About Leen Al Zaben

Leen Al Zaben

Leen Al Zaben is a writer, foodie and photographer rolled into one. She is in the process of getting her masters in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. When she isn’t studying, Leen spends her time traveling, cooking and taking pictures of anything and everything edible. After dreaming about becoming a food and travel writer, she started her blog Culeenary.com which showcases food and travel stories from across the Middle East.


Latest Posts by Leen Al Zaben

Peacocks, Flowers & Food in the Dordogne Valley

November 4, 2012 by  

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The last few months have been extremely busy and believe it or not, I spent all my time writing (not for my blog, obviously!) To escape the stress, I sought refuge in the kitchen, but never long enough to come up with a post.

Last January, I impatiently waited for Aran Goyoaga from Cannelle et Vanille to post the dates for her 2012 workshop. I was lucky enough to get a spot in one of the most coveted food styling and photography workshops out there.

So, as a graduation gift to myself, I joined Aran and nine other wonderful women in the Dordogne Valley in Southwest France for an unforgettable week that consisted of cooking, styling, photographing and eating.

The workshop took place in a tiny village called Beynac, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Famous for its fois gras, or the place where the movie Chocolat was filmed, Beynac is full of cobblestone pathways, medieval castles and cute restaurants with food that’s just perfect for a getaway in the French countryside.

Every day of this wonderfully planned trip was filled with long walks in the lush French countryside, *very* long visits to the market, immaculately styled (and delicious) picnics by the Dordogne River, trips to a walnut grove, ice cream tastings (I tried poppy, daffodil and violet and they were creamy, flowery and delicious), baking sessions and unforgettable meals.

In a nutshell, I spent a week with wonderful company, beautiful surroundings and great food that connected me with people who have become treasured friends.

 

Roasted Beetroot Salad, Spring Tabbouleh and Lemon Dressed Radish

March 4, 2012 by  

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Ah, salads. They bring me great joy. I can’t imagine a single day going by without munching on something crisp and lemony. I’ve decided to share some of my favorite salads, the crave-worthy ones, that are twists on old favorites.

Every household has their own version of beetroot salad. Some people dress the beets with lemon, others with vinegar, some add scallions, others garlic, I’ve even heard of a pickled beet salad, you get the picture, the list just rolls on. For as long as I can remember, we made our beetroot salad from freshly boiled beets that we tossed with a lemon vinaigrette along with fresh scallions, green bell peppers and fresh parsley leaves. I loved that salad, but I felt like something just wasn’t right.

I experimented a few times, adding and removing ingredients until I figured it out. Beets should be given their justice and boiling them just left them soft and tender, with nothing else to offer. I decided to roast them, and I realized just how much of a difference that made. Roasting locked the flavor into the beets, and charred them, only slightly, to give them a subtle nutty flavor that gave them so much depth. I could finally taste the beets.

I’m trying something new this year, spring is just around the corner and everything green is just starting to sprout, and I thought I could educate myself and do a little bit of foraging in the countryside. I have absolutely no knowledge of our indigenous herbs so it’s been a long (albeit an educational) process and I’ve come across so many edible plants that I’m excited to incorporate into my salads and other dishes.

A few days ago I found some wild parsley and rocket growing in an area just outside of Amman and I was so excited to use them in my spring tabbouleh. Every time I make it someone points out that I forgot to add the tomatoes, onions and bulgur until they take a bite and realize that what they thought was just parsley is so much more. With coriander, dill and basil to name a few herbs, my spring tabbouleh, which was inspired by the herb salad in the Ottolenghi cookbook is an aromatic feast of flavors.

The last salad I want to share is Auntie Nadia’s Radish salad, I tried it for the first time last week and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I never paid much attention to radishes, but this salad was a showstopper and it would be a crime not to share it with you.

Roasted Beetroot Salad

Ingredients

For the salad:

1 kg fresh beets, washed and peeled

1 bunch parsley, finely chopped

2 scallions, sliced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt

Black pepper

 

For the dressing:

2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

¼ cup olive oil

Sea salt

Black pepper

 

Method

Preheat oven to 180C.

Slice the beetroot into circles, or cut up into small bite sized pieces.

In a bowl, place beetroot and drizzle with olive oil.

Add a sprinkle of sea salt and a pinch of black pepper.

Toss in bowl and let sit for 5 minutes.

Line a baking tray with foil and place beetroot and marinade on it.

Roast beetroot in the oven for 30 minutes or until tender and the edges only slightly charred.

Cool for 10 – 15 minutes.

In a bowl, whisk dressing ingredients.

Place beets (and their juices), scallions and parsley in a bowl and drizzle with dressing.

