In her sleek London loft, cookbook author Anissa Helou prepares some of the Mediterranean's homiest dishes on some of the world's most up-to-date equipment.
Anissa Helou was making fattoush, a tart Lebanese salad tossed with crisp, toasted shards of pita bread. Her London kitchen was fragrant with mint, parsley and onions, which she combined with plump green purslane leaves, kirby cucumbers and tomatoes. There's nothing more traditional than fattoushleave out the New World tomatoes and it's easy to imagine shepherds on the slopes of Mt. Lebanon eating this for lunch back when King Solomon's minions were chopping down Lebanese cedars to ship to Jerusalem.
On a wooden cutting board placed precisely in the center of a stainless steel island that's a full 10 feet long, Helou slivered mint and parsley leaves. "My mother makes fattoush with whole leaves," she said. "She can't understand why I do it this way."
Helou's method works: Mincing the leaves releases their flavor more fully and creates a more vibrant-tasting salad. But her altering of heirloom recipes is not the only example of Helou's iconoclasm. Her career as a cookbook author had an unorthodox start. After leaving Lebanon, her birthplace, in the early 1970s, Helou split her time between an antiques shop she opened in Paris in 1976 and an art-and-antiques consulting business in London. Then a publisher who had noted her growing reputation as a superb home cook suggested she write a book. The result was Lebanese Cuisine, an ambitious, comprehensive volume. Helou has since become interested in all forms of Mediterranean cooking, especially those of North Africa and the Middle East. She published the outstanding Mediterranean Street Food in 2002 and is now at work on Savory Mediterranean Baking.
These days, she's busy testing recipes in the new kitchen of her London loft, a deliberately austere space of white and stainless steela radical departure from the usual Mediterranean kitsch of terra-cotta and painted tiles. Kitchen is an understatement: The entire top floor of her loft900 square feet under high, white-painted roof beamsis dedicated to food in one way or another. Helou prepares food in one corner; shares it with guests in another corner, where a long, ebony-topped table comfortably fits 10; and sits down to write about food in yet another corner, at an impeccable desk where two computers, a phone and a few sheets of paper are the only evidence of her efforts.
The setup, Helou told me, is what she has dreamed of for the last 10 years, since she began her food-writing career. "I realized," she said, "that my ideal space would incorporate the kitchen, dining room and study into one big room. And I've always liked the idea of a utilitarian rooma kitchen or a bath, sayin which nothing strikes you obviously as kitchen or bath. When you come into this room, the kitchen isn't the first thing that speaks to you."
Indeed, so inconspicuous is the cooking area that you might not even notice it until you've been in the room a while. Inconspicuous, but thoroughly thought out. The defining elements of the kitchen are two long, brushed stainless steel counters with built-in burners, made by the Swiss manufacturer Elro. The counter on the island includes a flat cooking surface with four burnerstwo induction and two high-tech electricplus a bain-marie (a shallow sink with a heating coil, in which dishes can be kept warm), all made by Elro. Behind the island on the wall, an even longer steel counter, also by Elro, contains two gas burners and a sink. Underneath are a Bosch dishwasher and refrigeration unit. The idea that the refrigerator dominates the kitchen doesn't make sense to Mediterranean cooks like Helou, who tend to shop every other day and value freshness over shelf life.
The induction burners puzzled me initially, since they seemed out of keeping with Helou's home-style cooking. Did she have the Elro units installed mainly for their seamless design? I asked. Not at all. "Induction," Helou is convinced, "is the best modern cooking invention." Induction relies on magnets, which generate heat when they react with the metal in certain types of pots and pans. "Look"she called me over to the stove"you can put the burner on max and place your hand on it, and as long as you aren't wearing metal rings, for instance, you won't even feel the heat. And the control is fantastic: A big pot of water boils in no time, and if you want to turn it down to simmer, the change is instant. Induction is even better than gas, and much cleaner."
She demonstrated by browning a batch of cumin-spiced Moroccan-style meatballs rapidly in a pan on an induction burner. Then she set them on an electric burner to finish cooking. "Induction was invented for à la minute, rapid, restaurant-style cooking," she explained. "The electric is better for slow cooking, for stews and so forth. I hardly ever use the gas unless I need two extra burners." The bain-marie is useful too, both for very slow cooking and for keeping cooked foods warm without having them dry out or get mushy. With Lebanese-style entertaining, in which many dishes are served at once, this is critical.
Helou does virtually all of her cooking in Hackman pots and pans, which are designed for induction but can be used on gas and electric stoves too. Made of a thick sandwich of stainless steel and aluminum, they're sleek and eminently practical.
Helou insisted that she hasn't always been this devastatingly organized. "The first kitchen I had, in Chelsea, was tiny. That's where I learned to cookyou learn to be efficient in a tiny kitchen. But then I moved to a Victorian house in Clapham, which was just the opposite."
"The absolute opposite," confirmed her friend and fellow food writer Elisabeth Luard, who had just arrived for dinner. "It was full of all sorts of things that you opened up and found other things inside."
Helou discovered the loft in 1985, when a friend bought it: "I loved it, even though it was down a dank, dark, horrible, really scary street with nothing but the button factory across the way." Over the years, the dank, dark street became one of the focal points of the increasingly fashionable Shoreditch neighborhood. When the friend, who had restored the building, offered Helou the two-story loft space in 1999, she promptly bought it.
She pointed to the skylight, directly overhead, straddling the gable of the building and allowing a cool, clean, early-evening light into the room. "I chose the flat because of the great skylight," she said. "If you're Lebanese, like me, you simply cannot live without light."
When Helou moved out of the Clapham house, she decided to sell most of her things at auction to eliminate clutter that would interfere with the simplicity she craved. She helped Christie's organize her belongings into a 124-page catalog. "The El Helou Collection" gives a sense of what was at stake: a sizable selection of antique fishing tackle, reflecting Helou's passion for fly-fishing, as well as most of her Arts and Crafts furniture and a notable collection of treen, or woodenwarebowls, cups, jugs, pitchers, spoons and boxes.
By now, Helou was setting platters of food on the table. At the center she put one of the most traditional dishes in Lebanese feasts: juicy pieces of roast chicken flavored with allspice and served over a mound of rice mixed with ground lamb, pine nuts and almonds. On one side of the platter she placed a rich Lebanese stew of tender chunks of lamb with orange and lemon zest; on the other side, tomato-stewed okra with cilantro and garlic. The rest of the table showed the glorious overabundance typical of the Mediterranean: plates of crescent-shaped pies with a tangy filling of spinach and pine nuts; Moroccan-inspired meatballs made of lamb and rice; and two saladsa Turkish salad of feta cheese, tomatoes and onions, and the luscious-looking fattoush. Although Helou's menus include dishes from all around the Mediterranean, Lebanese cuisine is what she cooks most often and what she truly believes is best.
"Well, everybody loves Lebanese food," she said, as if this statement were self-evident. "I think it's because the cuisine uses so many familiar Mediterranean tasteslots of raw vegetables and raw herbsbut combines them in surprising ways. And the flavors aren't overly complex, not the way Moroccan food can be complex."
We had been talking for an hour or more, and I had never had the impression that Helou was working. Yet she had produced all this food, welcomed her guests, poured wine and kept up a lively conversation that went from food to politics to art-world gossip. And, miraculously, the kitchen looked just as clean and uncluttered as it had before she started.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of the award-winning new cookbook The Essential Mediterranean, writes frequently for Food & Wine.