If Natasha Sideris didn't believe in coincidences before the pandemic, it's hard to believe she doesn't believe in them now. After all, her latest book, Tashas Inspired: A Celebration of Food and Art, might contain an assortment of the Middle Eastern fusion dishes and recipes she is celebrated for, but it is also a timely paean to one of her favourite pastimes: cooking and entertaining at home.
Dishes to be created in your kitchen, tips on putting together restaurant-worthy table decor, ideas for music playlists, and art to inspire moods and discussion all combine in her latest tome, making it the ultimate go-to for those stay-at-home evenings during the new normal.
"The book was conceived before we went under lockdown, before everyone was spending so much time at home,” Sideris, 45, says of the timing of her second book. “Given these challenging times, I hope it provides a great source of inspiration. Rather than just [following] recipes, I also want home cooks to embrace that cooking and serving food is about creating an entire experience.”
Inspiration is something the founder of the Tashas Group has in spades (or, perhaps, that should be spoonfuls), having launched eight cafes in the UAE since 2014 when she opened her first restaurant, Tashas Galleria at Al Wasl in Dubai.
“My heritage has given me a love of good ingredients and beautiful food,” she says of her Greek and Cypriot background. “But my love of travel has given me immense appreciation of different cultures and the way people eat. Creating recipes is a combination of drawing both from the ingredients as well as classic recipes from these countries.”
Dishes from seven celebrated culinary destinations
Fans of the down-to-earth restaurateur can expect to be taken on a global culinary journey in her book, making for a novel way to experience the world during the pandemic. Divided into seven chapters, readers will be taken to France in Le Bistro, southern Europe in The Mediterranean Kitchen, and the Big Apple in A New York State of Mind, via Cafe Society, A Spanish Affair, The Levant Kitchen and A Day in the Country.
“In A Spanish Affair, the recipes are mainly for tapas,” she says. “The Spanish are known to graze on these small plates, slowly and never getting too full. It is an easy, laid-back way of life.
“Whereas New York State of Mind focuses on recipes that are known as classics in the Big Apple – hot dogs, mac and cheese, and fried chicken. My first trip to New York was like a movie played in fast forward. There is an insatiable appetite for food, entertainment and novelty. It is also a melting pot of so many cultures, and this is reflected in the food. In each chapter, I have tried to recreate the culture of a place.”
Enduring inspiration in Middle Eastern flavours
With each chapter’s themed menu accompanied by table-styling suggestions and Spotify playlists, how does Sideris think the modern at-home cook should approach an evening of entertainment? “The most important value I learnt from my parents is that good food is about so much more than just flavour. It’s really about how it makes us feel,” she says. “Entertaining is all about the enlightening the senses – all five of them. It is about how things look, so the table setting is important: candles, flowers, plates, napkins, cutlery and crockery.”
Having been previously based in South Africa, Sideris has long called Dubai home, finding inspiration in the cuisine and flavours of the Middle East. "There is so much that I love about Middle Eastern and Emirati food," she says, "the flavours, the spices, and the versatility. I also love the sharing aspect of it, no matter the occasion. There are lovely stewed dishes juxtaposed with fresh dishes. I love the variety."
A successful businesswoman, whose UAE restaurants are each imbibed with distinct flavour profiles – “Tashas Al Bateen is inspired by Spain, while Tashas Al Barsha by Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech” – Sideris lays her love of food firmly at the feet of her father.
“It all begins with my father, Harry Sideris, a great chef and restauranteur,” she says of why it is likely Bearnaise sauce rather than blood runs in her veins. “His passion for food and for feeding people inspired us. My dad could make sauces and season dishes like no one else I’ve ever met. I grew up by his side, in his restaurants and cafes, enveloped in the warm, steamy aromas emanating from pots and pans, the clatter and crash in the kitchens, the bustling and banter of the front-of-house staff, and the chatter of the customers.
“Maybe it’s a Greek thing,” she muses, “but his conversations usually began with: ‘Have you eaten?’ Regardless of the answer you could be sure you’d be eating again soon.”
Tashas Inspired: A Celebration of Food and Art is priced at Dh550 and will be available at all Tashas cafes, Flamingo Room and Avli by Tashas from December 9
Recipes from 'Tashas Inspired: A Celebration of Food and Art'
The flaky filo pastry of our baklava is folded like a concertina instead of in a pile. Pipe the creme patissiere on to the syrupy baklava and fleck it with edible gold leaf.
