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Tips for indulgent, but healthy, Ramadan dishes

BEIRUT: Local foodies have weighed in on how to keep the weight off during Ramadan’s month of nocturnal feasting. Their verdict: Change up traditional recipes, toss the fatty shortenings and don’t be afraid to shock dinner guests with something new.

Ramadan typically features a gastronomical paradox: hours of extreme deprivation followed by jubilant binge eating. “During Ramadan people haven’t eaten all day, so they like to fill the table with a variety of dishes,” said Rima el-Khodr, a local catering chef and cook at Tawlet restaurant.

“It’s unhealthy because you stuff yourself with this compilation of many different foods, and then you feel sick,” she added.

A month of eating extremes sends most weight-conscious diets on hiatus. But three accomplished chefs say there are plenty of ways to make the nighttime meals healthy and weight friendly whether cooking traditional fare, tweaking a favorite recipe or introducing something new to the dinner table.

Catering chef Mohammad Nacacche, known as Chef Mood, makes a living by serving Lebanese cuisine with a healthy, modern twist.

“When I cook for myself, I use just one spoon of canola oil – it is healthier and lower in cholesterol,” Chef Mood said.

He recommended using recipes that substitute fish for beef and call for steaming or grilling instead of frying. He also offered a handful of seasoning combinations that give food delicious flavor without oil or butter. These include grapefruit for salads or a simple sauce for meats or fish from cooked and blended celery, onion, garlic and tomato.

Choosing the right spices can make dishes with less fat just as tasty, he said. Chef Mood recommends fennel, a spice with a licorice bite, marjoram, or a five-pepper blend of black, pink and green pepper corns.

Healthy eating is as much about the how as the what. Breaking fast immediately with a big meal or eating a big manoushe before bed doesn’t promote good digestion, Chef Mood said.

“Fasting is very difficult, but the best way to break it is to have a glass of water around 8 p.m. with two dates. Later have a salad or soup,” he said.

“At suhour, I eat only some toast with labneh or white cheese and drink tea,” he added. “Manoushe or foul is too heavy.”

Another way to avoid a tummy ache is by substituting burghal wheat with quinoa when making tabbouleh. Burghal can be hard on the stomach, especially during fasting, but quinoa, a light grain from South America, tastes great without the indigestion, he said.

With a resume full of classic Beiruti dishes, Khodr takes a more traditional approach to healthy Ramadan cooking. She said Lebanese cuisine offers plenty of dishes that are inherently good for you and delicious.

Unlike most Arab food cultures, which center on meat, Lebanon’s base ingredients derive from lighter Ottoman cuisine and a climate conducive to growing produce year round.

In addition to a swath of fruits and veggies, legumes and grains lay at the heart of Lebanese cuisine: hummus, wheat, nuts and fava beans.

The trick to a healthy Ramadan is avoiding the usual desserts full of cream and dishes using the traditional vegetable shortening semneh, she said.

Maqloubeh, a staple Lebanese casserole made from eggplant, meat and rice, is free of the traditional dollops of butter and vegetable shortening used in most dishes. Each of the ingredients contains natural fats and deep flavor, giving the dish richness without a lot of added grease, she said.

The deep savory flavor comes from cooking the rice in meat stock rendered from boiling the chicken or beef. The only added fat in the recipe is a little bit of olive oil used to panfry slices of eggplant.

Other healthy classics include the traditional tahini-based mezze dishes, artichoke hearts stuffed with peas, pearl onions and fava beans and a very traditional fruit-and-nut compote called khoshaf.

Joumana Accad is in the process of writing an English-language Middle Eastern cookbook and authors the blog “Taste of Beirut.” For cooks willing to take a little risk this Ramadan, Accad has a number of recipes making healthier combinations from traditional Lebanese ingredients.

For example, Accad concocted a summer-appropriate mousse from labneh and fresh fruit, as well as stuffed tomatoes with a freekeh-tuna salad.

Another way to save the calories and time is to spread the meat-paste traditionally used for sfeeha on a pita, cook and top with tomato and parsley. Accad said this is faster and lighter than laboriously stuffing the paste into fatty pastry dough.

All the cooks agreed with a little innovation; it’s easy to get the flavor and wow-factor from cooking without the need for boxes of sweets, tables of meat platters and starchy, tummy-inflating side dishes.

“Eat meat without potatoes, steam vegetables and drizzle just a little oil,” Khodr said. “Play on what you want, but make it light.”

Sfeeha on Pita

Ingredients:

- 1/2 kilo of ground beef (98 percent fat free, if possible)

- 4 ounces of chopped onion

- 1/2 cup of minced Italian parsley

- 3 tablespoons of tahini

- 1 teaspoon of garlic paste (3 cloves of garlic mashed in a mortar with a dash of salt)

- 1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses

- 2 tablespoons of tomato paste

- 3 tablespoons of labneh

- spices: 1 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste), 1 teaspoon of seven-spice, 1 teaspoon of sumac, 1 teaspoon of hot Aleppo pepper or 1/2 teaspoon (or more, to taste) of dried chili flakes

Preparation:

Chop the onion fine and combine with some salt; place it on a sieve lined with a paper towel and let the onion drain its juice for 30 minutes or so.