Toss and serve.

 

Spring Herb Tabbouleh

Inspired by the Herb Salad in Ottolenghi’s cookbook, here is my version of tabbouleh made with a mix of herbs and crisp cucumbers.

Ingredients

For the salad:

2 bunches rocket

2 bunches parsley

1 bunch coriander

4 handfuls dill

1 handful basil

1 handful mint

1 handful chives

For the dressing:

1 cup olive oil

½ cup lemon juice

1 tsp honey

¼ tsp crushed garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Wash and dry the herbs carefully.

Finely chop all herbs.

In a bowl, whisk the dressing ingredients.

Place herbs in a bowl and pour the dressing over them.

Toss and serve.

 

Auntie Nadia’s Radish Salad

Ingredients

For the Salad:

15 radishes, very thinly sliced

2 scallions

½ cup chopped parsley

For the Dressing:

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

½ cup olive oil

Sea salt and pepper

 

Method

  1. Slice beets into paper-thin slices, you can use a mandolin; or you can also grate them if you prefer.
  2. Slice scallions into small circles.
  3. Whisk lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper.
  4. Place radish, scallions and parsley in a bowl and add dressing.
  5. Toss and serve immediately (the radish will release a lot of water once dressed).

What’s For Dessert: Strawberry Mascarpone Layer Cake and Homemade Vanilla Extract

February 17, 2012 by  

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It has been a frozen February. The air has a biting iciness to it and it has sent me straight into the arms of my kitchen for some warmth and goodness. I’m on a complex gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free diet which has limited me tremendously, but with time I have grown accustomed to it, and I have found my ways to culinary satisfaction.

Vanilla strawberry cake has been a long-time favorite of mine. It has the ability to transport me back to my childhood, specifically to the mornings following my birthday when all I had for breakfast was strawberry cake. I remember savoring every slice as I watched the cake diminish in size at the back of the refrigerator.

Vanilla strawberry cake has been a long-time favorite of mine. It has the ability to transport me back to my childhood, specifically to the mornings following my birthday when all I had for breakfast was strawberry cake. I remember savoring every slice as I watched the cake diminish in size at the back of the refrigerator.

Now, I’m lucky that I can make my own personal version of the strawberry cake and have it whenever I want. Well, not whenever since my diet has been very limiting. But hopefully I’ll have a slice soon.

For me, there is nothing more satisfying than the process of baking. I find solace and comfort in knowing that when combined, ordinary ingredients such as flour, sugar, eggs and butter (well, butter is definitely not ordinary) can make a cake that for moments can take you back to a different time and place.

I decided to make strawberry cake for a friend’s birthday a few weeks ago. I found plump, beautiful strawberries at the green grocer’s. I know, I know, they are not in season, but their fragrance beckoned me, and I just couldn’t refuse. And to be fair, I wanted a little taste of summer. It took me several trials before I put together the perfect recipe for my very own strawberry cake: perfectly moist, intoxicating vanilla cream and cool tangy strawberries.

On a recent trip to India, I came across fleshy and aromatic Keralan vanilla beans that I stocked up on, so ever since then, all my desserts have been jam-packed with hundreds of flecks of vanilla seeds. I’ve even made my own vanilla extract too (recipe to follow). It will be ready in just a couple of months and I just can’t wait to put it to use.

I decided to make this cake with a twist, adding Italian-inspired elements to it. For the frosting, I decided to go with creamy mascarpone because it has a subtle richness that is not overpowering, and I thought it would marry well with the macerated strawberries. For the filling, I wanted to enhance the flavor of the strawberries as much as possible and I thought nothing could highlight them more than aged balsamic vinegar. I used a 30-year-old bottle; the balsamic vinegar is thick, tangy and sweet – ideal for desserts and macerating fruit.

If you don’t have vanilla beans on hand don’t worry, any good vanilla extract will do – it’s just so much more fun splitting the bean and scraping all the tiny seeds out and combining them with the sugar.

As I worked on this post, I was under the illusion that it was spring outside. I don’t know if it was the strawberries or the playlist I was listening to as I baked, but my spirits were lifted. Here are some of the tracks on my playlist, give them a listen while you bake your own strawberry cake.

Anyway, without further ado, I present you with the recipe for Strawberry Mascarpone Layer Cake.

