slices with olive-peanut oil mixture and arrange on a baking sheet. Roast in preheated oven at 230°C until the slices turn golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely.

2. In a large skillet, heat 2 tbsp olive oil. Add onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are soft and translucent. Add tomatoes, all-spice, cinnamon, sugar, pomegranate syrup, salt and pepper and allow the sauce to come to a boil. Add drained chickpeas to the prepared tomato sauce. Lower the heat and let it simmer, about 5 minutes. Lastly, stir in half the pine nuts and set aside.

3. To serve, place one aubergine slice on a platter, spoon tomato-chickpea sauce in the centre and fold the aubergine slice. Repeat the procedure with all the slices.

4. Garnish moussaq’aa with mint and the remaining toasted pine nuts. Serve with grilled meat and green salad.

Ground lamb cutlets in tahini citrus sauce
(Serves 6-8)
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 45 mins

Ingredients
1/2 cup peanut oil
4 medium potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
1kg minced lamb
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp all-spice mixture
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup tahini
juice of 2 lemons
juice and zest of 1 orange
2 cups water
sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
chopped parsley, a handful, to garnish

Method

1. Heat peanut oil in a skillet and fry the potatoes until golden brown on both sides. Once done, place on paper towels to drain excess oil.

2. In a large bowl, combine the minced lamb, onion, parsley, cinnamon, all-spice, salt and pepper. In a shallow baking dish layer potatoes at the bottom. Mould lamb mix into sausage-shaped cutlets and place on top.

3. Put the dish for baking in a preheated oven at 180˚C for 10 minutes until partially cooked. Remove dish from oven but leave the oven on while you make the sauce.

4. To make the sauce, mix tahini, lemon juice, orange juice, orange zest, water, and salt to taste. It should have a creamy, pouring consistency. Pour sauce over lamb cutlets and return to the oven to finish cooking, about 20 minutes. The sauce will thicken slightly. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and parsley. Serve hot with steamed rice and a salad.

Recipes adapted from the book When Suzanne Cooks