I would best describe this dish as having a fairly solid Mediterranean influence, but not strictly as Mediterranean food, largely because my knowledge of that cuisine is a lot more limited than I would like it to be.
My dad actually lives in Greece, on a beautiful island called Kos just off the coast of Turkey. I’ve visited on any number of occasions and each and every time I have sought to better understand Greek cuisine. Unfortunately, somehow, time and time again its basic essence has managed to elude me.
My professional introduction to the world of food came in the Michelin Starred gastropub in which I took my very first bumbling steps as a waiter. When we served the food, we were expected to explain it to the customer in full, detailing each of the major elements on the plate and giving them a quick overview of any of the more unorthodox or interesting cooking techniques involved.
It was frankly very intimidating. It was also very special. Our customers had often travelled far and wide to come to this specific restaurant in the middle of the countryside and they responded very well to this sort of informative interaction. We had lengthy, detailed discussions about the finer points of food and even as a still-green first year waiter there were times when I got to feel like an expert in my field.
Naturally, I took this level of detail and complexity to be the pinnacle of food, a triumphant example of everything food should be and the bar to which all other cuisines must aspire. It’s only in the years following that I have come to realise that whilst that level of involvement has its place, it isn’t the only approach and it certainly isn’t the only peak of the mountain. The truth, of course, is that beautiful food is beautiful whether you incorporate all of those bells and whistles or not.
I didn’t understand Mediterranean cuisine because its sheer simplicity seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I understood about food. I could eat a Greek salad and fail to ever realise that the freshness and vibrancy was in itself a perfect expression of food and flavour. I could eat the freshest seafood and taste every bit of the sea, the air and the coast and still somehow miss that my meal was providing the perfect accompaniment for a warm sunset in the mountains, simply because I had grown so accustomed to the expectation of advanced techniques.
I don’t want to give the impression that I frown on the advanced techniques used by those with skills that far surpass my own. I don’t. I have a great admiration for the time and skill that goes into them as well as for their place in our culinary world. I simply recognise now that that approach to food has its place, as real and as valuable as the place of white wine in the sun or a hearty stew in the depths of winter. But no more so.
Ingredients – To Serve 2
For the Hummus:
Chickpeas – 2 Cups
For the Yogurt Dip:
Yogurt – 1 Cup
Beef Mince – 500g
Cauliflower – 1 Half
Pomegranate – 1
Step 1. Make the Hummus
Making fresh hummus is one of those things which to me completely reinvigorates a food I would never normally bother to touch. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with store bought hummus as a handy dip or a quick lunch, it’s always a fairly bland and unmemorable affair.
Making it fresh, however, totally enlivens it. The zinginess of real, fresh citrus and the extra depth provided by proper, hands-on seasoning completely change the nature of the product.
The process, thankfully, is also very simple. If you’re using dried chickpeas, soak them overnight, otherwise, move straight on. Add those chickpeas to a pan and boil for about ten to fifteen minutes, just to get them nice and soft and ready to go. You’re also going to want to pre-heat an oven at this stage to about 180c.
Lightly toast a tablespoon or two of sesame seeds on a medium heat with no oil, just until you can smell the fragrance lifting from the pan. Add that to a blender with a good glug or two of good olive oil and combine until smooth. Just like that, you’ve made tahini!
Next, add the chickpeas – I used about two cups, but wanted some left over – and blend further, adding more and more oil if required until you’re close to the desired consistency. It’s always worth stopping a little short of the smoothness you’re looking for to account for the extra liquid that’s about to go in.
Add lemon juice like you’re seasoning. Just keep going until it’s as zingy and lemony as you’d like. I like a big hit of citrus punch, whereas others will enjoy something a little more subtle. Season further with salt, and with pepper if desired and drizzle a little more oil over the top.
Step 2. Make the Yogurt Dip
Finely chop a small handful of parsley and one of mint. Add them to about a cup of Greek Yogurt and stir, seasoning with salt and pepper and adding lemon juice to taste.
Add honey and incorporate thoroughly. You want this part of the dish to be a little sweeter than it is sour, because the hummus and the garnish all hold sour components as well.
Step 3. Colour the Cauliflower
You’ll want about half a cauliflower here. You’re going to lose some along the way, but you can always use it for salads or for cooking another day. Cut it into florets and then trim to provide a flat surface for the pan. Brush them lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper.
Pan-fry on medium heat until golden-brown and set aside on a tray, ready to go into the oven with the koftas.
Step 4. Make the Koftas
Increase the heat of the pan to medium-high and quickly put the koftas together.
You’ll want to combine about 500g beef mince with a couple of teaspoons of cumin, a couple of teaspoons of coriander and some freshly chopped mint. Again, another little handful will do, but make sure you set aside a few leaves for garnish.
Season as you like with salt and pepper, but try not to over-handle the meat. It’s really easy to mix and mix and mix and lose that separation between the bits and pieces of mince that help to give burgers and koftas a very necessary lightness in texture.
Shape into small ovals, as many or as few as you’d like, and colour all over in the pan. Don’t be afraid to give them a really good cook here. You don’t want to burn them, but you do want that heat to permeate inside as far as it will go. They got close to five minutes a side when I made them myself.
Step 5. Into the Oven
At this stage, pop those koftas into the pan with the cauliflower and put them into the oven for about ten minutes, during which time you can prepare the pomegranate.
You’ll want to take something firm and solid with a little bit of weight and pound the pomegranate all the way around. You’ll be able to feel how this eases up the seeds inside and helps you to get them all out once it’s open. I used the back of a spoon.
Put those seeds somewhere handy – perhaps near wherever you’ve put the spare mint – and take the koftas and cauliflower from the oven.
Step 6. Plating
Smear a good dollop of hummus onto the plate and spread it across. Dot a few more dollops of the yogurt dip as and where you see fit.
Next, place the koftas and the cauliflower around, allowing yourself space for the additional garnishes to fall neatly into place.
Garnish first with the pomegranate seeds, then some lemon juice, some lemon zest and some olive oil.
Finally, add the mint leaves and you’re ready to go!