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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Hummus bil Tahini – Creamy Chickpea, Lemon and Sesame Paste Dip

Hummus6 Having grown up eating chickpeas (hummus in Arabic) mashed with garlic, lemon juice and the all-important sesame paste (Tahini or Tahina) on a regular basis it was really interesting seeing how this dip took off in the last 10 years or so. It’s everywhere now, on every other restaurant/pub/diner/health food restaurant’s menu. This is both a blessing and a curse. When done well it is so damn delicious and satisfying. More often than not it is garbage. Sold in tubs at the store or from that crappy brand ubiquitous in every grocery store (I’m talking about Sabra) it’s a sad imitation of what it should really taste like.

At best you find it to be edible and at worst it is a crusted over, chalky paste of little flavor besides the citric acid that manufacturers dose it with instead of real lemon juice.
What’s worse (ok, maybe not worse, but still irks me) is how the name became synonymous with almost ANY dip that is not guacamole or sour cream-onion! We have everything from beets to black beans to lentils to peas and even chocolate going into the food processor and emerging as “hummus”. Seriously? What if we go ahead and blend some cauliflower with cilantro and call it “cauliflower guacamole”? Again, the word Hummus does not mean “shitty dip”. It literally means chickpeas. So if your dip -as delicious or crappy it might be- does not have chickpeas it is not hummus.

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Now really, what is more annoying is that people go and buy the mediocre to horrible product instead of making it themselves at home. It is probably one of the most simple, easiest fool-proof things you can prepare at home and can be done in 10 minutes if you use canned chickpeas. It is also light years better than anything you can buy. I love my recipe below so start with that. However, some people might like more or less lemon juice. More garlic? Add it and see. My brother includes no garlic (crazy I say). Hate cumin? Get rid of it. The constants have to be the chickpeas, lemon juice and good tahini.

 Tahini used to be a bit trickier to find and you had to go to a middle eastern grocery store for it. Now though, I see it everywhere, from my local grocery chain here in Texas to Whole Foods. I like a Lebanese brand called “Al-Wadi” that I buy locally in Houston. See what brands you can find locally or just get it online. Make sure it only contains sesame in it and it is not made from toasted sesame. The toasted sesame ones will give it a much stronger and overpowering taste. Either way stir the paste in the jar really good before using it because it does settle and separate.

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Other than chips, pita chips, celery sticks…what can you serve this lovely creamy dip with? A traditional way is alongside grilled kebabs, especially Kafta kebabs. I’ll be posting a recipe for that soon as well. Feel free to add toppings to it and make a meal out of it. A traditional topping is minced lamb, onions and pine nuts browned in plenty of butter and drizzled on top while still sizzling.

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Hummus bil Tahini

  • 1 can chickpeas, 29 – 30 oz.
  • 150 gr Tahini
  • 1 large garlic clove, about 6 gr, minced.
  • 1 tsp Cumin
  • ¼ Cup water
  • ½ Cup lemon juice, or more
  • Salt to taste
    Blend in in a food processor till very very smooth and creamy. Just when you think it is smooth enough, scrape the sides and process it some more. Total time of processing should be around 8 minutes. Taste and season with salt and more lemon juice if needed. Serve it drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with hot or sweet paprika.

Mung Beans with Burghul (Burghul M’ash)

Burghul-Mung Bean2Until my mom visited recently and made this dish I had only used mung beans in a couple of simple soups and southeast Asian desserts. I never really thought of the mung beans with their Arabic name, M’ash. The traditional Lebanese way to use it is to cook it with lots of browned onions and cut it with coarse cracked wheat, aka burghul. It’s a delicious, simple and nutritious vegetarian dish.

Mung Beans

The method for this dish is very typical of many such Lebanese recipes. The grains or pulses are simmered (based on their various cooking times) until 2/3 of the way cooked. Then a mixture of flavorings are added while everything melds and finishes cooking.

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To serve it you have many options such as a tangy crunchy green salad, a mixture of sliced vegetables (cucumbers, radishes, sour pickles,…) or maybe some yogurt. I had a mixture of cauliflower on hand from a local farm. I roasted the purple and orange cauliflower at a pretty high heat and tossed them along with some of their blanched greens with a dressing made from oil, vinegar and a touch of honey along with toasted pine nuts. I also served it with a dollop of salted yogurt garnished with hot ground chile pepper.

