Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday meze

The first time I tried kibbeh was at a celebratory dinner at a Palestinian restaurant in Paterson, New Jersey. My clients, a couple who had just successfully fought deportation, wanted to take me out, and they ordered a feast. There were six of us, the two of them, their three young children, and me, but we still couldn't finish the enormous platter of grilled meats with rice, yogurt cheese, and hummus. We did, however, manage to eat all of the kibbeh, those delicious little fried footballs of bulgur and lamb. I think I will always associate my love of kibbeh, the crisp, crackly outer shell contrasting with the soft, spiced meat and pine nuts inside, with this family and their generosity and love.

At the end of the meal, the father inexplicably stopped at a big grocery store, told us he'd be really quick, and came back bearing an economy-size carton of yogurt. It was the biggest carton of yogurt I had ever seen. He wanted me to have it, so I could make my own labneh, or yogurt cheese. He was very serious as he instructed me to line a strainer with paper towels and let the yogurt just sit in the colander overnight. And he was right, it really is as easy as that, and with a little olive oil and salt, it becomes so much more than yogurt.

I've been obsessing about Mediterranean food all year. Clifford Wright's massive tome, "A Mediterranean Feast" has been sitting next to my bed for the past two months. Every other night or so, I read a couple more pages and fall asleep hungry. It's fascinating to see how history and religion have intersected with food culture all around the Mediterranean, the foods that Spain absorbed from the Arab world, what the Ottomans brought to Turkey, how taken medieval Italy was with those exotic spices of the Middle East. There's something not quite satisfying about this book, perhaps because all the nuggets of information and all the recipes feel somewhat disjointed, but I definitely can't complain about lack of information.

And as I've previously noted, I've been cooking a lot from Paula Wolfert's cookbooks all winter. More recently, the cookbook of the month all April on the Chowhound Home Cooking board has been Claudia Roden's "Arabesque," which gave me a great excuse to check out "Arabesque" and her earlier book, "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" from the Brooklyn Public Library. (Incidentally, the Brooklyn library has an impressive cookbook collection. I'd almost rather keep it a secret, so they're all always available for me.)

As much as I love kibbeh, it seemed intimidatingly difficult. Paula Wolfert's list of 50 varieties of kibbeh in "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," and even her detailed instructions on how to form those tasty footballs scared me. I felt like I needed a Lebanese grandmother. So when Claudia Roden provided an easy one-layer baked version of kibbeh, it was irresistible. And the recipe, in her classic simple style, is very easy; the food processor does more work than you:

Kibbeh base:
2/3 c. fine-grain bulgur
1 medium onion, cut in quarters
1 lb. lean leg of lamb
1/2 t. salt
black pepper
1 t. cinnamon
2 T. vegetable oil

1 pound onions, sliced
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/3 c. pine nuts
salt and black pepper
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
pinch of ground allspice
1/2-1 T. pomegranate molasses (optional)

Rinse the bulgur in a fine sieve under cold running water and drain well. Puree the onion in the food processor; add the mealt, salt, pepper, and cinnamon and blend to a paste. Add the bulgur and blend to a smooth, soft paste. With your hand, press the paste into the bottom of an oiled, round, shallow baking dish or tart dish (I used a springform pan), about 11 inches in diameters. Flatten and smooth the top and rub with 2 T. of oil. With a pointed knife, cut into 6 wedges and run the knife around the edges. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

While the base is baking, fry the sliced onions in olive oil until golden brown. Add the pine nuts and stir until lightly colored. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, and pomegranate molasses. Cook, stirring for a minute or two.

Serve the kibbeh with the topping spread over the top.

Unfortunately, this recipe didn't meet my deep desire for homemade kibbeh. The edges didn't get nearly as crispy as those delicious footballs, and I had to admit to myself that a good part of the reason I love the oval kibbeh is that it's fried. It was good, just not great.

The rest of the meze were so straightforward, recipes seem almost unwarranted. I made an orange-olive-onion salad with walnut oil, cumin, paprika, and a little white wine vinegar since I had run out of lemons. I had about 1.5 cups of yogurt I had strained, per my client's instructions, just sitting in my fridge, and I only had to add some cucumbers, crushed garlic, and a bit of mint from my garden to make cacik. I also had maybe 2/3 cup of canned chickpeas that needed to be eaten, and after quick glance at Paula Wolfert's "Slow Cooking of the Mediterranean," I blended them up with some cayenne, olive oil, salt, and tamarind (substituting for lemon juice) to make something that approximated Wolfert's Moroccan hummus.

I loved the loose and easy way all these dishes came together. I had a friend visiting from out of town for the past couple of days who only left at 4 pm on Sunday, but I managed to do two loads of laundry, catch up by phone with a friend in Napa, and have dinner ready by 7 pm, when my friends Mimi and Alex showed up to help prevent me from massive and immediate weight gain.

It was such a beautiful night, we had a picnic on my deck. And we finished with homemade honeydew sorbet, made from half a melon leftover from my weekday breakfasts. I was particularly proud of the sorbet because I just winged it, pureeing the melon, adding a little lemon juice for character, and several tablespoons of sugar.

Final kibbeh words of wisdom from Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean":

"We who have grown up with Kibbeh, and who continuously argue about how it ought to taste, smell, feel, and look, equate the making of it with the indestructability of our will to go on, to live in faith, optimism, and thanks."

- Barbara Thomas Isaac, "Everyday Delights of Lebanese-Syrian Cooking"

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