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.

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.

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.

Lebanese Baklawa

 

 All of the Baklawa (or Baklava) versions are made with filo, a nut filling and a sweet syrup. However, what makes Lebanese Baklawa different than Greek or Turkish ones and – in my biased opinion 🙂 – better, are a few details. There should be no spice in the nut filling. No cinnamon, no cloves, no mace or nutmeg. The filling is just nuts, a little sugar and a pinch of salt. That’s all. Spices just distract from the flavor of the roasted nuts.

Lebanese Baklawa also does not have honey. No honey at all. Honey syrup makes it heavy and a bit cloying and again imparts its own flavor. This Baklawa is soaked in a syrup made from water, sugar and a couple of aromatic extracts namely rose water and orange blossom water. The first one is distilled from a specific kind of rose that is usually pink, not much to look at but so fragrant. The second one is distilled from the blossoms (flowers) of orange, preferably bitter (Seville) oranges.

Last but not least, there are only two layers of filo in a Baklawa. This is not a club sandwich. The construction should look like this: filo+nuts+filo. I’ve seen many versions that are more like filo+nuts+filo+nuts+filo. Not so good.

So, here it is. My favorite simple Baklawa recipe. This one is based on the recipe from Sonia Uvezian’s book Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen

 

Baklawa

  • 2 Cups chopped toasted walnuts
  • 0.5 to 1 Cup chopped toasted almonds
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 lb filo pastry
  • 1 Cup clarified butter

Syrup

  • 2 Cups sugar
  • 1 Cup water
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp rose water
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water 

Mix the nuts with the sugar and salt set aside. 

Generously brush a 9 by 13 inch baking dish with some of the butter. Lay half the filo sheets in the pan brushing each one with clarified butter as you put it in the pan. Spread the nuts mixture on the filo sheets and lay the rest of the filo on top, again brushing each one with the butter.

Preheat the oven to 350F. With a sharp knife cut the baklawa while in the pan into squares of about 2 inches. Place the pan in the oven and reduce the temperature to 300F. Bake it for about an hour, or until a nice golden color and puffed a little bit.

While the baklawa bakes make the syrup by boiling the water, sugar and lemon juice together for about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the rosewater and orange blossom water. Let it cool slightly (this can be done a few days ahead and kept well covered at room temperature).

When the baklawa is out of the oven, pour on the syrup and allow it to soak through. Let it cool to room temperature and enjoy.



The Best Chicken Burger, Lebanese style

This is my absolute favorite chicken burger recipe. Diana requests it almost every time I ask her what she would like to eat off the grill. I first created this recipe for some ‘Best Burger’ contest. I did not win, but since then this beauty is a winner every time I make it for friends. The origin for the recipe is the Lebanese dish Shish Tawook which is chicken chunks marinated and grilled on skewers. The aioli that goes with the burger is inspired by Hummus bil Tahini better known in the US as ‘Hummus’ dip. I usually also make my own buns but store bought Kaiser buns are perfectly fine.

Some of the marinade prep. 

 

Marinating the chicken. Note how I leave some fat on the meat.

Creamy -and very addictive- Hummus Aioli. Tastes great on the burger and with fries.

Grilling over charcoal is the best way to go.

One side is done, one to go…

Served…

…but I usually eat at least two with lots of homemade fries. These buns are home baked too.

Now, here’s the recipe. Give it a try.

Lebanese Chicken Burger

Burgers:
8-10 Garlic cloves
3 Tbsp Chopped fresh oregano
1 Tbsp Tomato paste
1 Tbsp Yellow mustard
Juice of one lemon
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and Pepper
3 lbs Skinless and Boneless Chicken thighs, trimmed of any sinew or excessive fat (leave some fat in though) and cut into cubes
3 Tbsp plain bread crumbs

Aioli:
½ Cup canned Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas), drained
1 garlic clove, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp ground Cumin
1 Egg
¾ Cup Vegetable or canola oil

To Serve:
10-12 Burger Buns
Green leaf lettuce
Sliced tomatoes
Sliced red Bell pepper
Pickled cucumbers, preferably the garlicky sour middle eastern ones
Homemade French Fries

4 to 24 hours before you want to enjoy these burgers marinate the chicken. Combine all the burgers’ ingredients except for the chicken and crumbs in the bowl of a food processor or a blender and pulverize to a paste. I like to do that with a granite mortar and pestle instead, but a processor works fine. Season the marinade with salt and pepper. Be a bit aggressive since this is the chicken’s seasoning. Place the marinade and the chicken in a bowl or Ziploc bag, mix well and refrigerate till you are ready to use.
When you are ready to make the patties, place the chicken and any marinade stuck to it in a food processor and pulse till the chicken is finely chopped but not creamed. Place the chicken in a bowl and add the crumbs and mix well. Form the mixture into 10 or 12 (depending how much you trimmed the meat) 4 oz patties. Oiling your hands helps with this process. Grill them over charcoal or if all else fails, under the broiler.

The Aioli can be made hours or even a day or two ahead of time. In a blender combine everything except the oil and puree till smooth. With the blender running, drizzle the oil in a VERY THIN stream. The end result should look very much like a slightly grainy mayonnaise. Well, that’s what this is. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, lightly grill the buns, slather generously with the aioli on both sides and add the patty. Top with your favorite garnishes and serve with a side of fries. A small ramekin of extra aioli goes great with the fries too.