Lebanese Food Staples: Burghul

Balila3 

Burgul, burghul or bulgur along with many other variation for how to pronounce it is one of the staples of Lebanese food. It is used very much like rice. So, it can be used to make a pilaf, for a stuffing ingredient, in breads, in salads or dips. Before rice was known in the mountains of Lebanon, burghul was used primarily. Now, rice is certainly ubiquitous almost anywhere you go, but burghul still holds a high place in the Lebanese kitchen and is irreplaceable in many classic preparations like Kibbeh, Mujaddara and Balila.
To make burghul dried wheat kernels are boiled till tender, then allowed to dry in the sun for several days until bone dry. This practice usually takes place towards the end of summer, right after the wheat is harvested and is without question one of my favorite times of year. My grandmother would reserve the huge pot (called Halla in Arabic) in which to cook sacks of wheat as early as possible since usually there are only a few per town and every family needs to reserve a spot for one. She then would make sure a few able men are available (family, friends and neighbors) to haul the boiled wheat to the roof of her house to dry. The smell of the air at that time of year is intoxicating and is one of those fond memories that will always remain with me.

Balila1

The boiled and now dry wheat kernels are taken to the mill and ground into fine, medium or coarse burghul. The coarse grind has grains as big as short grain rice. The fine grind is more like the size of white sugar granules. The medium is in between. Sometimes very fine burghul is also called Sraisira.

Balila2 

Balila with Yogurt 

 Makes about 4 Cups

Almost everyone have heard of Lebanese Kibbeh and recipes for it abound. So, I chose to post about another dish that features bulghur. It’s called Balila (meaning something along the lines of ‘wet’). It’s a delicious dip, side dish for grilled lamb or a light lunch meal with pita bread crisps. It’s better if you prepare this the night before and let it sit in the fridge. Serve it cold.

  • 3/4 Cup medium or coarse burghul
  • 1/2 of an English (Kirby) cucumber or two small pickling cucumbers
  • 3 Green onions
  • 5 or 6 romain lettuce leaves, the light colored ones from the heart are preferable
  • 10-12 mint leaves or more to taste
  • 2.5 Cups whole milk yogurt
  • ¼ Cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish

Place the burghul in a bowl and cover with cold water. Let is soak for at least an hour until soft and chewy.
Peel the cucumber and dice it into 1/8 inch pieces. Alternatively grate it on the coarse side of the cheese grater or Mandolin. Chop the green onions, both white and green portions. Chop the lettuce. Coarsely chop the mint.
Drain the burghul and place in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Season it with salt and pepper. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours for best results. Taste before serving and add more seasonings or olive oil if you need to. Serve it cold garnished with more mint leaves and generous drizzles of good olive oil.

Tabbouli, a Proper One 

Serves 2-3 as a Side dish

Tabbouli, unlike Balila is quiet common outside of Lebanon. I can even buy a sorry version of Tabbouli at my local Target store! Since we are talking about burghul, here is a proper sample of this salad I made recently. And DON’T let anyone convince you that Tabbouli is still Tabbouli without burghul as some claim.

  •  2 Bunches Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 10 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 of a tennis ball sized sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large ripe tomato, or 2 small ones, finely chopped
  • 1/2 Cup fine (small size) burghul
  • Juice of 2 lemons or more
  • 1/2 Cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

30 Minutes to an hour before serving, mix all the ingredients and let it sit in the fridge to mix the flavors and for the burghul to soften a bit.  Taste and adjust the seasoning, lemon juice and oil quantities. The Tabbouli should be on the lemony-tangy side, with the parsley as the dominant ingredient and the burghul should retain some bite. Serve it with some lettuce or cabbage leaves to scoop with, either cold or at room temp.

tabbouli

tabbouli
 

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Underrated Vegetables: The Pretty Radish

radishes 

I really think radishes are one of the most underrated and delicious vegetables (or is it tubers) out there. They are so pretty, taste nice a peppery with a slight sweetness and a little bitterness on the edge there. Like all such veggies (turnips, beets), the whole plant is edible, root leaves and all.

