We marked the end of my mom's 6 week radiation and chemo treatment last week, which is certainly cause for celebration. We had invited a few people and I had intended to just order some platters from our local Lebanese Taverna, just to make my life easier. But then the cook in me, seeing the price for a simple platter of fattoush, kicked in and I thought I could just put everything together myself. Somehow, between going to radiation treatments, work and meetings, and driving the joys of every beltway and interstate in Maryland, I managed to convince myself it would be easier to also cook for 20. Yes, easier, of course.
Lebanese food was on order from mom, so I chopped miles of tabboule and poured pounds of butter into baklava, cursing the whole time and regretting my decision. Part of my impetus to coking everything myself was that I wanted to make a lamb and eggplant casserole called maqloube. It was something my family in Syria always made for special occasions, it's big and showy, and what better chance than this to cook it for my mom.
Maqloube means "over-turned" because the dish is cooked in a pot and then flipped over onto a platter. This of course, is where the danger is, as part of the dish usually sticks to the pot and it takes skill to get it to come out in one presentable piece. I do not yet possess this skill. Anyway, many people say maqloube is a dish of Palestinian origin, but my family, who hailed from northern Iraq and Syria, claimed they had also been making it for generations.
Basically, a decorative layer of eggplant and tomatoes is arrange in a dish, topped with chunks of lamb, a good amount of spiced rice, and then the whole thing is cooked in lamb stock. Some people place the chunks of lamb (or beef) on top, since in the Middle East they like to show off their meat, and there are variations that include chickpeas and other vegetables.
Unfortunately, the maqloube I made for the party was particularly un-pretty, I tried to fix it up with a drizzle of yogurt and pine-nuts, but nothing much could be done. The maqloube was so good it disappeared in minutes at the party, and my craving went unsatisfied. So, I made it again later that week, to test the recipe for you all, and to see if I could get a nicer picture. And then I forgot to take a picture, and that one was gobbled up too. So, maybe you will have better success at a prettier maqloube, but I'm sure it will be just as delicious.
Maqloube (Upside-Down Lamb and Eggplant Casserole)
Try to look for eggplants and tomatoes the same diameter. Good thick yogurt with a touch of lemon juice is an excellent, and I would say almost essential, accompaniment to this dish.
4 medium-size Japanese eggplants (the long skinny kind)
6 plum tomatoes
oil for frying, such as grapeseed or canola oil
1.5 lbs lamb, cubed (I used part of a top round)
1/2 a beef bouillon cube or beef broth
2 cups Jasmine rice
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp cinnamon
butter, for greasing the pan
1. Slice the eggplants. If you are one of those people who are adamant about salting eggplant, do so. I don't. Pour oil about 1/4" deep into a wide frying pan and heat. Fry the eggplants in batches in the hot oil until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels. The eggplant absorbs quite a bit of oil so you will need to add more oil to the pan as you go. Pat eggplants with paper towels and set aside.
2. In the same fry pan, heat a little more oil if the pan is dry. Saute the lamb cubes in the pan until opaque and browned in spots. Add water to the pan to cover the lamb and add the bouillon cube (alternately, add beef stock to the pan). Bring to simmer and let cook gently for 35-40 minutes. You will have to top up the water in the pan occasionally.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large kettle of water to boil. Place the rice in a bowl, and pour boiling rice over the water to cover. Let the rice soak for 30 minutes. Drain the rice, mix in the cardamom, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.
4. Choose a medium-size heavy-bottomed pot and grease heavily with butter. Layer the eggplant and tomato slices in concentric circle in the bottom of the pan. Line the edge of the pan with a circle of overlapping tomato slices. sing a slotted spoon, ladle the lamb cubes over the bottom of the pan. Spoon a thin layer of rice over the lamb. If you have leftover eggplant or tomato slices, layer them in the pan here. Spoon in the remaining rice and pt down gently, do not pack. Pour the reserved lamb stock over the rice. Cover the pan and bring the mixture to a simmer, then immediately turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Check the pot occasionally towards the end of cooking to make sure it still looks moist (I usually poke around with the end of a spoon). Add more water if it seems dry. Be careful the bottom doesn't burn.
5. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes. Uncover the pot and place a large plate or platter on top of the pot, then carefully but swiftly invert the rice pot onto the plate. Let the pot sit over the plate for a moment so all the rice can shift downward, then remove the pot. Inevitably, some of the rice/eggplant will have stuck to the pot, simply arrange it on the platter as best you can.