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Saturday, July 7

My Favourite Place

When I was in my early twenties, David, the man who would become my second husband, introduced me to his best friends, Lis and Hamid Hosseini. They were beautiful and exotic, sophisticated and captivating.  They were well-travelled and spoke English with charming accents.  Their home was a magnet for food-loving people from all over the world, people with joie de vivre, original ideas and opinions, like our charismatic hosts.

Germany, Autumn 2008
Lis and Hamid kept chickens and quail in their garden.  They ground their own coffee with a hand grinder.  They served wine from magnums.  They could fit 12 hungry guests around their dining room table.  They used real china, real crystal, real linen, and real saffron in their cooking.  Yet their dinner parties were never formal.  They were sensual and playful, just this side of luxurious.  You could smell their aromatic fusion feasts from 200 yards.

While falling in love with David, I also fell in love with Lis and Hamid.  I wanted to be them.  I wanted to possess their natural ease with guests, their showmanship in the kitchen, their encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients; their energy, stamina and vivacity, their sense of style and elegance; their Classiness, with a capital "C."  I wanted their low-slung, orange corduroy chairs and black tables, the half nude painting on the living room wall, and the little pipe-smoke-scented room off the kitchen.

Natural born cooks and hosts, Lis and Hamid were gracious beyond belief.  To be a guest in their home was as good as it gets.  There was nothing better.  There still isn't.

My marriage to David lasted fifteen years.  When we divorced, I claimed the Hosseinis, and happily gave him everything else.  I am teasing, but if it had come to that, there's no question which choice I would have made.  My husband had not been my soulmate, but Lis and Hamid were.  I'm not the first to declare friendship the greatest of all loves.

Casa Hosseini, Summer 2003
This spring, I had the good fortune of reuniting with Lis and Hamid at their home in Northern California.  Nearly all our time together was spent talking around the dinner table, sipping red wine, theorizing about global politics, and eating Lis and Hamid's preternaturally intuitive creations.  I’ve never seen either of them reference a single recipe or make the same dish the same way twice.  They're forever improvising, true culinary artisans who combine the best of their individual homelands with inspiration from California's cornucopia of fresh ingredients.

And the wine did flow.  Oh, how it flowed!  Little plates would appear, only to be replaced by bigger and bigger plates: Hamid's rich, stick-to-the-ribs soups; succulent chicken, made with preserved lemons; Tahgig, a saffron-infused rice with a crispy, golden potato on the bottom, and Borani-e Bademjan, an aubergine-inspired salad.

Lis's herb-roasted leg of lamb, red cabbage, stuffed potatoes, herring salad, bratwurst; frittata, made with eggs still warm from the nest, clever dips and smoothies, and fresh-ground French Roast coffee. 

I’m ashamed to confess I didn’t cook the whole time I was there.  Lis and Hamid are too quick and organized, too used to whipping up one exquisite dish after another on a daily basis, too skilled at playing the quintessential hosts to require another pair of hands.  

London, Winter 2006
Their larder is jam-packed with intoxicating spices and herbs, at least fifteen kinds of teas, lentils and nuts, honey; dense, dark, German bread, Iranian dates and pistachios, oils, roots and produce.  It beats most specialty stores I’ve visited.  They’re always ready to nourish with food, humor and wisdom.  They make time for everyone even while running their demanding businesses and still make it look effortless.  They accomplish more by noon than I do in an entire weekend.

Upon returning home to England, I missed Lis and Hamid terribly, still craving their companionship and meals. Fortunately, and this is one of the best things about food and drink, we can recreate meals shared with those we love anytime we want.

It doesn't have to be their recipe.  I doubt either of my friends have ever recorded a single dish from their enormous culinary repertoire.  Re-creating memorable meals, shared with best beloved ones, is more about capturing the spirit, the essence of a place and time, than reproducing food impossible to duplicate. 

If I'm fortunate enough to have a last meal; or better yet, to treat those I cherish to a meal after I’m gone, I hope it will be at the big round table in Lis and Hamid's kitchen, my favorite place in the world.

Casa Hosseini, Spring 2012
Lebanese writer and poet, Khalil Gibran, wrote this elegant eulogy on friendship in his book, The Prophet:

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside. 
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the "nay" in your own mind, nor do you withhold the "ay."
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love, but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

I have never read a truer paean to friendship than this.