radish salad

Just around this time of year my small patch of garden in the back yard is chuck full of radishes. I had bought a “mixed” package of organic seeds and threw them in there. The result: a garden full of these little jewels each with it’s own shape, size and taste. So, needless to say, I’ve been eating a lot of these, but I am not complaining.

radishes2

What to do with them? I come from a small town in Northern Lebanon where supposedly it was famous for radish growing . So, I love them raw. I crunch the radish itself if I am eating a sandwich or just smear it with some butter and a sprinkle of salt. The leaves are a perfect filling for pita bread wraps, with a drizzle of olive oil and also a sprinkle of salt. I’ve also sauteed the sliced radishes with butter and served them alongside roasts (think roast beef and horseradish sauce…but a lot milder). They turn a very cool pink color once sauteed. A favorite recipe of mine is the salad I provide here. It uses the whole plant and adds no more than olive oil, Meyer lemon juice (also from the backyard BTW), salt and pepper.

radish salad2

Whole Radish Salad

  • 10-12 radishes with tops
  • 5-6 mint leaves, chopped
  • 2 glugs good Extra Virgin Olive oil (~1/4 Cup I guess)
  • Juice from 1/2 Meyer lemon or 1 regular lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste

Slice the radish to bite size pieces or quarter them depending on size. Rip the large leaves or leave them whole if they are small. Toss the radishes and greens with the rest of the ingredients. Enjoy!

Pretty in Pink Pickles

Red Onion Pickle 

Every so often something very simple turns out to be utterly amazing. Like these gorgouse red onion pickles. They are so crunchy, sweet, sour, cold and refreshing I am almost done with the whole jar in one week! The original recipe is from The Zuni Cafe cookbook, but you can find a very good adapted recipe right here. The original recipe asks you to add a star anise pod to the brine, and I suggest you do that. It really adds an extra dimension of flavor to this addictive pickle. My favorite use so far is on cheese sandwiches, but I am looking forward to trying them on a nice thick juicy burger or a good Cochinita Pibil with corn tortillas.

Bistecca All Fiorentina 1-2-3

 

Florentine steak or Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is the holy grail of Tuscan cuisine. Yet, what you get in most run of the mill restaurants is a flimsy 1/2 inch piece of beef with no pedigree or taste. Here is my method for making the best Fiorentina possible, without going to Tuscany and buying the real Chianina beef steak.

Step 1 – Call your butcher and get a nice Prime grade T-bone or Porterhouse steak. It needs to be at least 2 inches thick (enough for 2 people and the one pictured here), but even 3 or 3.5 inches is better (if you have more people to feed). I know this is not cheap, but I only do this once or twice a year and it is so worth it.

Step 2 – Make an herb mixture with 1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage, 1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary and 1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley. Add enough extra virgin olive oil to make a loose paste. Season the steak with kosher salt and let it rest at room temperature for and hour. You do not want this to be cold when you grill it, so let it rest till it warms up.

Step 3 – Light a charcoal grill, rub the steak with the herb mixture and when the grate is very hot grill your steak. It should grill till nice and charred on both sides but still rare inside. About 10 minutes on the first side and another 8 on the second should do (unless you are grilling a cold steak, in that case I cannot help you). Let it rest for ten minutes, carve, drizzle with good olive oil and serve with sauteed garlicky spinach dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

 

Note: In this recipe, the olive oil added at the end and mixed with the spinach is very important. So, get the best you can afford Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Real Men Don’t Eat quiche, they eat Quiche!

quiche1

“Real men don’t eat quiche”! Yeah, right, not when it is my quiche or should I say the Bouchon quiche. I really do not know where that reputation came from. Probably from the tiny dainty pieces of puff pastry painted with a substance that might’ve been egg at some point and frozen in boxes that you can pick up at Sam’s or Costco. Yes, these poor little imitations still pop up at an “eh-derve” party here and there, but these are not quiche!