Ingredients for the baklava
8 filo sheets
150g butter, melted
90g brown sugar
5g ground cinnamon
50g pecan nuts, slightly toasted and crushed
Preheat the oven to 160°C and line a baking tray with baking paper.
Cut the filo sheets into 3 equal sized strips (you will now have 24 smaller sheets of pastry) and brush both sides of each with butter. Place two of these smaller sheets of filo on top of each other (you will end up with 12 sheets of two layers each).
Sprinkle the top of each sheet with brown sugar, cinnamon and crushed pecans.
Concertina the filo sheets, pack them tightly next to each other on the baking tray and bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy.
Ingredients for the honey syrup
2g cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods, crushed
Mix the honey, sugar, water, cinnamon stick and cardamom in a saucepan with a pouring lip. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue to boil until all the sugar has dissolved.
Strain the syrup into a jug and then pour it back into the saucepan to heat again when needed.
Once the baklava is caramelised and crisp, remove the tray from the oven. Pour over the hot syrup and leave to cool.
Ingredients for the vanilla creme patissiere
2 egg yolks
30g caster sugar
2 vanilla pods, split lengthwise, & seeds scraped out
45ml cream, whipped
Mix the egg yolks, cornflour, 100ml milk and half the sugar together. Bring the rest of the milk, cream, vanilla seeds and pods and the other half of the sugar to a boil. Remove the vanilla pods. Slowly pour the boiling milk into the egg mixture while whisking.
Return the mixture to the pot and bring to a boil for 1 minute, whisking continuously. Whisk in the butter until smooth and shiny. Transfer the creme patissiere to a baking tray lined with cling wrap and cover with cling wrap directly on the surface. Leave to cool in the fridge.
Once cooled, transfer the creme patissiere to a mixing bowl, whisk until smooth and fold in the whipped cream. Scoop into a piping bag with your preferred nozzle.
Edible gold leaf
Place the baklava on a plate, drizzle with honey and pipe the creme patissiere on to the baklava. Garnish with edible gold leaf.
Any chef will tell you that the biggest challenge of making a cooked breakfast is not the eggs, but having everything hot and ready to serve at the same time. There are only three components to this breakfast – hash browns, sauce and poached eggs – but you need to plan ahead to get it right. Streamline by roasting the peppers and tomatoes at the same time. When they’re done, leave the oven on, but turn it down very low so you can use it as a warming drawer while poaching the eggs.
Ingredients for the chilli red peppers
2 red peppers
24 cherry tomatoes
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium red onion, sliced salt & pepper
1 tbsp chopped chives
2 small red bird's-eye chillies, seeded & finely sliced
Cut the red peppers in half, scrape out the seeds and rub with olive oil. Place them skin side up under a very hot grill. The skin will wrinkle and blacken within a few minutes. Take them out of the oven and put them in a glass bowl covered with cling wrap to sweat. Once the peppers have cooled, the skins should slip off fairly easily, and you can scrape off any resistant bits with the back of a knife. Discard the skins and slice the peppers into long thin strips. Turn the oven setting to 180°C and roast the cherry tomatoes on a baking tray until they begin to colour.
Saute the onion in a little olive oil until soft and translucent but not coloured. Add the sliced peppers and tomatoes, squashing the tomatoes gently to release their juices. Cook for a few minutes to make a glossy, chunky sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste, but only stir in the chives and chilli just before serving.
Ingredients for the potato rosti
2 medium waxy potatoes, peeled & coarsely grated salt & black pepper
1 tbsp onion flakes
Olive oil for frying
Season the grated potato and mix with the onion flakes. Twist tightly in a clean dishcloth to squeeze out any excess moisture. Divide into 8 equal portions, press into round flat discs, and fry over medium heat in a little olive oil. Press the rosti down firmly with a spatula to help the grated potato stick together. Cook on both sides until golden brown. Drain and keep warm in the oven at a very low temperature.
Ingredients for the poached eggs
2L hot water
Dash of vinegar
2 tbsp chives, chopped
Fill a deep pot about two-thirds full with water and bring it to simmering (not boiling) point. Add just a dash of vinegar – overdo it, and your eggs will smell sour. Crack each egg into a small cup first, then swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool. Now gently lower the egg right into the middle of the vortex. Keep swirling until the egg white becomes solid and opaque. The longer you stir, the firmer the yolk will be. If you're not serving breakfast immediately, keep the eggs aside in ice-cold water. They will firm up immediately. Just before serving, reheat them briefly in boiling water – not more than a minute if you like them runny.
Spoon chilli red pepper mixture on to rostis, top with poached eggs and garnish with chives.