Kafta – Ground Meat with Onions and Spices

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Kafta is a Lebanese kitchen cornerstone. Like Kibbeh it’s a dish, a recipe and a staple that can be made into various preparations. For minced meat to be Kafta it has to be spiced and flavored with onions and plenty of parsley. I am sure this is not written in stone anywhere and someone else’s Lebanese mom probably makes it a bit differently but this is the version I know and love.

Ideally, I like to grind my own meat. It makes for a better product but of course store-ground meat works fine as well. What type of meat? Beef, lamb, goat or a mix of these is all good. I really like a 50/50 mixture of beef and lamb. I suppose you can use a percentage of chicken in there too but I do not do that.

Kafta

Texture is an important factor here especially if you want to form them around a skewer to grill them. The onions and herbs need to be very fine. I usually grate the onions on the coarse side of a grater and mince the parsley very finely. If I was grinding my own meat I would pass the vegetables along with the meat and kill 2 birds with one stone.

Spices is where the recipes for Kafta mix can start to vary a lot. Some are heavily spiced with lots of allspice, cumin, paprika (hot or not), cinnamon, black pepper….Well again, I like what I am used to and what my family has always made. It leans towards a lighter hand with the spices and letting the main flavors be the meat and the onions. That being said, if I am not cooking for a crowd who is averse to spicy food, I do like a pinch of cayenne in the mix.

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Once the mix is done we have several methods to cook it and dishes to use it in. The first thing to try though, is the grilled Kafta. That is probably by far the most popular method to cook it even in Lebanon. Usually they are formed into long sausage shapes on skewers and grilled over charcoal. This could be just a touch tricky to get the meat evenly on skewers so don’t sweat it. Just make rough sausage shapes about 5 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter. Get a charcoal grill (or if you are in a pinch you can use the oven’s broiler) very hot and grill the Kafta to you preferred doneness. I like to cook them to about medium. That is another reason to grind your own meat. The perfect and traditional companion to Kafta? Hummus bil Tahini. The recipe for awesome Hummus is right here and you really must have it if you make grilled Kafta kebabs. They are a great match. I also like sliced onions tossed in sumac and parsley, grill-roasted (or just raw) tomatoes, various sour pickles, shredded lettuce and soft pita bread. Ideally you smear hummus on the bread, top it with meat and veggies, wrap and tuck in.

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Another favorite is to make baked Kafta casserole. This is the definition of comfort food for me. To make it form the meat mixture into small oblong shapes, maybe 2 inches in length and pan fry them in olive oil for about a minute or two per side. You do not want to cook them all the way through, just get them browned and adding flavor. In a casserole baking dish, lay thickly sliced tomatoes in the bottom and add the browned Kafta. Next add a layer of thinly sliced onions, potatoes and bell peppers. Season with salt and pepper as you go along.

Kafta-Casserole

There are no real measurement or rules here and you might need to repeat the layering depending on the size of the dish and how much filling you have or how much you like onions versus peppers,….I try to at least finish the dish with a layer of tomatoes because I like how they dry up and concentrate their flavor. Mix a cup or two of water with a tablespoon of tomato paste per cup and pour all over the dish. Again, depending on size you might need less or more. You want the liquid to barely come up about 3/4 of the way up the filling and not cover it. Bake in a 375 F oven for about an hour until it is bubbly and brown. This is delicious with a side of white rice.

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Kafta Mix

  • 1000 gr ground beef, lamb or a combination
  • Parsley, 1 bunch, minced
  • 1 onion, about 250 gr, grated
  • 1 tsp Allspice, 3 gr
  • 1 tsp Pepper, 3 gr
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 10 gr Salt

Mix everything very well. For the grilled Kafta, form them into sausage shapes about 5 inches long and no more than an inch in diameter. As you form each one, lay it in an oiled pan. Grill over medium high heat to the desired doneness. Alternatively, these can be broiled.

Serving options:

  • With Hummus, pita bread, pickles and veggies
  • In a tomato, pepper and tomato casserole
  • Form into small meatballs and cook in a rice pilaf
  • Spread thin raw mix on pizza dough with thinly sliced tomatoes and onions and bake for an awesome pie
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Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh – 2017) B

A fun and well made heist movie set in West Virginia and North Carolina. The characters are all mostly interesting, it moves at a fast clip and stays ahead of us most of the time. That’s a good thing. It is a perfect lazy Saturday movie from Amazon Prime.

Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo – 2018) B+

This is a sprawling non-stop action movie that starts the conclusion of the Marvel 10-year -20-movie saga. Needless to say it would be useless to review this as a stand alone movie. It would, especially this one, absolutely make no sense to watch it without the context of the rest of the films. It starts in the middle (or maybe the end) of a battle where Thanos (Josh Brolin doing a great job under all the CGI) and his goons are destroying Thor’s ship (see Thor: Ragnarok) and people. Thanos is trying to get all 6 infinity stones so that he can snap his fingers and destroy half the universe to bring balance to it….well if you do not know what the deal is by now it does not matter. It’s amazing that Marvel got to this point with so many characters that we care about in so many movies. This one moves at a fast pace and ends with quiet a twist that I did not see coming. It was pretty shocking. In a superhero summer blockbuster flick this is a pretty amazing feat.

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola – 2017) C+

I saw it a while back and kind of forgot about it. What i remember is the general ambiance of the film. It’s set in a country house (or maybe school) for girls in the south during the civil war. They seem to keep to themselves and are left alone. The girls are managed by the strong Miss Martha played by Nicole Kidman. They do chores, collect mushrooms, cook, pray and generally keep safe. It’s a delicately balanced, if maybe dull, existence in that time of turmoil. The catalyst for change occurs when one of the younger ladies stumbles on an injured Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) in the woods and brings him to the farmhouse. The film deals with the dynamic disruption to the lives of these ladies. It’s a nicely layered movie that looks great, has a subtle undercurrent of menace and tension throughout and leads to some horrific results.

Night Moves (Arthur Penn – 1975) B+

It’s a convoluted plot and Gene Hackman, in the role of  private detective Harry Moseby, cannot make heads or tails of it. Neither can we most of the time. That’s the point. He is in over his head, thinks he knows what is going on, but really does not. The film feels like it starts in the middle as Moseby takes on a case to locate the missing seventeen year old daughter of an actress who is past her prime. At the same time he finds out his wife is cheating on him. His confrontation of her and then her lover does not quiet go as we would expect. He does not have that under control either. The film is set in Florida and LA, in and around Hollywood sets. It’s about smuggling and murder and the detective who is trying to make his way from one end to the other.

 

 

Equilibrium-Brined Pork Belly

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Brining has been in the culinary home cook’s lexicon for the better part of maybe 15 years now. I first heard about it in a beloved episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” where he brines the Thanksgiving turkey. It sounded so damn cool and science-y. It is a powerful trick that anyone can do and can make the difference between a tough dry pork chop or a juicy succulent one. It’s a cheap and easy process too, all you really need is salt, water and some time.

The basic idea is that soaking a protein in a salt solution will make for a juicier meat and makes it more forgiving should you err on the side of overcooking, especially for a piece of very lean meat like a chicken breast. The benefit of the addition of some sugar or other flavorings is debatable but I usually add some too. I’ve come to learn over the years of different types of “brining” besides dunking the whole piece of meat into a vat of salt and water. There is dry brining, rubbing the salt/flavoring mixture all over the meat without any added water. I like this a lot for whole birds. It does not make for a rubbery flaccid skin like the traditional immersion brining does. The main downside is that it typically takes a longer time (up to 3 days for a whole turkey).

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Another type is injection brining. I started using it after trying the excellent roast chicken from “Modernist Cuisine“. Just like it sounds, the brine is injected using a syringe at various spots in the meat and it diffuses and flavors the whole thing. Flavorings make an excellent addition here. This also preserves the skin of a chicken or turkey and is pretty quick. Injection brining is my preferred method to prep our Thanksgiving turkey.

Now all of these three brining methods share one important drawback. They lack precision. You are dunking, rubbing or injecting and hoping that the brine does its job in the time frame required while also trying not to leave the meat in the brine too long. Leave it too long and you have a salty piece of meat on its way to becoming a ham. The other challenge is that different parts of the meat can have different salt levels due to varying thickness. This is especially true for stuff like chicken or turkey breasts. Enter the precise process of equilibrium brining. It even sounds cool.