Recipe

Ingredients

For the Moist Vanilla Bean Cake

2.5 sticks (250g) butter (room temperature)

2 cups (450g) granulated sugar

4 eggs (room temperature)

3 cups (450g) flour

4 tsp (16g) baking powder

1.5 tsp (12g) fine sea salt

1 cup (250ml) fresh milk (room temperature)

1 vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

For the Macerated Strawberries

3 pints fresh strawberries, reserve a few to top the cake

2 tablespoons (24g) confectioners’ sugar

1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar

 

For the Mascarpone Frosting

2 cups (500ml) whipping cream

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

400g mascarpone cheese (room temperature)

1 cup (160g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted

 

Method

For the Moist Vanilla Bean Cake

  • Preheat oven to 180C.
  • Grease 2 8-inch cake pans and line with baking paper.
  • If using a vanilla bean, slice open the pod and scrape the vanilla seeds into the sugar, massage them in to make sure they are fully incorporated (If using vanilla extract and not a vanilla bean, you will need to add it at a later stage, along with the eggs).
  • Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and sift into a bowl.
  • In a mixer, beat the butter until creamy (about 1 minute).
  • Add the sugar and continue to cream for 5 minutes.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is well incorporated before adding the next one.
  • If you did not use a vanilla pod, add the vanilla extract at this stage.
  • Add the flour mixture milk (alternate each one, starting and ending with flour).
  • Pour the batter into the prepared baking tins.
  • Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until done.
  • Cool in pans for 5 – 10 minutes.

 

For the Macerated Strawberries

  • Slice the 2.5 pints of strawberries and place in a bowl (about 4 cups, sliced).
  • Sprinkle strawberries with confectioners’ sugar.
  • Add the balsamic vinegar and gently toss.
  • Cover the bowl and let the strawberries macerate in the fridge while you prepare the cake batter.

For the Mascarpone Frosting

  • In a mixer using a whisk attachment, whisk the cream and vanilla on medium speed until stiff peaks form (make sure you don’t over whisk the cream or it will split).
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the mascarpone and confectioners’ sugar until smooth.
  • Gently fold the cream into the mascarpone mixture until they are fully incorporated.

 

Assembly

  • Once the cakes have completely cooled, horizontally slice through each one.
  • Place the base layer flat on a plate.
  • Spread some frosting on top.
  • Add some strawberries.
  • Top with the upper layer.
  • Frost the upper layer, repeat.
  • Top the cake with the uppermost layer.
  • Frost the entire cake with a thin layer of frosting, this is called the crumb coat.
  • Place the cake in the refrigerator for 10 minutes until the crumb coat firms up.
  • Next frost the cake with the remaining frosting, making sure you fill any gaps and holes.
  • Slice the remaining pint of strawberries in half  (lengthwise) and arrange them on top of the cake.

 

(Keep the cake refrigerated)

Vanilla Extract Recipe

Ingredients

12 vanilla beans

Vodka

 

Method

  • Place the vanilla pods in a sterilized jar.
  • Fill the jar with vodka until it covers the tops of the vanilla beans.
  • Seal the jar and let sit for 4-6 months in a cool dry place away from sunlight.

 

 

Apricot Jamming

July 28, 2011 by  

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Apricot Jam Recipe

While waiting, she gave me the most important job of all: extracting the kernels out of the apricot stones. I would hammer carefully, breaking open the stones to reveal the bittersweet white kernel hidden within. I loved to eat the kernels, they had the most delicate texture: the soft-crunch. Of course the kernels were meant for the jam, but I always managed so slip some out of the pile.

Apricot Jam Recipe

I would eat the jam piping hot, straight out of the pot. Smelling like fruity caramel, I would slather it onto some toast with a tiny slab of butter. Apricot jam is my breakfast comfort food. It reminds me of childhood, but mostly of how the simplest things can be wonderful. Hot jam on toast, nothing beats that.

For this post, I collaborated with my friend Ali Saadi who gave me invaluable tips on photography and lighting and who let me use his treasure trove of photography equipment.

Apricot Jam Recipe

Recipe

For this recipe, make sure you use the ripest apricots, they’re the one’s that are almost falling apart. They are sweeter and their ripeness gives the jam the texture and warm flavor it needs. Here’s my mother’s recipe. Enjoy!

Prep. Time 1 hour (excluding marination time)

Makes 5 medium jars

Ingredients

(for this recipe, make sure you do not throw away the apricot stones)

16 cups ripe halved apricots with stones removed (about 800g – 1 kg)

10 cups granulated sugar

1 lemon, squeezed

kernels from apricot stones

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method

  1. In a bowl, place the halved apricots and pour the sugar on them.
  2. Lightly toss to cover all the apricots and set aside. Leave the apricots overnight to marinate in the sugar and release their juices.
  3. Using a mallet or a hammer, break open the apricot stones and extract the white kernels. Set them aside.
  4. Place the apricot and sugar mixture in a pot and cook over medium heat until it comes to a boil.
  5. Stir in the lemon juice and apricot kernels.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer while stirring for 20 – 30 minutes, or until the apricots melt and the jam has a thick, sticky consistency.
  7. Cool the jam for 1 hour, then pour into jars.
  8. Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the surface of the jam in each jar and leave uncovered until completely cool.
  9. Seal the jars and set aside unrefrigerated.