Burghul-Mung Bean

Mung Beans with Burghul

  • 1 Cup (200 gr) Mung Beans
  • 1/4 Cup or more olive oil
  • 1 Large (about 350 gr) Onion, chopped
  • ¾ Cup (110 gr) Coarse burghul

Boil the mung beans in enough water to cover by about 2 inches or more. Quickly skim the skins and scum that float to the surface as they boil.

Meanwhile, saute the onion in a good dose of olive oil until dark golden, about 20-30 minutes. Add to mung beans as they cook. Let the mixture simmer for another 15 minutes or until the mung beans are tender.

Add burghul when the beans are still very wet but not covered with a lot of water. Let simmer for 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper and turn off the heat. Cover and let sit for another 15 minutes.

Mom’s Cooking

Stuffed Chard

It’s been longer than I normally would like to wait before posting a food related item here. However, I do have an excuse. My mom was visiting from Lebanon. We were busy, had a good time and really enjoyed some fantastic Lebanese cooking from her. I do have a couple of posts that I will be putting up soon but wanted to put up this blurb to highlight some of her food.

Atayif

My mom enjoys her time in the kitchen. That’s very good for us as we enjoyed some of the dishes that I rarely make or if I do make them they never seem to come out as good as hers.

In an attempt to recreate some of them, I actually sat with her and took some notes about the recipes including her kibbeh with yogurt sauce, mujadarra, stuffed chard leaves (siliq) and even her very simple but damn delicious braised green beans with onions.

Fatayir Jibn (cheese pies)

Fatayir

Kibbeh done in three variations, fried, baked and simmered in yogurt (after frying)

kibbeh-3 ways

Siyadiyeh, the name vaguely translates as “fishermen’s fish”. This one has fried and flaked fish, spiced rice cooked in fish stock and the dish is topped with fried nuts and served with tahini sauce.

Siyadiyah

She also ventured into the sweet side of things and prepared a couple of her specialties. She made the Atayif (yeast-risen pancakes stuffed with cream) and the decadent Chocolate Cake with Whiskey.

chocolate whiskey cake

Kibbeh Nayeh – Raw minced Beef and Burghul with Spices and Herbs

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Almost more than any other Lebanese dish, I crave Kibbeh Nayeh the most and immediately request that my mom or grandmother make a plate of this iconic dish as soon as I am back home visiting. Growing up this was our typical Sunday lunch. Back then I honestly did not appreciate it as much and would’ve happily wolfed down a plate of pizza or some fried chicken instead. Not now though. Now, I love a properly made raw kibbeh.KibbehNayeh

It really is about the proper ratio of fine, not coarse, burghul (cracked wheat) to meat. Too much burghul makes it too dense and crumbly (even if my grandmother likes it exactly like that). Too little burghul and it’s too much like beef tartar with the wrong texture. It should be served served drizzled with good extra virgin olive oil alongside fresh mint, raw sweet onions and radishes. It is traditionally made with lamb or, in the case of my family, with lean goat meat. Normally though I use lean beef or a mixture of beef and lamb.

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Since this is raw meat it is good to keep in mind some safety considerations. Buy the meat whole NOT ground. Eating raw ground meat from a grocery store (even a high end pricey all natural one) is a bad idea. In beef any harmful pathogens usually are on the surface of the meat. Grinding a bunch of meat together at a grocery store or packing plant ensures that any nasties are mixed in through the meat. So, buy a whole piece of lean beef/lamb and rinse it well. This also removes anything that might be on the surface. Lastly, I like to freeze the meat for a couple of days at least before partially thawing and grinding. Freezing also helps in eliminating anything that might be on the meat. That being said, this is raw meat you are eating. I’ve never had an issue and I’ve been eating similar foods since the age of 10, but you never know.

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Since my meat grinder was in storage at the time I used the food processor. It worked really well as long as I pulsed the mixture instead of letting it spin. The recipe I tried out this time is a bit non-traditional in that it incorporates some herbs in the meat mix as opposed to just meat, burghul, onions and some spices. The recipe comes from the Australian-Lebanese team of Greg and Lucy Malouf’s book MALOUF: New Middle Eastern Food. The book, like all of their other efforts, is filled with beautiful modernized and refined renditions of Lebanese and other middle eastern recipes. The Malouf Kibbeh incorporates green chilies, basil, mint and parsley into the meat, burghul and onion mix. It looks lovely with green speckles in it and has a delicious spicy herby flavor.