Neither are those ½ inch thin tarts that are sold and made by many. You need 2 of those tarts, yes tarts not quiche, to get full. Is that possibly why “real men do not eat quiche”? Do they not meet the criteria of filling, delicious and rich that any man looks for in a meal? If you believe those Hungry-Man commercials, they don’t.

Well, I doubt anyone can make this argument against the quiche from the Bouchon book. This is a real quiche, 2 inches thick and chuck full of eggs, cream, milk, meats and other goodies…oh yes and cheese. Take that Hungry-Man!

quiche2

quiche3 

Bacon-Mushroom Quiche

Yields: 8 generous slices
I’ve made the Bouchon recipe numerous times and the first few times were bad experiences. This thick quiche will leak if not properly made, and in all honesty it is one of the most challenging cooking experiences I’ve had. A small crack can turn into a much bigger one once the custard is poured in and disaster ensues. When you get the hang of it though, this is one glorious piece of pastry, delicious and impressive. I have not had a leaky quiche in quiet sometime. Remember, work fast, keep the dough rolled thick, and fill when still hot/warm.

Here is my adaptation of the Bouchon recipe. My custard has more eggs and less dairy because I like the more curdy texture rather than creamy. I also love this bacon mushroom filling, but feel free to improvise.

Pastry
12 ounces All Purpose Flour (about 3 cups, but if you have a scale, please weigh it)
2 Sticks butter, chilled and diced
1 Tbsp salt
¼ Cup ice water

Custard and Fillings
6 thick slices of bacon, cut into ¼ strips across
1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
1 shallot diced
1 onion, diced
1 Tbsp butter
7 large eggs
3 Cups milk
½ Cup heavy cream
2 tsp Kosher salt
2 tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1 Cup grated cheese (Swiss, Gruyere, mozzarella or smoked mozzarella)

Special Equipment
8 X 2  inch cake ring (Available for less than $10 at a cake supply store or Sur La Table)

Make the pastry: in a food processor, combine one third of the flour with the salt and pulse a couple of times. Add the butter in increments until all of it is incorporated ending up with a paste. Add the rest of the flour and the ice water and pulse until you have a nice smooth dough. Form the dough into an 8 inch disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about an hour or up to 48 hours. This can also be frozen. Make sure the dough is pliable before rolling though.
Lightly oil the inside of the cake ring, place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat. Roll the dough into a ¼ inch thick round. It should be large enough to line the ring and have about a ½ inch overhang. But DO NOT roll it too much thinner than ¼ inch. Roll the pastry on a rolling pin and lay it in the ring gently, do not pull and tug on it as you let it rest in all corners. Fold any overhang on the outside of the ring, it will help keep it in place. Save any extra dough, you might need it.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes till it sets.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Line the unbaked crust with an oiled parchment paper and fill with pie weights or beans (I use beans). Bake for about 30-40 minutes till the edges are brown. Gently remove the beans and the parchment, patch up any small cracks with the reserved dough and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or until the inside and bottom are lightly browned. Make the filling while this crust blind bakes.

Make the Filling: Saute the bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat till the fat is rendered and the meat is lightly crisped. Remove to a plate and sauté the mushrooms in the bacon fat, till lightly browned. Add the shallots and onions and cook everything till the mushrooms exude all their liquid and the onions are soft. Whisk in the butter and cook for another minute. Add the bacon to the pan and if needed add a little salt. You will also be seasoning the custard so don’t add too much.
Heat the milk and cream till a skin forms on the surface but do not boil them. Remove from heat. Crack the eggs in a large bowl, add the salt, pepper, nutmeg and whisk till smooth. Slowly add the milk mixture and keep on whisking till everything is combined.

Assemble the quiche: Do this when the pastry and custard are still hot/warm, do not let them cool down. This will help the filling cook and set faster rather than get the pastry soggy and leaky. Make sure the shell has no small cracks, pay particular attention to the corners. If it, does patch them with pieces of reserved dough. Leaving the shell on the baking sheet, place half the bacon-mushroom mixture in the bottom, top it of with a third of the cheese, and gently pour in half the custard. Repeat with the remaining filling, half of the remaining cheese, and the rest of the custard. You might want to place this in the oven then adding the last cup or so of custard to avoid spilling during transfer since it will be filled to the brim. Top with the rest of the cheese. Bake for about 70 – 90 minutes, until it is set and nicely browned on top.
Cool to room temperature and then chill overnight. When ready to serve, the quiche should be set and can be handled easily. Simply use a knife to cut the extra overhang and slide the quiche out of the ring. Slice and heat the slices on a baking sheet in a 375F oven till heated through. Enjoy.

