27 August 2010


Most of the food I post on here is Levantine cuisine- food from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt. I cook a fair amount of other Middle Eastern food, odd dishes from Tunisia or Iraq, Iran or Morocco, and I've long wondered if I should move into a new phase for this blog, exploring those cuisines more. I went through a phase exploring Yemeni breads, but let's just say that not all my experiments were successful.

One of the reasons I like exploring Levantine cuisine is that it is very codified. Maybe it's the French influence in Lebanon, or maybe it's the history of Lebanese cuisine, of traditional preserving (moune) and seasonal cooking. I've often thought about delving into Moroccan cooking for much the same reason, like Levantine cuisine, there are unique pairings, techniques, and ingredients.


Bisteeya is the queen of Moroccan dishes, a towering pie wrapped in phyllo dough and crammed with squab, eggs and almonds. I've always been curious to make bisteeya (also spelled pastilla, bastilla, etc) because it's unlike anything I've ever made before. I was also confused on how you could make a pie with 10 eggs in it without making a runny mess.


On the surface, when you look at bisteeya, you don't think it's going to taste very good- it has shredded chicken or squab, soft scrambled eggs, and sweetened ground almonds. But in reality, it's delicious. You cook the eggs in some of the poultry stock, so that they infuse with the chicken-y flavor and spices, and then drain them so they don't make the pie soggy. The almonds add just a right note of sweetness, something Moroccans love. And really, the whole thing is wrapped in buttery flaky phyllo dough, and who doesn't like that?

Paul said this was one of the best thing I've ever made, but this was coming from a man obsessed with pies of all forms. But I'd be inclined to agree, despite the work involved, I'd make this again in a heartbeat.


Traditionally, a Moroccan pastry called waraka, which is shiny on one side and porous on the other, is used in place of the phyllo. I find phyllo is an easy substitute. Though squab is the traditional filling for the pie, I used chicken legs, whose meaty flavor echoes the gaminess of the squab, but which are a bit easier to find and work with. Adapted from Paula Wolfert.

1 box phyllo dough, defrosted
1/2 cup of butter, clarified, or use ghee or samneh
10 eggs
1 large bunch of flat leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
4 or 5 large chicken legs and thighs (or 4 squabs or 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces)
2 garlic cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 scant teaspoon fresh ground black pepper or grains of paradise
2 cups whole blanched almonds
a scant 1/2 cup powdered sugar

1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Heat some oil in a dutch oven. Saute the chicken until lightly browned, then sprinkle salt, turmeric, ginger allspice, and pepper over the chicken. Add water to cover and add the cinnamon sticks and garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until meat is tender.
2. Reserve the broth and let the chicken cool. Shred the chicken meat, discarding skin and bone, and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of the broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Beat together the eggs, then add to the broth. Cook the eggs, stirring constantly, until the eggs congeal and look like well-scrambled eggs. Stir in the parsley and some salt and pepper in the last few minutes of cooking. Place egg mixture in a fine mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth and let drain for 20-30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, roughly grind the almonds in a spice grinder or food processor. Toss with the sugar.
5. Preheat oven to 425 F. Using a springform pan, rub the inside lightly with clarified butter. Lay out your phyllo and cover with a towel. Layer 7-8 sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the pan, brushing each with butter, and letting the edges overhang.
6. Sprinkle half the almond mixture over the bottom. Top with all of the shredded chicken. Top with the strained egg mixture, then top with the remaining almonds. Fold the phyllo over, and top with more sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter and tucking the ends down into the pan. Brush top with butter and pour some of the remaining butter over the bisteeya.
7. Bake for 20 minutes at 425, until top is golden. Reduce temperature to 350 and bake another 10-15 minutes, until pie is golden brown. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

19 August 2010



My mother used to make a version of moussaka out of Craig Claiborne's "New York Times International Cookbook," a book she loved dearly. It was a towering affair, filled with lamb and eggplant and tomatoes and topped with a thick bechamel sauce. When my mother made it, it always came out looking a bit like the tower of Pisa, and you wondered which slice would finally send the concoction sliding off, meat in one direction, eggplant in another.

Years later, I discovered that there was a Lebanese version of moussaka, also with eggplant, but very different in composition. Here moussaka, from مسقعة‎ or "chilled," is a simple vegetarian stew of eggplant, tomatoes and chickpeas. Despite the name, it can be served hot or cold, and falls into the category of many Levantine vegetarian dishes often eaten during times of fasting or abstinence, such as Lent.