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This is a process I learned about also from “Modernist Cuisine” and it is the ideal way to brine meat, especially whole boneless muscles with no risk of oversalting. Just like cooking in a precisely controlled water bath (sous-vide) is a slow gentle and even process that gives you exactly the result you want, equilibrium brining is the slow precise salting of meat. Dunking the meat in a very salty brine (traditional brining) is more like cooking a steak on a hot pan. They work but need a whole lot more care and attention. Even with all the care and attention an unevenly thick protein like poultry breast will be saltier towards the tip than it would in the thick end.

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I use it a lot to prepare chicken breasts, pork chops, pork belly and to make awesome deli-style turkey breasts for sandwiches. You do need a scale for this one (but you should have one anyways!). The idea is to add only the right amount of salt that will season and never over salt the protein. What is that amount? typically a tasty steak of chop does well with about 1.5% salt for my taste. So you want 1.5% salt by weight of the combined meat AND water. It’s as easy as this:

  1. Weigh the meat and the amount of water required to keep it submerged. More often than not I use a freezer Ziploc bag for my brining. For the pork belly here, it weighed 1000 gr and the water weighed another 1000 gr.
  2. Figure out the salt percentage for the combined weight. So, (1000 + 1000) * 1.5% = 30 gr.
  3. dissolve the salt in the water and add any other flavor components you want, sugar, spices, herbs, crushed garlic, citrus zest…If you do add stuff like herbs and such, it’s a good idea (but not essential) to bring the water to a simmer and turn off the heat. Let the flavors infuse and cool COMPLETELY before brining.
  4. Add the meat to the brine and park it in the fridge. Depending on the thickness of the meat this could be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. I typically let it sit for a good 48 hours if it is 2 inches or so thick. The beauty of this process though is that the most salt the meat can ever have in it is 1.5%. It will reach that equilibrium between the water and the content in the meat and stay there. After a few days in the fridge you will still have a perfectly seasoned juicy breast of turkey from its thin tapered end to the thick rounded edge. No risk of over-salting ever.
  5. Take the meat out of the brine, pat dry and cook it. I highly recommend cooking it sous-vide to the right temperature at this point. This is an ideal method to make delicious deli-style turkey for sandwiches.
  6. For the pork belly, I cooked it at 70 C for 24 hours to get a perfect tender meat. Usually with brined meat the juice in the bag is on the salty side. In this case the unctuous rich pork stock in the bag is a delicious side benefit. I save it and use it in all kinds of dishes. It’s a flavor bomb.

I use this type of pork belly in all kinds of dishes like tucking in buns, searing and serving on top of beans or greens or as I did in this case, in a savory bowl of soup. To make the dish doctored up some homemade pork broth with a few Japanese ingredients like mushrooms, green onions and kombu. I seasoned it with soy, mirin and sugar and I pretty much had a nice Shoyu ramen broth.

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To get another texture on the meat I made cross-hatch shallow cuts in it and seared it well on the fat side. At the same time I blanched some greens to go in my soup bowl as well and seasoned them with soy sauce. I wanted noodles because, well, they make any bowl of soup better and my kids love them (who doesn’t really?). I went with hearty and thick udon noodles for this. A quick sprinkle of Togarashi spice in my bowl and this was a lovely dinner that took some “time” to make but very little effort.

pork belly udon

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig – 2017) A

I loved this movie. It follows Lady Bird’s last year of high school and on her way to college. It’s the story of a the young lady (played so well by Saoirse Ronan) who is smart, can be a smart ass but also feels real and grounded. She is not an adult inhabiting the body of a 17 year old. It’s a rocky senior year for her. Her family is having financial trouble, they literally live on the wrong side of the tracks. Her love life is not great and she is not part of the “cool” group at school. She tries to fix all that she percieves wrong while she is trying to get into a college that is too expensive and that she might not be good enough to get in to. This is also a film about her relationship with her mom who is a hard-working nurse. She obviously loves her daughter but their relationship is not always ideal. Then again, what parent perfectly gets along with their teenager kid? Laurie Metcalf plays the mom and delivers an excellent performance of a parent who can be judgmental but loving, wants the best for her daughter but is not willing to give her some credit too. It’s a film that loves its characters and Gerwig really hits it out of the park. Beyond the characters, it is obvious how much Gerwig loves the city of Sacramento where the film is set. We get many shots of the city reminiscent of how Woody Allen films New York is many of his movies.