While I've never had any of these dishes at Lis and Hamid's, including the slightly frou-frou, peachy cocktail, this is the sort of food I make, when happily channeling them. Except for the chicken, everything can be readied in advance, allowing you time to bask in the companionship of your guests.


Prosecco San Leo NV (One of my favourite aromatic Italian sparkling wines)

Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Village (One of my favourite classic French reds)

Belini Cocktails (Prosecco and Peach Juice over crushed ice)

San Pelagrino with Lime


Homemade Hummus and Flat Bread

Kalamata Olives 

Roast Vegetables with Lentils, Preserved Lemons and Walnuts

Garlic and Lime Roasted Chicken

Roasted Asparagus

Red Pears with Payoyo Cheese (Mild Spanish Goat Cheese)

Coffee, Tea, Peppermint Creams


Make this moreish dip a day or two before serving to allow the flavors and texture to mature. Recipe makes a couple of liters (quarts) Store in airtight container, in fridge, for up to a week.

For a vegetarian finger feast serve bowls of hummus with an assortment of flatbreads and olives; pistachios; walnuts; carrot and celery sticks; chicory and edamame.

What You Need

Dried Chickpeas - 500g
Garlic - 1 very large head (about 14 plump cloves)
Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice - 250ml  1 cup
Cumin - 2 heaping tbs
Tahini - 250ml 1 cup
Reserve cooking water from chickpeas - about 500ml  2 cups
Extra Virgin Olive Oil - 125ml  ½ cup
Sea Salt - 1 heaping tbs
Cumin or Sesame Seeds for garnish

What You Do

Rinse and soak dried chickpeas in cold water overnight. In the morning, you’ll have about a liter-and-a-half of beans.

Rinse beans again in colander under cold running tap, picking out any shriveled beans as you go. Drain and toss into medium size pot with lid. Cover generously with cold water. Bring to boil over medium heat. After about 30 minutes, skim off the scum that rises to the top. Simmer, covered, over low heat for about three hours. Top up water as needed, always keeping beans well covered in liquid.

Once beans are very tender, remove from heat and allow to rest in the pot for about an hour, with the lid on. While beans are still very warm, strain and reserve bean broth. You’ll use the broth to thin out the hummus to your desired texture. Set the beans aside, keeping warm in cooking pot. Warm beans make much creamier hummus than cold beans.

Peel garlic. Toss cloves into bowl of food processor, fitted with slicing blade. Squeeze lemons, add juice to bowl, along with cumin and tahini. Whiz everything together, for about a minute, until garlic is finely pureed.

Add reserved bean liquid, along with half the beans, olive oil and salt. Blend thoroughly for several minutes, adding more beans as you go, until achieving the consistency and texture you desire. 

Taste. Adjust texture, consistency and colour according to your preference. Balance, as required, with a bit more olive oil. Refrigerate for a day, or two, before serving. This firms the hummus considerably, while allowing the flavors to fully mature. When ready to serve, garnish with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a flourish of olive oil.

Roast Vegetables with Lentils, Preserved Lemons and Walnuts
This dish works wonderfully as a vegetarian accompaniment to roast chicken or as a vegetarian entree in its own right.  If you’re a meat eater, the addition of quality sausage makes it an ideal one-pan meal.  I love it with wild boar and garlic sausage, but use whatever you fancy.  By all means, feel free to add some roasting potatoes to the pan, along with a smattering of chopped herbs if you’re making it as as an entree.  

I appreciate the fact that this isn’t a budget-conscious meal. Forgive me, I hope you'll agree it's worth the investment.  As Oscar Wilde claimed, "Anybody who lives within their means, suffers from a lack of imagination." Here, here! I'll spend to that.
What You Need

Olive Oil - 240ml (about a cup)
Coarse Salt and Pepper - 1-1/2 tsp each
Romano Peppers - 4
Courgettes - 4
Cherry Tomatoes - 1 quart
Red Onions - 4 small
Artichoke hearts - 530ml jar, packed in olive oil 
Optional: Wild Boar and Garlic Sausage - 8
Puy Lentils (the green ones from France, please) - 500g
Yellow Onion - 1 large
Bay Leaf - 3
Preserved Lemons - 8
Walnut pieces - 200g
Mint leaves, or lemon balm, for garnish
Optional Condiment: Lime and chili chutney (hot Indian specialty for those who like some heat with their food)
What You Do

Preheat oven to 185c. Pour olive oil into large roasting tray. Add salt and pepper and mix well. Wash peppers, courgettes and tomatoes. Set aside. Slice and deseed peppers. Cut into generous bite-size chunks. Toss into roasting pan. Peel courgettes. Cut into beefy chunks, add to pan. Peel onions. Cut into eighths, add to pan. Add tomatoes and artichoke hearts, including the oil that the artichokes are packed in. Mix well, coating all the vegetables.

