16 February 2011

The Fat of the Matter (A Special Kibbeh Recipe)

So in order to talk about this recipe today, we're going to have to talk about sheep butts. I know, not what you were expecting right? But here's the deal, in most parts of the Levant the sheep sort of have this extra butt, almost like a really wide fat tail, that you can see in the pictures. I remember seeing this for the first time near Sayyida Zeinab outside Damascus, and staring at these very weirdly shaped sheep. You see, the sheep are bred this way because that back part is just one big mass of fat. In Arabic this is called 'aliya, and is the traditional cooking fat, sort of like how lard is a traditional cooking fat in the U.S. Nowadays, most people use butter (ghee) or oil in their cooking because it's more cheaply and readily available, but 'aliya is still called for in some dishes.


So for today we have a very special kind of kibbeh recipe. It is a kibbeh stuffed with flavored fat, or 'aliya. Since 'aliya isn't readily available, there are several options for your fat: what I do is the next time you cook any fatty piece of lamb (like a leg or shoulder of lamb) trim off the fat, render the fat in a pan, and store it in a covered container in the fridge or freezer. Alternately, you can use some rendered bacon fat mixed with some butter, or you can use all butter.


Now, for this very special kind of kibbeh. This kibbeh is sometimes called "kibbeh zghortawieh," named after a town in Lebanon where this kind of fat-stuffed kibbeh is made. In reality, it's just one restaurant in this town that makes this kibbeh, though it's a destination of sorts. The kibbeh are made very large with thin shells, stuffed with the spiced fat mixture and grilled. You can see a great video of the kibbeh zghortawieh here.

But there are other more home-style ways of making fat stuffed kibbeh, that can vary completely depending on the cook. The two clear rules seem to be the following: the kibbeh are always baked or grilled (since they're packed with fat on the inside, there's no need for frying), and the fat mixture is always flavored with some sort of spice or herb mixture. Annisa Helou describes a lovely version called kibbeh kubab here. I once had one stuffed with some sort of mint-cinnamon-allspice mixture that was delicious.


My recipe here uses a pepper paste, which turn the insides a beautiful red and lends a slight sweetness to the kibbeh. They are some of the most delicious kibbeh I've had, little meatballs bursting with moisture and flavor. I do have one note of caution: you need to form the kibbeh very well, pounding the meat to a sticky paste and forming the shells without any gaps. I'll admit I was in a rush to make dinner, and as is obvious in the photo, the fat leaked out of many of my kibbeh. They were still delicious though, and I guess I spared us a few calories in this rich dish.

Kibbeh with Rich Red Pepper Stuffing
For the fat you can use rendered lamb fat, a mixture of bacon fat and butter, or all butter or ghee. Generally is is better to use the meat fats because the butter tends to run everywhere and get a bit messy. For the red pepper paste, if you don't use your own a store bought one (like ajvar) will do, just make sure it's not to watery. Feel free to experiment with the recipe and try other flavorings for the filling as well.

4 tablespoons fat (see headnote), at room temperature
2 tablespoons red pepper paste

1/2 a medium onion, grated on a box grater or pureed in a processor
1 lb ground lamb or beef
1 cup fine bulgur
2 teaspoons each allspice, cinnamon
sprinkling each of cloves, black pepper
salt to taste (I start with 1 teaspoon)

1. Mix the fat and the pepper paste, place in the fridge to chill.
2. Meanwhile place bulgur in a fine mesh strainer and rinse in several turns of water, then set aside to drain. Fluff the bulgur, then add to the remaining filling ingredients (onion, meat, spices). Knead the mixture well with you hands until it forms a sticky paste (dampen your hands with cold water if it gets too sticky).
3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
4. Begin forming the kibbeh balls, use your thumb to work the shell mixture into a smooth hollow round in the palm of your hand. Place a small amount of fat in the middle of the kibbeh (about 1/2 tablespoon), then seal the kibbeh very well so there are no holes. Dampen you hands as you work to keep the meat from sticking. Once the kibbeh are formed, it helps to chill them for one hour before baking if you have the time.
5. Bake the kibbeh until browned on the exterior, about 12 minutes for small kibbeh balls (use you judgement, the time may vary depending on the size of the kibbeh). Serve immediately.

09 February 2011

Basic Technique: Red Pepper Paste


In Lebanon and Syria there is a preserving tradition known as mouneh. These traditional preserves were made throughout the summer and into the fall, and were a way of preserving food to eat in the winter. Some of these are ingredients that are very familiar to you - jams and fruits preserved in syrup, concentrated tomato pastes, while others may be unknown in much of the West. Things like carob and grape molasses, kishik (a powdery mixture made from fermented dried yogurt and bulgur), or qawarma, rich lamb meat preserved in its own fat (not unlike duck confit).


Then there is pepper paste, which is so ubiquitous one might not even consider it a mouneh, but a constant staple. There is a strong Armenian influence in the Levant, and many give credit to the spicy pepper pastes in the region to the Armenian influence. (Generally, Levantine people dislike fiery spicy foods, and so anything with a bit of bite to it is often influenced by Armenian cuisine or Aleppian influences).

I would say that every culture has their pepper paste, whether fiery gochuchang or sweet ajvar, and so it's not worth arguing over origins. The pepper paste I make is made in a traditional way and is very easy. Traditionally this would be dried in the sun but I choose to just cook it a bit longer (it can happily simmer undisturbed for a few hours), and you could also try drying it out in a low oven. The paste is sweet and only barely spicy. I found myself spreading it on bread and in sandwiches and just eating it straight out of a jar. Next time I'm going to talk about a very special kibbeh recipe that uses this pepper paste.


Red Pepper Paste

Use your judgement with the chili. The chili I used, despite my incorporating the seeds, wasn't very spicy, so I added a pinch of Aleppo pepper flakes at the end.

3 large meaty red bell peppers, seeded and sliced into strips
1 small red chili, flesh sliced and a few seeds reserved
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Place the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth.
2. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the pepper puree and let bubble over medium heat, stirring occasionally until most of the moisture is evaporated.
3. As the pepper paste starts to concentrate, reduce the heat so that it is cooking more and more slowly. Let the mixture cook down until it is very thick, this can take up to 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Check on the mixture frequently to make sure it is not burning, but it really shouldn't need much stirring or other attention. Toward the end of cooking taste for seasoning, see if it needs more salt or spice.
4. Scrape the paste into a jar. Pour a film of oil over it if you plan to keep it for a while. Store in the refrigerator.

08 February 2011

Egypt, It is Coming

Ya Misr Hani'

"A tyrant only exists in the imagination of his subjects."

An inspiring reminder of the role of poetry in many Arab revolutions. Of a culture whose poetry slam contest reaches the celebrity level of American Idol. And in memory of Mahmoud Darwish, who taught that giving voice to struggle can be as powerful as any weapon.

Someone asked my opinion on recent events, and while I have many things to say (most of which are quite excited about the changes going on), I don't feel this is the appropriate forum. Besides, I have complex Middle East discussions everyday, and this is where I come for a bit of enjoyment, and I hope everyone who reads this blog, no matter what background or persuasion, can find something they enjoy.