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The Recipe 

Kibbeh Nayeh with Herbs and Green Chiles

Adapted from MALOUF

  • 75 gr. Fine burghul (#1)
  • 90 gr. Onion, chopped
  • 1 Green chile, seeded and chopped
  • 1/3 Cup chopped basil
  • 1/3 Cup chopped mint
  • 1/3 Cup chopped parsley
  • 300 gr. beef, lamb or a mixture, very lean
  • 1 Tbsp. (or more) Lebanese spice mix – A combination of cumin, black pepper, dried marjoram, dried rose buds, a bit of cinnamon and allspice (or you can use just some black pepper, chili powder and cumin to taste)

Soak the burghul in cold water to cover for about 10 minutes. Drain well and squeeze as dry as possible.

Grind the onion, chile and herbs through using the fine die on the meat grinder (or use a food processor). Cut the meat into thin strips and mix with the spices and onion mixture. Grind the meat mixture twice to get a smooth paste (or if using a food processor, you would have to pulse it until smooth).

In a bowl, mix the meat and burghul with some salt and a couple of ice cubes. Use your hands to mix everything well until the ice melts. Taste and adjust salt or spice to your liking.

Spread the Kibbeh in a thin layer on a plate. Make dimples or ridges in it with a spoon or fork and drizzle with good olive oil. Serve it cold with fresh radishes, chilies, fresh mint leaves, raw sweet onions and pita bread.

Short Rib, Chard Ribs, Eggplant, Yogurt

It might not look like it, but this dish’s inspiration and flavor is Lebanese. I love swiss chard ribs, those central stalks in each  leaf that usually get thrown away. My mom always quickly boils them and tosses them with tahini, garlic and lemon juice. I was eating some of those recently and wanted to make them part of a more substantial plate. Lamb came  to mind first, but Diana is not crazy about lamb. So, beef was my other option and short beef ribs seemed like they would work best with the chard ribs. The eggplant and yogurt made sense as natural companions flavor and theme-wise.

The beef ribs were cooked sous vide for 72 hours. They were tender but not mushy or falling apart. Before serving them, I browned them in some heavily seasoned clarified butter. In Lebanese cooking Samneh is the name for clarified butter and it is used extensively as both a cooking medium and for flavoring. To season it I used a spice mix that I get from my grandmother every time I am in Lebanon. I usually pick up a good size bag of the mix and store it in the freezer. It’s made form a mixture of whole spices and herbs including allspice, marjoram, anise, rose buds, cinnamon and a few other varieties. Typically, I just grind as much as I need in the spice grinder. I melted the clarified butter and added a couple of large pinches of the ground spice mixture. That warmed and heated up a bit before the fully cooked boneless ribs went in for a nice spiced butter bath. That also helped them get a very attractive dark mahogany color in addition to a spectacular exotic flavor.

I used swiss chard in two forms here, the sauced whole ribs and a ragout made from the ribs and leaves. I was hoping to retain the nice red color that red swiss chard ribs have so instead of boiling them as is typical, I cooked them sous vide in a pouch with herbs, garlic and a little olive oil. Unfortunately, it seems that the red color is not just water-soluble, but also not very heat-stable. The ribs ended up losing most of that color when cooked. I selected most of the nice looking ribs and left them whole, the rest got diced up to use in the ragout. The whole ribs were dressed with a walnut-tahini sauce. The sauce is just an update of the classic tahini+garlic+lemon juice+cumin with the addition of finely chopped walnuts. It worked very well with every component on the plate.

For the ragout of chard, I diced the rest of the cooked ribs and chopped the blanched leaves. I then cooked these with plenty of shallots and chopped walnuts in clarified butter. I tossed in a few sliced dried apricot and seasoned the mixture with black pepper and pomegranate molasses. It ended up delicious, with a good peppery kick, sweet-tart flavor and a touch of bitterness. This combination went great with the rich beef ribs.