Place the meat, spices, drained onion, chopped parsley, tahini, pomegranate molasses, labneh and garlic paste in the bowl of a food processor. Process for 2 minutes or until the mixture turns pasty. Transfer to a bowl.

Preheat the oven and line a few baking sheets with foil. Place a pita on the foil and slather about ½ to ¾ cup of the meat mixture, depending on the size of the pita, on the pita, using a spatula to spread it as evenly as possible. Continue with the rest of the pitas.

Bake for 7 minutes, checking halfway through. When the meat looks cooked, remove from the oven. Serve warm topped with a salad mixture of parsley, pomegranate seeds, cherry tomatoes, onion and lemon juice.

Recipe courtesy of Joumana Accad, tasteofbeirut.com

Freekeh w Hammour

6-8 servings

Ingredients:

- 800 grams of freekeh grains

- 3 onions, chopped

- ½ tablespoon, plus a dash of canola oil

- salt

- cinnamon

- white pepper

- sabaa’ bharat (seven-spice mix)

- 2 cups of boiling water

- 2 filets of hammour or white fish

- handful of almonds and cashews, grilled

Preparation:

Wash freekeh very well. Soak freekeh grains in hot water for an hour until they grains crack (expand). Boil two cups of water in separate pot. Chop three medium onions and mix with ½ tablespoon of oil, freekeh, cinnamon, white pepper and sabaa’ bharat, and cook over low heat. Add half a cup of boiling water every 15 to 20 minutes for about an hour until freekeh is completely cooked.

While freekeh is simmering, season the hammour with salt, black pepper and cinnamon and grill until tender. Mix cashews and almonds in a dash of canola oil and grill until red.

Plate the grilled fish over the freekeh and garnish with grilled nuts.

Recipe courtesy of Chef Mood

Maqloubeh

4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:

- 3 cups rice

- 1 kilo chicken or beef

- 1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced length-wise, save peelings

- 1 large onion, chopped

- 1/4 cup pine nuts and almonds

- 1 bay leaf

- 1/2 cup canola oil

- mixed spices: 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preparation:

Add a splash of oil to a large pot over medium-low heat and add onion. Season meat with half of the spice mix.

When onion is golden, add meat and bay leaf and stir. Let cook for 10 minutes until browned and then add six cups of hot water and cook for an hour over medium heat.

While meat is cooking, heat canola oil in pan. When hot, fry the eggplant strips until golden brown. Set fried eggplant aside to drain as much excess oil as possible and season strips with rest of the seasoning mixture.

When meat is done, remove and save broth.

Line a large pot with the eggplant peelings. Over them set layers of eggplant, raw rice and cooked meat. Pour enough meat broth to completely cover the rice.

Cook on high heat until it comes to a boil. Cover and simmer on low-heat for 45 minutes to an hour or until broth is absorbed. Put nuts in a baking sheet in the over until golden, shaking pan occasionally.

Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes. Flip large pot onto a plate and remove eggplant peelings. Garnish with nuts.

Recipe courtesy of Rima el-Khodr

Labneh Mousse

4 servings

Ingredients:

- 1 cup or 170 grams of labneh

- 1/3 cup of powdered sugar

- 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon of orange blossom water

- 2 large eggs, separated

- raspberry sauce: 1 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries, 2 tablespoons

of dark cherry jam, 1 tablespoon of sugar (or more, to taste),

1 teaspoon of lemon juice

- 4 shortbread cookies

- 1 cup of fresh assorted berries

Preparation:

Separate the eggs; beat the whites until stiff and still glossy. Transfer the whites to a bowl.

Place the yolks and powdered sugar in the mixer bowl and beat until light colored and very stiff; add the vanilla and orange flavoring. Beat a few more seconds until thick again and then add the labneh; beat until combined and transfer the mixture to the bowl with the egg-white meringue. Using a whisk or a spatula, fold the meringue in an up-and-down motion (so as not to deflate it) until the mousse is well mixed. Cover with plastic and keep refrigerated till serving time.

Place the berries, cherry jam, sugar and lemon juice in a blender and mix till pureed; you can strain the purée if you like. Set aside.

To assemble the mousse: Pour a few tablespoons of raspberry sauce into a cup, place a cookie on top, add a few dollops of mousse and decorate with an assortment of fresh berries.

Recipe courtesy of Joumana Accad, tasteofbeirut.com

Grilled Cauliflower

4-6 servings

Ingredients:

- head of cauliflower

- ½ tablespoon of oil

- 1 section of garlic, minced

- a squeeze of lemon juice

- salt to taste

- optional: zucchini or eggplant

Preparation:

Steam the cauliflower. When it’s tender put it on the grill until golden brown. Mix together lemon juice, garlic, oil and salt. Arrange grilled cauliflower nicely on a plate and dress with lemon-garlic oil.

Optional:

Steam and grill zucchini and/or eggplant. Mix with cauliflower and dress with lemon-garlic oil.

Recipe courtesy of Chef Mood

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2012, on page 2.

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