Did anyone else ever watch the British sit-com Friday Night Dinners? G and I watched it almost religiously over its far too short lifespan and it never disappointed. However, as well as being funny, it always made me feel that the Jewish tradition of a Friday Night Dinner, full of ritual and warmth would be a lovely tradition to have. It’s reflected in the show as well, that despite their gripes and the incessant bickering between the brothers (which makes the show) they also have traditions they can’t fathom not being part of their Friday night ritual. Who gets the best bit of the Challah? Who manages to pinch some of mum’s signature dish before it gets to the table? Who dares to sit in someone else’s spot at the table? Desperately impractical as an idea for most modern families, especially those with family as far flung as G’s and mine but a lovely idea all the same. We never did it growing up, our family being a mix of all sorts of beliefs and doubts that the only bastions of my father’s Judaism were the “big holidays”. Passover meal remains etched in my food nostalgia bank and I can sometimes still smell the scent of candles on Yom Kippur with my grandmother making some mysterious hand gestures over them which I’m certain to this day she made up when she first had to do it and just kept on doing the same way year after year. So, it was with a certain zeal that I approached hosting one for the first time. Some of our very dear friends are getting married this year and she has both recently converted to Judaism and returned from the US – to celebrate both we had them round and the only day that worked was a Friday. So, that’s how I ended up getting a little excited and going overboard.
Bearing in mind there were only four of us, we had 11 dishes on the table. The only ones I didn’t make myself were two types of pickle and olives. Otherwise we had homemade falafel, homemade labneh, homemade hummus, chicken liver parfait, smoky aubergine and yoghurt dip, chickpeas with caramelised onions, filo pastry stuffed with spiced beef and onions, and, of course, homemade Challah. Oh, and for dessert we had honeyed peaches with a pistachio and yogurt topping (think this dish made sweet) which with a few tweaks I think will get it’s own blog spot someday soon! The spiced beef wrapped in filo pastry was the table’s favourite and I’ve shared the recipe below.
If it sounds like a lot of work then I guess it was – definitely ambitious for a weeknight meal. I was only home less than an hour before they walked in the door which could have been stressful. However, in keeping with the general theme of the blog, I’d done all the work during the week and so really it ended up a bit of a breeze on the night. The dishes got broken down into parts and it was all done ahead of time. I’ve included some points about how each of the dishes can be done ahead below the recipe but really there are only a few things that make it a lot easier. Firstly, try and use the same base preparation or ingredient for a number of dishes – I used cooked chickpeas in a few different dishes and the same for caramelised onions. Having one preparation be used in multiple dishes is not just easier and time efficient but can also help tie the dishes together by giving them all a similar flavour arc. Secondly, just remember that most dishes can and should be taken just to the point of the final cook days in advance. Restaurants do it, so why shouldn’t we? As a secondary bonus, the left over Challah and spiced beef filling made an excellent stuffing for a roast we had with friends that very same weekend – very occasionally my “make too much of everything” personality flaw pays off.
I’m not saying make all these dishes, I’m just trying to show how with a little planning even complex tasks can be made simple on the day. I at least know it made me happy to make such an effort for some great friends, especially because I could simply sit back on the day and enjoy it with them as we toasted their engagement and shared in a Friday Night Dinner that reconnected me with a warm nostalgic memory so often forgotten in my secular, busy life.
Filo Pastry with Spiced Beef and Onions (Serves a family but can be scaled up or down easily)
- 2 large rectangular Filo Sheets
- 500g beef mince
- Handful of pine nuts
- 5 large spoonfuls of caramelised onions (probably around two onions worth)
- 2 tablespoons of Baharat Spice mix (if you don’t have it, substitute with a mix of cumin, cinnamon, paprika, black pepper and cayenne pepper)
- 10 soft dried apricots diced
- In a dry pan, toast the pine-nuts until golden and reserve separately.