If including sausages, add them on top of vegetables.  Place in hot oven, roast 20 minutes.  Remove from oven, rotate sausages and continue roasting another 20 minutes, until vegetables are fork tender. 

While vegetables are cooking, rinse lentils in colander under cold running water.  Place in medium size stock pot. Add one onion, quartered, along with three bay leaves.  Add  enough cold water so that the liquid is three or four inches above lentils.  Bring to boil over high heat.  Reduce temperature to low, place lid on pot and continue cooking another 20 - 25 minutes, until lentils are tender, but still slightly firm.  Remove from heat.  Strain.  Return lentils to pot and add roasted vegetables, along with all the wholesome broth they made while roasting. Completely empty the tray into the lentil pot, every last drop.

Thinly slice preserved lemons, removing seeds. I use my food processor, outfitted with slicing blade, for this job. Add to lentil pot.  Mix thoroughly. Taste. Adjust seasoning if required.  Transfer to serving bowl.  Garnish with walnut pieces and mint leaves, or lemon balm.  Serve warm, or at room temperature. 

Consider serving lime and chili chutney as a condiment with heat. Available wherever quality Indian spices and condiments are sold. 

Happily serves eight. Even better made a day in advance of eating.

Ideas and Suggestions
If you’re making the roast vegetables and lentils as a vegetarian entree, consider embellishing with fresh asparagus spears, roasted quickly and separately from the rest of the vegetables.  I roast them for no longer than six minutes, tossed in olive oil.  They're just as good stir fried. If asparagus are not in season, roast the artichoke hearts separate, as this is an expensive ingredient, excellent as a side dish, rather than combined with the lentils. 

If you're a meat eater, try the roast vegetables and lentils with roast chicken stuffed with garlic and limes.

When short on time, consider sourcing bread from a local Turkish, or Middle Eastern restaurant.  I find it superior to anything offered in stores and supermarkets.  Unfortunately, you normally need to be a city dweller to have access to the kind of restaurants making bread on site.  Option two, then, is to go for one of the quick pita recipes offered by experienced bakers, or make mini pizza bases, unadorned, as a kind of flat bread.  Option three, serve with good German black bread, made with rye, cut into small, dense squares.
Combining Food and Music

Help set the mood for a Middle Eastern-inspired dinner with music, lighting, fragrance, and fabrics reflecting the best from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, or any country appealing to your aesthetics and curiosity. Web radio is an excellent place to sample world music. There are thousands of stations eager to stream music to your computer or wireless device. 
iTunes offers free applications from radio stations all over the world. It took me less than a minute to find and download a popular Persian radio station. It's now playing on my iPhone as I write.

There is also Spotify, an excellent music-on-demand website Richard and I discovered many years ago, when it first hit Britain.  Richard often used Spotify to make playlists for our themed dinners.  

I still buy the occasional CD. When I was visiting the Hosseinis, I bought Leonard Cohen's latest CD, "Old Ideas," for Lis and myself. I listened to it hundreds of times driving between California and Oregon, where my parents live. Now, every time I play it in England, I am reminded of my trip home, punctuated with frequent forays to In and Out Burger.

Every place has it's own cuisine and sound:

Mariachi music was made for enchiladas, red beans and rice.

Try savoring a soufflé while listening to Jacques Brel.

Bite into a steaming platter of bratwurst and sauerkraut, listening to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahams, or Wagner. Got give it to the Germans, so many astonishing musicians. 

Roast a whole pig, Cuban style, while dancing the rumba.

Fry up some catfish and hushpuppies, listening to Mississippi blues.

Picnic on Californian avocado, almonds, pistachio, and olives while grooving to 60's surfer rock. 

Fill the kitchen with English folk music, while making a steak and ale pie, as the rain pounds down outside. I'm especially partial to June Tabor's ballads on days like this. She recently won BBC Radio 2's Folk Singer of the Year award, at the age of 64. Richard introduced me to Tabor's music.

If you can't pack up and go to your favorite place, bring your favorite place to you.

London, Winter 2006