I can't remember where I learned to make it the way I do, leaving few eggplants whole, and arranging them artfully for presentation, but I like the way it looks. This dish works best if you can find small and slender eggplants.



6 small slender Japenese-style egpplants, or 3 larger eggplants, halved
2 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups diced tomatoes, preferably fresh but canned is okay
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas
olive oil
chopped parsley for serving

1. Peel the eggplants in alternating strips, leaving strips of the black flesh. Trim the tops and bottoms of the eggplants.
2. Choose a large wide skillet, a 9 inch cast iron or ceramic pan is great. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in the skillet. Add the eggplants to the skillet and cook over medium heat until browned in spots, but not cooked through. Work in batches if necessary. Remove to a paper towel to drain.
3. Take 2 of the eggplants (or eggplant halves) and dice.
4. Add more olive oil to the skillet, there should be about a 1/4 cup of olive oil to the skillet. Add the onion and garlic and saute until softened. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and let cook down for about 10 minutes.
5. Stir in the chickpeas and the diced eggplant. Nestle the 4 whole eggplants in the skillet and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 25 minutes, flipping the eggplants once halfway through.
6. Test the eggplants for doneness, and add more water if the tomatoes get dry. The dish is done when the eggplant is tender. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

09 August 2010



I realized that despite a few lengthy entrees on kibbeh, I had never actually posted a recipe for the classic kibbeh, the Lebanese dumpling made with a meat shell and meat filling. I've only talked about kibbeh a few times here, and because it's so ubiquitous and common to me, I forget that it may not be to everyone else. A true Levantine food blog would probably have at least 10 variations on the meat kind of kibbeh alone. Shame on me, I headed straight to the store to get some lamb and remedy the situation.

Kibbeh is a bit tedious to make, but it usually makes a lot, and they keep and freeze pretty well, and they are very satiating. Essentially, you make a dough out of ground meat, bulgur, and seasonings. This dough is made by processing the meat to very smooth paste, a sort of sticky blob. For those used to the delicate patting-together of hamburgers, this is the exact opposite technique. By grinding up the meat you change to texture of its proteins, helping it adhere together better. This is the same principle as making ground meat kebabs, and how you get them to actually stay wrapped around the skewer.


The kibbeh filling is simply sauteed ground meat, onions, spices, and pine nuts. This kind of kibbeh is almost requisite on any mezzeh table, where people will often dip their kibbeh into a bit of hummus. But kibbeh is also a staple at home, where the fried kibbeh balls can be added to a sauce, such as a warm yogurt sauce, a lemony-tahini sauce, or a sauce of swiss chard and tomatoes, and then served over rice. Yes, it's labor intensive, but it wouldn't be Levantine if it wasn't.


If you have Middle Eastern grocery nearby, you want the finest grade bulgur. I could only find larger bulgur at my local store, but it's just as good, only leaves a slightly more rustic texture. Make sure to work with damp hands to prevent the mixture from sticking. This same kibbeh recipe can be made in a tray (place half the shell on the bottom, filling in the middle, then top with the remaining shell and bake).

1 lb ground beef, lamb, or veal, preferably twice-ground by your butcher
1 cup fine grade bulgur
1/2 an onion, diced
1 teaspoon seven-spice mix*
1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pat of butter
1/2 lb ground lamb
1 onion diced
pinch seven-spice mix plus salt to taste
1/2 cup pinenuts

For the shell:
1. Place the bulgur in a bowl and pour boiling water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes, until bulgur is softened, then drain any excess water.
2. Place meat in a food processor and process until finely ground, and a somewhat sticky consistency. Add the remaining ingredients (bulgur, onion, seasonings) and process to a smooth paste. Refrigerate for a couple hours.

For the filling:
3. Fry the onion and spices in some butter until the onion is pale golden and caramelized. Add in the lamb and fry until cooked through. Add the pine nuts in the last few minutes just to toast. Set filing aside to cool.

4. Get a bowl of water and a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap. Having the shell and filling ready. Moisten your hands with the water. Take a spoonful of the shell mixture in your hand and press your thumb into the middle to make a cavity. Work the shell around your thumb to make it as thin as possible. Add a small spoonful of filling to the cavity and pinch closed, making a sort of smooth football shape. Continue making kibbeh balls, keeping your hands moist to prevent to meat from sticking.

5. Heat a large pot of oil to 350 F. Add the kibbeh, 3-4 at a time depending on the size of your pot, and fry until crisply browned. Drain on a paper towel. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* Seven Spice Mix: a mixture of black and white pepper, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and coriander.