Sunday, September 23, 2012

Warak Einab Bil Zait (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Um Amer (mother of Amer) was renowned throughout her community for her tightly rolled, pinky-sized Warak Einab Bil Zait (stuffed grape leaves cooked in oil) and her crunchy, succulent Kibbeh (stuffed meatballs) and I was duly impressed. So much so that I asked her, through her interpreting daughter, if she would teach me how to make them. The date was set, my notebook and pen primed but alas, when I arrived, she handed me a platter of already made kibbeh - not to say that I didn't enjoy them, but Um Amer shortly after passed away and the secret of her technique went with her. To this day my kibbeh are still sub-par and I have determined, the creation of my favorite Arab savory must be part of the genetic code of those born in the Levant. However, the Warak (called dolma in Greek)-well mine may not be as pretty and dainty as the neatly stacked pile of a hundred or so that Um-Amer served but they are very acceptable.  Warak (grape leaves) are filled with a rice-ground lamb or beef mixture, seasoned with cinnamon and allspice and laced with pine nuts and parsley. The meat may be left out for a vegetarian version. They are either served hot, warm, or cold, the hot version usually cooked in a pot amongst layers of stewing lamb or beef, sliced tomatoes, sometimes stuffed eggplant and zucchini and potatoes - a one pot meal! The cold version is featured as an appetizer as part of the mezza (appetizer course). Olive oil and lemon are added to the cooking pot, then the rolls doused with this magic concoction again after cooking. The rolling of the grape leaf is the trickiest part but don't let this deter you.  Once you've tried your hand at it a time or two you'll feel incredibly domestic in the Mediterranean vein!  Grape leaves can be purchased in glass jars in most groceries in the Italian or international sections, or frozen in Middle Eastern groceries.  I prefer the frozen as they are generally more tender.  Better yet, pick your own leaves off your grape vines or as I did this summer, from the neighbor's nosey, wandering vines.  The smaller paler leaves produce a more tender result.

Warak Einab Bil Zait
60 grape leaves, fresh or preserved
6 ounces ground beef or lamb
1/2 cup medium-grain rice, soaked in salt water
1 large onion, minced
1/2 cup chopped parsley
5 leaves mint, finely minced (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large tomato, finely chopped
5 tab. olive oil
1/.2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 tsp. salt
2 large sliced tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

-Rinse grape leaves in cold water and blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes in 3 or 4 batches.  Remove and rinse with cold water and drain.  
-Gently fry onion in 1 tab. oil until soft.  Add ground meat and brown, breaking up finely.  Add 3 garlic cloves and saute 1 minute longer.  Stir in mint, drained rice, parsley, minced tomato, 2 tab. olive oil, salt, pepper allspice and cinnamon.  

-To shape:  Place a vine leaf, shiny side down on work surface.  Snip off stem if necessary.  Place about 1 tablespoon of filling near stem end, fold end and sides over filling and roll up firmly.  
(See pictures below) Line base of a large heavy pot with unfilled grape leaves.  Carefully place filled grape leaves on bottom of lined pan, seam side down, snuggly fitting them into a single layer - if they don't all fit, create a second layer on top of the first.  Cover filled leaves with a layer of sliced tomatoes.  

-Pour water in pot to just barely cover tomatoes.  Add 2 tab. lemon juice and 2 tab. olive oil.  Place a heatproof plate or pie plate over the tomatoes to hold contents in place as they cook.  Bring to a boil and cover the pot. Reduce to low simmer and cook the rolls about 40 minutes until the water is almost gone. 

-Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Remove the warak from the pot and place in large bowl.  Dress rolls with 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 large clove crushed garlic and 2 tab. fresh lemon juice.

-Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kefta wa Batata (Meatballs and Potatoes)

It's just fun to say - Kefta wa Batata - and almost as easy to make.  Its rich, biting seasonings represent the spice trademark of Arab meat dishes - Cinnamon and Allspice.  This spice blend is what says "Mmmm..mmm Arab" to my mouth but wanting to keep everything in its appropriate place, we didn't appreciate its insidious conquest of western dishes in Arab countries.  We were outraged when hamburgers spiked with these spices were served to us as western fare, horrified when the first Pizza Hut just down the street added cinnamon sprinklings to pepperoni pizza. The Marriott Hotel was the only one to remain true to the hamburger in Amman in our early days!  Importation is all well and good and we could accept it when Arabs took their version of chili, seasoned with cinnamon and allspice from the Chili House restaurant in Amman to Cincinnati and dubed it as a new taste sensation, but when the Amman Fuddrucker's delicious meaty burgers evolved to something less so, with rice as a side dish instead of fries, we were ready to picket the establishment!  Corporate was not far behind us, and the franchise was whisked away back to the U.S. where the fresh beef tasted of it in all it's unseasoned purity. This particular dish though is happily in the Arab domain and features tender meatballs (kefta), stewed in a tomato sauce with potatoes (batata) and garnished with parsley and a spritz of lemon, and rightly so, cinnamon and allspice.

