Sumac comes from the berries of a bush that grows wild in the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. The berries are dried and crushed or ground to form a rich red powder which is used as a souring agent, in the same way that some cuisines use lemon. Sumac is often used to flavour grilled meats and fish, or mixed with yogurt and served as an accompaniment to kebabs. But, before this recipe, none of the recipes which use sumac which I've come across have been vegetarian and, not ever having cooked with sumac, I wasn't quite sure how to use it so it lingered at the back of the spice cupboard until now!
This is another really good recipe from The Modern Vegetarian by Maria Elia (which I've blogged about before) which, most importantly, works. Basically, it's a great big super tasty aubergine steak with a crisp crumb coating and I'm a huge fan of aubergines so it's great to find a new way of cooking them. It has all the flavours of the Middle East - parsley, mint, sumac - and works perfectly with the Puy Lentil and Feta Tabbouleh (shown in my photo above) which is also in The Modern Vegetarian. Here is my version of Maria's recipe (I changed some of her quantities to suit our tastes):
120g flat leaf parsley
20g mint leaves
4 tomatoes (finely diced)
1 small red onion (finely diced)
150g puy lentils (cooked)
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
50g feta cheese
(the original recipe also included 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon)
Slice the parsley as thinly as possible starting at the leafy top and going all the way down to the stalks. Repeat with the mint leaves. Combine the tomatoes, onion, lentils, herbs and spices and season. Dress with the lemon juice and oil. Stir in the feta just before serving.
Having never followed a recipe for tabbouleh of any sort before (just making up my own versions) what Maria says about slicing the parsley made perfect sense! "It was Anissa Helou who first showed me the art of making tabbouleh. The secret of this beautiful dish lies in the way you chop your herbs - they should be lovingly sliced, very finely, to produce thin slivers with a minimum of bruising". The taste and texture of the parsley was exactly how I've tasted it in tabbouleh which I've eaten in restaurants but I'd never realised that the way in which you chop the parsley that makes the difference. It really is worth giving that parsley some loving attention because it does add to the dish in a big way!
It is slightly different to many of the main course vegetarian recipes I generally cook as it's made up of two distinct component parts, almost like you would have meat or fish with side of salad or vegetables. But I think that's a good thing because it may well inspire me to create similar veggie dishes where the side dish would go equally well with meat for Andrew.
Update: I remembered that after friying the aubergines in the crumb coating I put them in the oven for a short time (maybe 5 minutes) to finish cooking and crisp up some more. Whilst you can't prepare the aubergines too far in advance and leave them uncooked (the bread crumbs would go soggy!), you could probably prepare them to the stage of having fried them and then reheat in the oven when you need them which makes them perfect for entertaining.