*Once you open the jar refrigerate after use.

Apricot Jam Recipe

Apricot Jam Recipe

 

 

Dubai, So Much More Than Towering Skyscrapers! How About Exotic Fish?

April 29, 2011 by  

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Most people associate Dubai with towering skyscrapers, huge malls and exotic fish held captive in large aquariums. When I think of Dubai I think of fresh fish, you know the edible kind? This March, I found myself back in the place where I spent a few years of my childhood.

I was ecstatic to be back in the place I once called home. I spent my days soaking up the sun on the beach, zipping along the Sheikh Zayed Highway and visiting the biggest and best Dubai had to offer. Sadly, the shiny new Dubai felt alien to me.

Awash with nostalgia I decided to visit the places that I associated with the Dubai I knew. I drove down the Beach Road and visited my old neighborhood. I walked along the beach and watched as young boys standing on the rocks of the Dubai Marine cast their fishing lines into the sea. I shared their anticipation as they reeled their lines in waiting to size up their catch.  With the smell of the salt and humidity I started to feel more at home.

My next stop was the Fish Market. I must admit that I did not visit it regularly when I was living in Dubai, but for some reason, the memory of the Fish Market, which sells fresh fruit, vegetables and just caught fish, was etched in my memory. And so, feeling like I was back on home turf I ventured past the pristine buildings and manicured lawns towards Al-Shindagha to visit Dubai’s Fish Market.

 


As soon as I stepped into the market my senses were assaulted with the smells, sounds and colors. With every fruit on display (exotic and otherwise), beautiful vegetables and the colorful fish of the Arabian Gulf, the market was a feast for the eyes.

 

 

 

The Flavors and Flowers of Jordan

April 5, 2011 by  

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I always compared Jordan to neighboring countries and took pride in the unity that Jordanians have; today, however, I find that that unity is wavering. I used to think that our identity was a difficult one to define, but after exploring Jordan and its cuisine I was able to truly understand what it means to be Jordanian. And so, at a time like this, I wonder why people have chosen to forget what it is that makes Jordan our home.

My culinary journey started in Amman and extended all over Jordan. On this journey I ate, cooked and most importantly, I learned. I met men and women of different heritage, religion, background and race and despite their differences I came to realize that they all shared a love for one single thing, and that was their love for food.

Every teta, mama or person I visited on my journey shared their version and interpretation of what Jordanian cuisine is. Historically, the Jordanian pantry was very limited, with scarcely a few items lining its shelves: rice or wheat, dairy products, meat and the few vegetables that grew in the wild. That got me thinking about the modern Jordanian kitchen and what it has become.

I realized that all the dishes that define the flavor of Jordan have been brought into the country by people who have made this place their home. So, that was when I truly came to understand the culinary landscape of Jordan and thus, its identity. All of a sudden, dishes started to make sense; the originally Egyptian Mloukiheh has become Jordanian, the Syrian kibbeh found its home in Amman, we find ourselves unable to choose between Msakhan and Mansaf, the taste of Shibs-o-basta lingers on our palate when we are homesick, and the Iraqis and Lebanese are still trying to determine who brought Waraq Dawali to Jordan first.

And that’s when it finally hit me. It was simple. These colorful dishes made their way into Jordan and created our identity. They were welcomed with open arms, and they have now become a part of each and every family.  They are dishes that we love and that we cannot, not even for a moment, imagine our lives without. What I learned is that the Jordanian identity does not really differ from its kitchen. Let us not forget who we are, and what Jordan has come to represent. For without all the people who have made Jordan their home, Jordan wouldn’t really be.

Recipes to come…

There’s Something About Lentil Soup

February 18, 2011 by  

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I was having lunch with some friends yesterday when the subject of lentils came up. Some thought they were a waste of calories, and others thought they were so healthy that they would go for lentils whenever they got the chance. I, for one, love lentils, but to be fair I don’t love just any lentils, I love red lentils that make lentil soup.

“It’s probably the most widely ordered soup,” said one of my friends, and I would probably agree. When it’s cold, and when I’m feeling a bit homesick nothing can remedy the situation better than a bowl of hot lentil soup.

I don’t know what it is about the soup that makes me feel better; drinking does in fact comfort me, but I think the process of making it that is the most powerful.

