Friday, November 23, 2012

Week 45: A Journey to Lebanon

To date, I’ve research and cooked dishes of several countries significantly influenced by the dishes of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Iran, and Palestine).  As I began to research this week of Lebanese cuisine, I found many familiar dishes, and in an effort to give Lebanon a more personal perspective, I turned to my friends Vanessa and Mohammed for a list of their favorite Lebanese dishes.  Mohammed grew up in Lebanon, and he quickly responded with a great roster of dishes, some that were new to me and others familiar.  With his notes, I set out to recreate iconic Lebanese dishes of his childhood.

Monday Night Dinner:  Kibbeh and Mujadarah
kibbeh with tahini
Kibbeh is the first dish Mohammed recommended, and after reading about it online, I understand why.  It is Lebanon’s National Dish, and its traditional preparation requires one to use a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients.  I read that you can hear the sounds of kibbeh being made every morning all over the countryside.  Mohammed noted that I should make the “football-shaped” kibbeh, and when I started researching kibbeh, I understood why he specified that size and shape.  There are several versions of kibbeh ranging from raw to baked like a meatloaf to fried quenelles.  The basic ingredients are the same in all of them:  bulgur wheat, lamb, and onion.  Although some recipes simply call for mixing the ingredients, shaping them, and frying them, I turned to the more authentic tradition of wrapping the bulgur wheat/lamb mixture around a teaspoonful of sautéed lamb and onion.  I served tahini as a dipping sauce with the kibbeh, and they tasted great. 

Mujadarah was a new dish for me, and as a big fan of lentils, I knew I would enjoy it.  Quite simply, the dish is rice and lentils garnished with fried onions.  Because most recipes I found online said that the dish could be eaten hot or cold, I asked Vanessa and Mohammed how it was served most often, and they responded that the dish is actually more often served room temperature or cool.  On Monday night, I served it for dinner hot off the stovetop.  I thought it tasted great that way, but I also enjoyed the leftovers I took to work for Tuesday’s lunch.  I had the cold mujadarah with yogurt, and I enjoyed it just as much as the hot dish from the previous night.  Without a doubt, the fried onions are the star of the show here.

Friday Night Dinner:  Fattoush and Kousa Mahshi Bi Laban
During my week of Palestinian dishes, I fell in love with sumac, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to serve a salad that uses it as a primary source of its flavor.  Considered a peasant salad, fattoush is generally made with assorted in-season fresh greens and vegetables, stale flatbread, and a tangy dressing that features sumac and pomegranate molasses.  For my presentation, I tossed stale pita bread in olive oil and sumac, and then I toasted it in the oven.  For the salad, I tossed together romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, mint, parsley, red radish, bell pepper, and the toasted sumac pita wedges.  Then, I dressed it with a mixture of mashed garlic, sumac, pomegranate molasses, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and olive oil.  It was one of the best salads I’ve ever tasted.  The hubs liked it so much that he suggested I make it more often.  It is a perfect salad to serve as an entrée on a hot summer night.

kousa mahshi bi laban
When Vanessa and Mohammed recommended Kousa Mahshi bi Laban (stuffed squash in yogurt sauce), I knew we had to try it.  The dish actually originated in Syria, but it is commonly found in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Libya.  The squash used in this dish (or marrows as they call them in the Middle East) is not readily available here in the United States, but after reading about it, I determined that our green zucchini squash would be the closest in size, texture, and flavor.  To make the dish, I hollowed out zucchini squash and filled them with a mixture of raw lamb, uncooked rice, onion, garlic, pine nuts, cinnamon, and allspice.  Then, I stewed them in a tomato broth for over an hour.  (I admit that I was nervous about the raw rice cooking through, but it cooked perfectly.)  While the stuffed zucchinis stewed, I made a yogurt sauce seasoned with mint and garlic.  To serve the dish, I covered the bottom of a plate with the yogurt sauce and lay the stuffed zucchinis on top of it.  Unfortunately, my pictures show a dish that looks a little like big stuffed pickles.  They do not reflect the incredible flavors imparted by this dish.  I took one bite and thought, “Oh my goodness. This is amazing.  It’s like moussaka.  Why didn’t I think of this earlier?”  Not surprisingly, a variation of this dish is made with stuffed eggplants, and in retrospect, I recall having read moussaka recipes that incorporate zucchini squash in the dish with eggplant and sometimes as a substitute for eggplant.  To call this dish “deconstructed moussaka” is a bit of a stretch, but it definitely offers an interesting variation on the same theme.  I loved it, and I will definitely make it again.
I am so grateful that Mohammed and Vanessa shared their list of beloved Lebanese dishes for this week’s project, because it motivated me to try interesting variations on ingredients I adore.  These dishes prove that a few simple ingredients can truly come together to create a fantastic composed dish. 

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