Kefta wa Batata
1 pound ground beef (or lamb)
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
3/4 cup diced onion
2-3 tab. olive oil
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
salt & pepper to taste
1 large tomato, diced
2 1/2 cups beef stock or
2 1/2 cups water and 2 beef bouillon cubes
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 tab. lemon juice
2 red potatoes, cut into 1 inch cubes

-Place ground beef (or lamb), medium onion, cinnamon, allspice,
salt and pepper in food processor.  Process mixture about 30 seconds until meat and onion are smooth.  Form mixture into 1 inch balls, about the size of walnuts.  

-Heat the oil in a medium saucepan.  Add chopped onions and meatballs.  Cook over medium-high heat, turning meatballs gently to brown on all sides.

-Add beef stock or water and boullion cubes to saucepan with tomato paste and potatoes.  Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat, cover and let mixture simmer over low heat until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.  Remove lid and continue to simmer 10 minutes to allow sauce to reduce.

-Stir parsley and lemon juice into stew.  Serve warm over steamed white rice.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Stuffed Tomatoes

Are your tomato plants so fertile that your garden practically throws tomatoes at you as you pass by? Do the neighbors close their blinds when they see you coming, with produce basket in hand?  Do more BLT sandwiches elicit a groan from your family diners?  Do you have to tape the freezer door shut to hold all the containers of tomato sauce? If so, it must be harvest time for those possessed of green thumbs!  Around the world, the tomato reigns as a member of Garden Royalty, in fact 93% of garden-growing households grow tomatoes, and on average, Americans consume about 24 pounds of tomatoes each year. Following are two versions of stuffed tomatoes: the first is a broccoli-ham filling with rich cheddar and nutty Parmesan cheese accents.  I took a bit of artistic license with the second, an Arab version filled with hashwi, a spicy ground beef, onion and rice mixture, but I'm sure if an Arab cooked stuffed tomatoes, she would do it like this!

Stuffed Tomatoes
6 medium large tomatoes
1 1/2 cup chopped broccoli florets, cooked and drained
1 tab. oil
1/3 cup finely minced fresh onion
1 cup finely chopped ham
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tab. lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

-Cut off the stem end of each tomato and with a small paring knife and tablespoon, carefully scoop out the pulp and seeds from each tomato, leaving the outer flesh about 1/4 inch thick.  Sprinkle each tomato cavity liberally with salt and pepper and place on cookie sheet, cavity side down, over sink or large bowl and allow to drain for about 20 minutes.

-Meantime, heat oil in medium skillet.  Add onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.  In mixing bowl, combine broccoli, cooked onions, ham, mayonnaise, lemon juice salt and pepper to taste, cayenne pepper, cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese.  

-Rinse out tomato shells then fill with 1/6 of the broccoli/ham mixture.  Sprinkle tops with bread crumbs and remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese.  

-Place filled tomatoes in ovenproof dish, packed in tightly to keep tomatoes from toppling during baking.  Place in 350 degree preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until topping is browned.  Allow to sit 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Kousa Sahel (Stuffed Squash or Zucchini)

National "Leave a Zucchini on your Neighbor's Doorstep Day" was August 8th. Did you miss it, this opportunity to do something with the unseemly vigorous harvest of your garden?  Or did you ignore your squash until it grew to the size of your baby?

Even if you've managed to stay ahead of the squash production with zucchini bread and stir-frys, don't give them all away.  Hold on to the small, tender ones at least and do as the resourceful Arab cook does. The zucchini or "kousa" indigenous to the Middle East is a fairer variety, in color and texture. The favored size is small,  6-8 inches in length and about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The squash are hollowed out with an implement that I call a zucchini corer (amazon: but a combination of apple corer and paring knife can effect an approximate result - a hollow tube with seeds removed and the soft pulp scraped out to leave a shell as thin as possible. (The zucchini pulp can star in frittatas or the fritter recipe included below).  Traditionally Kousa are cooked in a large pot among layers of sliced tomato (again, your garden provides!) stuffed eggplant, with chunks of beef or lamb to infuse the kousa with flavor. The technically correct name for this dish is "Kousa Mahshi".  This version, "Kousa Sahel", is richer with a silkiness provided by the frying of the onions and zucchini.  Don't forget the lemon juice in the sauce!  It perks up the whole with a vibrant fresh contrast to the creamy sweetness of the fried onions.

Kousa Sahel (stuffed squash):
12 small zucchini squash                   1 large onion, slivered
1 lb. ground lamb or beef                  oil for frying
¾ cups rice, pre-soaked in water        4 cups fresh tomato sauce or
1 tab. salt                                                  paste to make sauce
1 tsp. pepper                                      juice of 1 lemon
¾ cup chopped parsley                      1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. allspice

-Brown ground meat and season with salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. Drain well and set aside.
-Hollow out washed squash.  Mix drained rice with meat and parsley.  If the meat is fatty, you will not need more fat.  If not, add a tab. or two of corn oil to the mixture.  Add salt and pepper.
-Over a large bowl, stuff the squash with filling until it is loosely full to ¼ inch from the top. Lightly fry the squash in oil until the skins are browned and bubbly.
-Meanwhile, brown the onions in oil until brown.  Add the tomato sauce and lemon juice and boil for 10 minutes at a rolling boil.  Reduce the heat to simmer. Carefully lay the squash in the sauce and cook 20-30 minutes.  Cover and stir carefully from time to time.
-To serve, transfer the squash with a slotted spoon on to a platter.  Pour the thickened sauce over the squash and garnish with chopped parsley.