Cooking is my way of unwinding and getting centered, but come to think of it, it’s not that either. I think it’s the fact that so many healthy local ingredients go into lentil soup that I know for certain that I would make my mother proud. It’s also the sort of soup that anyone can make.

You can make a thick soup and enjoy it with slices of bread and butter and make a meal out of it. Or, you can thin it down and pair it with a salad and a grilled piece of meat. Whatever you do, lentil soup is a hearty, heartwarming dish that is packed with protein and vitamins.

Recipe

Time (1 hour)

Serves 5

Ingredients

  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 2 tbsp corn oil
  • 5 cups boiled water
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, trimmed and finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cubed
  • 1 zucchini, cubed
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pinch turmeric
  • 1 loaf Arabic/ pita bread cut into small squares (2cmx2cm)
  • ½ cup fresh chopped parsley
  • 1 lemon, cut into four wedges

Tools

  • 1 pot
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 1 baking sheet
  • Hand blender

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 160C.
  2. Wash and soak the lentils in cold water rinsing out any starch in them. Once rinsed, place the lentils in the sieve and let drain.
  3. In a large pot heat the oil and add the chopped onions and leeks. Sautee until soft.
  4. Add the rest of the vegetables and sauté for a few minutes.
  5. Add the lentils and the boiling water
  6. Finally, stir in the cumin, salt, pepper and turmeric and cover.
  7. Simmer on low heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the carrots and potatoes are tender and ready.
  8. Place the bread squares on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden and crispy. About 6-10 minutes. You can also use the grilling option instead.
  9. Remove soup from heat and puree it with a hand blender until smooth and creamy. If you feel that the soup is too thick add some boiling water until the soup reaches the desired consistency.
  10. Garnish the soup with some fresh parsley and serve with some toasted bread and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

A Recipe for Pickled Turnips & Other Winter Roots

January 26, 2011 by  

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Ever since I read the story of the farmer who had a giant turnip growing in his vegetable patch, I knew that turnips were special. As a child, I didn’t really understand why.  With time, I grew, and my relationship with food changed. All of a sudden there was room for turnips and I finally understood them.

With the hue of a beetroot and the tang of a radish the turnip has burrowed its way into the Middle Eastern kitchen. We welcomed it with open arms— stuffing it, pickling it and even giving it a star role in soups and stews.

My mother went a step further and dedicated an entire section of her vegetable patch to turnips. As a result we found new ways to eat turnips; one innovation was a crisp salad my mother made from turnip leaves (turnip greens) topped with turnip root shavings.

She dressed it simply with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel, in reverse order of course. The salad was satisfying in a way that shamed all other green salads.

But I digress. This post is dedicated to pickled turnips and other winter roots. Along with beets, turnips are pickled as part of our winter repertoire of savories and preserves. This recipe is a classic that is rooted in my grandmother’s kitchen notebook and one which we have continued to use, time and time again, in spite of our innovations.

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 beets, boiled
  • 2 beets, fresh
  • 1kg turnips
  • ¼ head cauliflower (optional)
  • 4-5 garlic cloves
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 1 green chili (optional)
  • 5 tbsp coarse salt
  • 2 liters cold mineral water

Tools

  • Knife
  • Chopping board
  • Sieve
  • 2 large bowls
  • 1 medium sized pickling jar, sterilized

Method

  1. Boil the 3 beets until well-cooked (about 1 hour)
  2. Trim the turnips of any greenery or remains of the roots. If certain areas of the turnips are bruised, peel away the skin. Make sure to keep as much of the skin as you can on the turnips, this gives them a crunch even after they are pickled
  3. Slice the turnips into semi-circles (about ½ cm thick), or into large cubes (approx 1cm by 1 cm)
  4. Place the turnips in the sieve and sprinkle 2 tbsp of salt on them. Toss them to make sure the salt has coated all of them.
  5. Place the sieve with the turnips on top of a bowl, and let the water drain. I usually add a plate to weigh the turnips down and to allow the water to drain properly. Let stand for about 2 – 3 hours
  6. Peel the beets and cut them in the same way you cut the turnips
  7. Slice the garlic cloves in half (lengthwise)
  8. Peel the cooked beets and cut them (see steps 3 and 4)
  9. In a bowl pour 2 liters of water and add the salt, stirring with a spoon until all the salt has dissolved
  10. Once the turnips have drained their water, discard it
  11. Place the turnips, beets, cauliflower, garlic, rosemary and chili in the jar, layering them as you go along
  12. Fill the jar with the salted water making sure it just covers the vegetables
  13. Pour 2 tbsp of vinegar concentrate (acetic acid) on top and seal the jar for two weeks

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