- Heat a good glug of olive oil in a frying pan over a fairly high heat and add the beef mince stirring to break up fully. Season with salt and cook until no longer pink and beginning to brown. Add the baharat spice mix and stir until completely coated. Taste and if necessary add a little more, different spice mixes have very different mixes. You want a little pepper heat so if your mix is a little gentler then add some cayenne or black pepper.
- Cook for a few more minutes before removing from the heat and adding the onions, pine nuts and apricots. YOu will need to taste and re-adjust the seasoning. Set aside to cool.
- Melt butter and cook until lightly browned. If using unsalted butter add a little salt to the melted butter to season the filo pastry. Brush each sheet of filo pastry with the browned butter and lay on top of one another. Pile the cooled beff mixture into the middle and fold over into an open log (a little like a sausage roll).
- Transfer to an oven tray and bake in an oven preheated to 200-220 degrees celsius until browned all over – around 30 minutes. Serve warm. N.B. that the entire dish up to the point of placing in the oven can be made a few days ahead of time.
Some TimedEating tips and tricks for cooking the other dishes ahead of time:
- Chicken liver parfait: The whole thing can be made ahead. I have made a few tweaks along the way but essentially I use Heston’s awesome recipe, it’s a total winner. The recipe is from his book Heston at Home which I totally recommend but here’s a version someone has blogged about. I made it on Wednesday, two days early and just put it in a bowl on Friday.
- Aubergine dip: I make a variant of this all the time. It’s a simple recipe of roasting aubergines until they’re blackened outside (I do this in a grill pan but if you’ve got a gas hob then you can do it directly over the flame). Peel off the skins and then finish how you want. In this particular instance I hand chopped it very finely and mixed it with lemon juice, salt, pepper, grated garlic and yoghurt. Again I made it on Wednesday and simply put it in a bowl and drizzled some olive oil and sumac over the top on the day.
- Labneh: So this one was fun. I’d never made it before and I quite enjoyed having a muslin hanging over the sink for a couple of days. It is essentially a strained yoghurt which has been flavoured with a little lemon juice and salt and doesn’t really require anything other than a couple of days of unattended time. I made it on Monday and transferred it to the fridge on Tuesday ready for dinner on Friday.
- Chickpea based dishes (Hummus and with onions): Chickpeas cooked in an aromatic broth are worlds away from store bought. The folks at serious eats do a great job of explaining why, but once you’ve eaten them you won’t go back. I made them on Thursday (and then made the hummus at the same time). It was then I discovered that warm hummus is possibly the greatest thing in the world – I like cold hummus enough but fresh from the pot is an experience you can only get making it at home and is truly divine. Also don’t forget to keep the chickpea broth, it’s like the best stock you’ll ever make. The other half of the chickpeas got mixed with caramelised onions. Caramelised onions get used a lot in my house. So much so I once wrote a blog about how to use them “all week” in different dishes. In this dinner they got used twice once with some chickpeas and they’ll turn up again in the beef dish. I made a big batch and then on the day you imply warm the chickpeas in a very small amount of the chickpea broth and stir in the onions.
- Falafel: Cold falafel is a travesty. It takes something which embodies pure joy – crispy and intensely flavoured – and makes it mealy, dry and bland. So they have to be made last minute. The falafel mix, however, can be made in advance, shaped in advance and then simply fried to order in max 5 minutes. My favourite falafel recipes are inspired by Honey and Co and I riffed a little on their Yemeni falafel. The mix actually freezes surprisingly well and can be fried from frozen which is very dangerous if you love falafel as much as G and I do.
- Challah: Challah deserves its place in the pantheon of truly great breads. Recipes abound but as a Challah baking virgin the one I used was this one and it worked a treat. The only difference was I wanted to be able to make it in advance so I cold proofed it in the fridge (a bit like my Barbari Bread recipe). This means that I could make the dough on Wednesday, shape it on Thursday night and bake it on Friday. It also meant it had a deep, deep flavour. Sometimes life just comes together and this was one of those times.