The eggplant is based on a traditional Lebanese eggplant puree called mtabal. Typically, like it’s close cousin Babba Ghanouj, is made from eggplant that is cooked over charcoal in its skin until that turns black and charred. It is then peeled and pureed with flavorings that include garlic, lemon juice, cumin and in the case of Babba Ghanouj tahini sauce. I wanted something a bit more refined for this so I opted to cook the eggplant (I used the slender Japanese type)  sous vide along with olive oil, grated ginger, salt, Aleppo pepper and a little water. When completely soft, I pureed the  eggplant and it’s cooking liquid with a bunch of blanched cilantro and a small handful of blanched parsley. Last minute adjustments included the addition of some Meyer lemon olive oil, smoked paprika and lemon juice.

The yogurt dumplings are a variation on the yogurt spheres that I posted about here a while back made using an Alginate bath. In this case, instead of loosening the Labneh (Greek-style strained yogurt) too much, I left it fairly thick and seasoned it lightly with salt. Due to the thick consistency, the yogurt does not form perfect loose spheres, instead it makes nice slightly misshapen dollops when the skin forms around it. When plated the yogurt looks a lot like a dumpling and gently oozes a thick sauce when the skin is pierced. It was a very cool use for the of the spherification process and worked great in taste, texture and look.

About two or three weeks before this dinner I dehydrated red bell peppers and tomatoes. I knew I would be using them for something and this seemed fitting. To do that, I thinly sliced the fruit on a mandolin and laid them on parchment covered baking sheets. I seasoned them with a touch of salt and ground coriander seeds. they dried in a very low oven (around 165F) for about 12 hours until they turned crispy. They looked very neat and had a delicious concentrated flavor. Stored in an air-tight container with a disicator  packet they came out perfectly crisp still and probably would’ve lasted a few more weeks.

To plate the dish, I spread some of the eggplant puree on the rectangular plates with the spiced short rib on one end along with some of the sauced chard ribs. I used the chard ragout as a base for the short ribs and placed a couple of yogurt dumplings on top of the eggplant puree. These were seasoned with a bit of the spice mix and a few strands of saffron. Some of the tahini-walnut sauce also went on the eggplant in the form of small dollops from a squeeze bottle and on the short rib to act as anchor for a little garnish of cilantro leaf and scallion rings. The last garnish was a couple of “rings” of the dehydrated red bell pepper and tomato.

Meghli – Lebanese Spice Pudding

I just recently became an uncle. My brother and his wife welcomed their first baby into the family. Problem is all that has happened several thousand miles away, in Lebanon. It is customary to buy a ton of candies and sweets to offer the visitors and well-wishers when a baby is born. It’s also customary to make “Meghli”, a pudding made from rice flour, sugar and spices. The word meghli means boiled. Not sure why this particular pudding got the name as opposed to a myriad of other similar ones that are also “boiled”. In any case, it is a delicious taste of childhood for me and just because I am not in Beirut with them it does not mean I cannot make me some Meghli and enjoy it.
So, I called mom and asked her for her recipe. She was nice enough to send it via Facebook in what I call “Anglish”, Arabic but using English letters. It cracks me up how good she is at it.

At the end of the post is my proper adaptation for it. It is very simple. A mixture of sugar, water, rice flour, caraway, cinnamon and anise is boiled till thick. It is allowed to set in the fridge. Then it is served topped with a good helping of raw nuts and coconut shreds. The nuts have to be soaked for several hours in water so they get a nice fresh crunch that goes so well with the soft spiced pudding. I’ve tried it with toasted nuts before and for some reason I do not think it works or taste right. It just lacks a refreshing component somehow.

Meghli

Pudding:

1000 gr water
175 gr sugar
75 gr rice flour
¾ tsp caraway seeds, toasted and ground
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
¾ tsp fennel or anise seeds, , toasted and ground
¼ tsp salt

Toppings:

A few handfuls of raw Pistachios, Peeled almonds and Walnuts
A handful of shredded unsweetened dried or fresh coconut

  • Combine all the ingredients for the pudding and bring them to a simmer. Stir the mixture until it thickens. Divide the pudding into small cups or ramekins and chill it.
  • Now is the time to soak the nuts in water and keep them refrigerated until ready to serve. To serve it,  just drain a handful or so of nuts and top the pudding with it. Sprinkle with coconut and enjoy.