Levant cookbook recipes: From stuffed aubergine to butternut squash napoleons

Rawia Bishara experiments with classic Middle Eastern recipes while still paying homage to her Palestinian beginnings

Rawia Bishara
Friday 15 June 2018 18:21 BST

Butternut squash napoleons

These napoleons perfectly illustrate the expression “you eat with your eyes first”. While flavour is always my top priority, presentation is essential, especially at the restaurant. This dish, a savoury take on the classic French dessert of layered puff pastry and custard, is an exercise in contrast – in texture and temperature, yes, but also between cultures. Spicy ginger and herbaceous za’atar perfume the Japanese breadcrumbs that crust wheels of earthy, hot-from-the-fryer butternut squash, cradling cool layers of tahini and roasted vegetable-enriched hummus.

Serves 8

2 large butternut squash, peeled, cut into 2.5cm-thick rounds, seeds removed
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cumin


175g panko breadcrumbs
1 heaped tbsp  lemon pepper (or black pepper mixed with lemon zest)
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp dried oregano or za’atar
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp garlic powder
1 tsp paprika
130g plain flour
4 large egg whites, beaten
40g shredded parmesan cheese
15g finely chopped fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried parsley
Vegetable oil, for frying

Hummus of your choice for serving

Preheat the oven to 260C. Drizzle the squash slices with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil each, followed by an even sprinkling of the pepper, salt and cumin. Rub to coat well on all sides.

Place on a baking tray and roast for 12-15 minutes, until just tender but not browned. Set aside to cool. Make the breading: in a shallow bowl, toss the breadcrumbs with the lemon pepper, basil, oregano, ginger, garlic powder and paprika. Pour the flour into a second shallow bowl and beat the egg whites in a third shallow bowl. Dip the squash slices in the flour and turn to evenly coat, then dip them in the egg white.

Finish by coating the squash with the seasoned breadcrumbs, making sure they adhere on all sides. Fill a large frying pan with vegetable oil to a depth of 1.25cm, or fill a deep-fat fryer to a depth that will fully submerge the squash slices. Heat until very hot, but not smoking. Working in batches, fry the squash for 3 minutes on each side, until softened and golden brown all over. Using a slotted spoon, remove the squash from the oil and set on kitchen paper to drain.

Alternatively, to bake instead of frying, lightly coat the breadcrumb crust with cooking spray or oil, and cook in a 190C oven until golden and tender, about 30 minutes.

Assemble the napoleons: top one squash slice with a generous scoop of hummus and a drizzle of tahini pomegranate hot sauce, top with a second squash slice, and finish with tahini sauce. Repeat with the remaining squash slices and serve immediately.

Fennel, pomegranate and sage salad

Thick-cut wedges of fresh fennel topped with its own feathery fronds, a squeeze of lemon, and a generous pinch of good salt is one of my all-time favourite nibbles in the summer. This recipe transforms that snack into a salad by balancing the aromatic anise flavour of fennel with briny olives and sweet pomegranate seeds and adding a punchy dressing that does little to diminish the vegetable’s celery-like crunch. This is summery, barbecue-friendly food at its best.

Serves 4-6


4 fennel bulbs, cored and cut into thin strips, fronds reserved
1 poblano chilli, diced
50g kalamata olives, stoned
10g fresh coriander leaves
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
12g finely chopped fresh sage (or 1 tbsp dried sage)
150g fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)


2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
5 tbsp fresh lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)
5 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
125g crumbled feta cheese (optional)

Make the salad: in a large bowl, toss together the fennel, chilli, olives, coriander, garlic, dill, sage and pomegranate seeds.

Make the dressing: in a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, lemon juice and oil until emulsified. Add the pepper and season with salt. Toss the dressing with the vegetables.

To serve, arrange the reserved fennel fronds around the edges of a platter. Place the salad in the centre and top with the cheese, if using. (Alternatively, you can garnish with the fennel fronds and add lemon slices or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar).

Stuffed aubergine over toasted pitta

There’s a restaurant in Jordan called the Fetti Place, which, as you would expect, serves all kinds of fetti (a dish of meat layered with toasted pitta, rice pilaf, and yogurt sauce). It’s where I first discovered makdous fetti, although it was filled with lamb rather than pickled aubergine stuffed with walnuts (as the name would suggest). When I came home, I was determined to make my own version that was full of flavour but completely vegetarian. Don’t feel like going full fetti? You can simply serve the stuffed aubergine over plain rice for a wonderful meat-free meal. Want to condense the recipe still further? Instead of making your own tomato sauce, swap 480ml shop-bought sauce and stir in 4 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses.

Serves 6


12 baby aubergines
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for salting the aubergines
120ml olive oil, plus for more frying or roasting
3 shallots, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 long hot or poblano chilli, finely diced
10g chopped fresh coriander
12g fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
12 Arabic squash or yellow squash, or 6 small courgettes, chopped
6 plum tomatoes, chopped
80ml spicy tomato sauce
6 (20cm) pitta breads, toasted (see below) 
Tahini yogurt sauce (see below)
Rice and vermicelli pilaf (see below)
80g flaked almonds, toasted

Prepare the aubergines: Preheat the oven to 260°C/gas mark 10. Partially peel the aubergines in alternating lengthways stripes, leaving the crowns intact. Sprinkle with salt and place in a colander to sweat for 15–20 minutes. Pat dry with kitchen paper. Brush with the olive oil and roast for about 25 minutes. Alternatively, heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, and shallow-fry the aubergine until golden, about 5 minutes.

Heat 60ml of the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the shallots and cook for about 3 minutes, until tender. Add the garlic, chilli, coriander and basil and cook until the herbs are wilted. Add the cumin, black pepper, allspice, coriander, nutmeg andcardamom, if using, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the remaining 60ml oil and the squash, cover the pan, and cook for 8–10 minutes, until tender.

Spicy tomato sauce

120ml olive oil
135g diced shallots
1 tbps diced garlic 
1 poblano or long hot chilli, diced
1½ tbps freshly ground black pepper
1 tbps sea salt
1 kg diced fresh tomatoes
2 tbps hot pepper paste (170g dried red chillies mixed with 2 tbps in a food processor)
Juice 1 lemon
400g tinned crushed tomatoes

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 3-4 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for 2 minutes, or until the garlic is slightly browned. Add the cumin, black pepper and salt and cook for 2 minutes, until aromatic.

Add the fresh tomatoes and hot pepper paste and cook, occasionally gently mashing with a fork or spoon, for 8-10 minutes, until the tomatoes begin to break down. Add the lemon juice and crushed tomatoes and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 5 more minutes. The sauce will keep, stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one week.

Rice and vermicelli pilaf

Serves 10

150ml olive oil
55g butter or ghee
450g vermicelli, broken into small pieces if the noodles are long
750g Egyptian, Chinese or other short-grain rice
2.1 litres boiling water
Sea salt

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and butter over a medium heat. Add the vermicelli and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the rice cook until opaque, 3-5 minutes. Pour in the boiling water and season with salt. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the rice is fluffy, stirring once halfway through, about 12 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir once more and let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Tahini yogurt sauce

Makes 720ml

480ml all-purpose tahini sauce
170g low fat natural yogurt
4 tbps pomegranate molasses

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the ingredients until smooth. The sauce will keep, covered in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Levant by Rawia Bishara is published by Kyle Books, £20 (octopusbooks.co.uk). Photography by Con Poulos

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