Friday, April 8, 2016

The Most Important Meal of the Day

A typical Lebanese breakfast isn’t a big meal. Coffee, of course, often with little crisp sesame biscuits called kaak. (Or at least that’s my best guess at how it’s spelled. Please forgive my unschooled and somewhat haphazard Arabic transliterations!) This might be followed by a little bite of bread and labneh, a creamy cheese made from strained yogurt that is one of the staples of the Lebanese diet. That’s about it on your average weekday. But when breakfast is an occasion – weekend, holiday, family gathering – then it is serious business.

One of the most popular breakfast foods is manaeesh, a flatbread with toppings. Think of it as kind of like a breakfast pizza. And it’s not restricted to breakfast, but is eaten for lunch or snack, too, sold in bakeries or by street vendors. The most common toppings are zaatar (a fragrant mix of dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds); cheese; or spiced ground meat. Many bakeries, like the one in my grandparents’ village, supply the bread dough and allow customers to bring in their own toppings. It's made from exactly the same bread dough as the pita; the only difference is that you put the toppings on top of the rounds, and press them down so they don't puff up as much while baking. As a result these flatbreads are much thicker than pita.

On the morning we went to buy bread, we also brought along some zaatar so we could make manaeesh to take home for breakfast to the rest of the family.

The manaeesh are served with fresh tomato, cucumber, and mint, which you can add to your flatbread and then fold or roll up sandwich-style.

You can also put those veggies in a sandwich with labneh. In fact, this breakfast spread of ours included both bread and manaeesh; labneh and several kinds of cheese; fresh vegetables and olives; and butter, local honey, and homemade fruit preserves.

Center: goat's milk labneh that has been formed into balls, air-dried for several days, and preserved in olive oil.

Assorted cheeses, and fresh labneh (cow's milk) in the dish.

From left to right: quince preserves; pine forest honey; apricot preserves.
The jams were made by grandmother. The honey was also produced in the village.

One of my favorite breakfast foods, though I didn’t get to eat it on this trip, is ful: stewed fava beans generously seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley. The phrase “breakfast of champions” was invented to describe this stuff.

Our most decadent breakfast by far, though, was awarma and eggs. Awarma is basically lamb confit. It is incredibly delicious and very easy to make, actually: small pieces of lamb (any cut) are slow-cooked and then preserved in fat, seasoned only with salt and pepper. But what makes it hard to replicate outside of the region is that it is made from fat-tailed sheep, a breed that produces lean meat and large stores of fat in the tail and hindquarters. Rendered tail fat has long been an ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking; it’s called for in recipes going back to the twelfth century! But in this century, if you want a kickass breakfast, here’s what you do. You heat the awarma in a pan on high heat:

Then you crack some eggs on top. Use the best, freshest eggs you can get your hands on; it makes a difference. These came from a neighbor’s chickens!

 Season generously with salt, pepper, and allspice.

The eggs are cooked sunny-side up, and the traditional way to serve it is just to put the pan down on the table and let everyone dig in. Bread is the only utensil you need.

If you like, though, you can cook the eggs hard, or even scramble them, and serve plates individually, though I personally find that a lot less fun.  

And by the way, awarma isn’t just for breakfast. Heat some in a frying pan until the meat is browned and crisp, and use it to garnish a dish of hummus. Split open a baguette, spread it with awarma, and then toast it open-faced or, better yet, close it back up and pop it into a panini press.

Lebanese breakfasts tend toward the savory – traditionally you won’t find many sweet breakfast foods comparable to pancakes, waffles, or French toast. The possible exception is knafeh, a glorious sweet breakfast sandwich. There are three components:

1. The knafeh itself. In breakfast context, this means a layer of slightly sweet fresh cheese topped with a layer of buttery semolina dough, then baking it until golden-brown and melty. This is the filling of the sandwich. (But knafeh also exists in a version as a free-standing dessert; in that case there might be two layers of semolina with the cheese in the middle, or shredded phyllo dough instead of semolina.)

2. A soft sesame bun, which is split open to hold the knafeh like a sandwich.

3. Syrup, which is poured over the cheese in the sandwich. This is a key ingredient in a number of Lebanese sweets; it’s just a simple syrup (sugar and water) but is often flavored with orange blossom water and/or lemon juice.

Et voilà.