My friend Bechora is one chef I absolutely trust my palate and my plate to, so when he brought me a herb from his garden, I was interested.
“Do you know this one?” he asked. Well, it looked a little like rosemary, but the leaves were too soft. It smelled faintly of ….. of what? I hesitated and he helped me out.
“It is thyme. Lebanese thyme.”
Bechora should know. He grew up near Tripoli in Lebanon and he would have often walked through the mountains as a child, crushing this wild herb underfoot. Here, in Australia, he has it in his garden and it grows luxuriantly in the Mediterranean climate of Mudgee in the central west of NSW.
Next morning he surprised us with this herb made his own special way, in oil and lemon juice, and topping slices of toast. Could there be a simpler and healthier way to start the day?
Lebanese people are noted for their generosity and so it was no real surprise (but a welcome and delicious treat) that he packed us a hamper to bring home: pickled pink turnips, glace lemon, a huge bunch of the wild thyme, pots of stewed rhubarb, pickled thyme, tarator (a white garlic dip found in some shape or form throughout all the eastern Mediterranean countries), and his wonderful creamy soft-curd cheese. Oh, and a huge bunch of spinach, freshly picked from the vegetable plot.
Bechora and his wife Sybil run Deeb’s Kitchen in Mudgee, a hugely popular place to dine as their welcome is as genuine as their meals are generous and authentic. Best of all, most of the fresh ingredients – herbs, veggies, fruit – come from their garden. They even have a couple of rooms for B&B guests, one of which we had stayed in for the weekend.
Back home in Sydney I felt I wanted to continue my ‘Deeb-experience’ so here is what I made using the goodies he had given me – and let me tell you, I think Bechora would have been pretty pleased with it too.
LEBANESE-STYLE SPINACH-THYME PIE
1 bunch spinach, well washed, ribs removed
2 sheets puff pastry (I use 25 percent fat-reduced)
6 button mushrooms sliced and sautéed in butter
2 tablespoons wild thyme, pickled in oil and lemon juice
2 tablespoons tarator (garlic dip)*
125g grated haloumi cheese (or sheep’s cheese)
salt and pepper to taste
Place the whole spinach leaves in boiling salted water and bring to the boil then turn off heat and leave for at least 10 minutes. Drain (reserving the water for another use if you like) then chop finely. Place spinach in a bowl and add all the other ingredients, mixing well.
Line a 20cm square cake tin or similar with one sheet of thawed puff pastry, pressing in well at the sides. Prick and place in a preheated 200C oven and bake for 15 minutes until becoming golden. If it has puffed up, just prick a few times to let out the air.
Remove from the oven and pile in the filling, then top with remaining pastry sheet. Turn the overhanging pastry back on top at the edges and press well with a fork or your fingers. Prick the top with a fork and return to the oven, baking for a further 30 minutes or until the pie looks well browned. Cool on a rack and serve cut into pieces.
* alternatively use 2 cloves crushed garlic and 2 tablespoons yoghurt.