Timpano al Antica

Have you seen Big Night? No! Well you need to. When thinking about a film that deals with food, very few movies come close to this one. It is a classic. Film is not the subject of this post however, it is the Timpano. That awe- inspiring masterpiece of pastry, pasta and sauces that Primo serves during the big night dinner at the end of the film.

Timpano has always fascinated me since I first saw the film a few years ago, but like so many things it had to wait and I never managed to get around to making it. Now, finally, due to cooking from Campania in September in eGullet’s Italy and Italian Cuisine forum, I did try a version of this dish. Click here to see my comments, negatives and positives. We are already planning our own tribute to Big Night with a few colleagues at work, and a new and improved Timpano will certainly be featured.

Basque Style Halibut with Clams in Salsa Verde – “Merluza” con Almejas en Salsa Verde

Merluzza en salsa verde is a traditional Spanish dish from the Basque region it consists of thick chunks of a fish called Merluzza, Hake in English, gently seared and simmered in a mixture of olive oil (lots of it), garlic (lots of that too) and parsley (yeap, also a healthy dose). It is also traditional to add some clams into the mix towards the end. The clams open up and release more of their aromatic liquor into the cazuela

Speaking of a cooking vessel for this dish, a Spanish cazuela is traditional. The one I have is actually made in Portugal and bought at Sur La Table. It is basically a clay deep dish not too different from a Terracotta dish. The dish is glazed on the inside only and cooks the fish evenly and gently so the firm white flesh flakes but is still very juicy and luscious. My dish looks very similar to this one in shape and size (about 12 inches wide and 3 inches deep)

Cazuela

The recipe I used comes from Anya Von Bremzen’s fantastic “The New Spanish Table”. I fell in love with Spanish culture and it’s food after a short visit to Barcelona-Roses in 2005 to dine at elbulli, and this book with it’s lovely pictures, fantastic collection of recipes and very well written prose is a gem that always takes me back to the week we spent in Catalonia.

In my recipe I used the much easier to find and equally good Halibut. Also the day I shopped for it, the Halibut was so pearly white and fresh, it would have been a crime to pass it and use anything else. However, any firm fleshed white fish fillet, preferably on the thick side (at least 0.5 inch/1.5cm thick) should work.

Merluzza con Almejas en Salsa Verde

(adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya Von Bremzen)

  • 4 6-8 oz white fish fillets, at least ½ inch thick, 1 inch is even better                (Halibut, cod, hake or mahi mahi are good options)

  • 1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 Tbsp Flour, plus extra for dusting the fish

  • 6 Garlic cloves, minced

  • ½ Cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

  • 1/4 Cup white wine or vermouth

  • 1 Cup fish stock, chicken stock or water

  • 12 -14 manila clams, in their shell

  • 1/2 Cup frozen green peas, thawed

 

– Pour the olive oil into the cazuela or pot and start heating it gently.

– Season the fish with salt and pepper, dust with a little flour.

– When the oil is hot, pan fry the fish for about five minutes on each side or till golden brown.  Remove the fish to a plate and keep warm.

– Add the garlic and most of the parsley to the cazuela (reserve about 2 Tbsp of parsley for later). Cook till nice and fragrant, but not brown, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook for about a minute, make sure there are no lumps. Now add the wine and stock and bring everything to a gentle simmer.

– Place the fish and any of their juices back in the cazuela, roll them around to get them coated with the juices. Add the clams and peas and cover the cazuela and let everything simmer till the fish flakes and the clams are open. Remove from heat sprinkle with the reserved parsley and serve with bread or any simple potato dish to soak up the lovely juices.