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Introduction to Lebanese Cuisine

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Introduction To Lebanese Cuisine

Author: Elie Nassar (FoodMan)

Hello and welcome to the class. In the following sections I offer an introduction to Lebanese cooking, especially home cooking. After taking this class and participating in the Q&A, you will hopefully have a better understanding of and more familiarity with Lebanese food beyond Hummus and Tabboulli. The sections below are divided into the following:

Lebanese Pantry

Basics

Pita Bread

Tabikh (Comfort Food)

On the Grill

Kibbeh

Falafel

Dessert

Beverages

One thing to keep in mind while reading the material, is that the Arabic names of the recipes and ingredients are spelled phonetically, so you might see them spelled differently elsewhere. One example that comes to mind is clarified butter which I spell Samen. Others might write it as Smen, Semen, or Samneh.

Lebanese Pantry

The following are the most common Lebanese food items found in almost every home. You certainly do not need to have all of them as this list is meant to give you an idea of the items typically used in Lebanese cooking.

Spices and Herbs: The two major herbs used are Mint (fresh and dried) and Parsley. Parsley is only used in its fresh state, never dried. Spices include Cinnamon, Cumin, Allspice and Coriander. Sumac, with its nice tangy taste and wonderful maroon color, is also a very popular spice. Sumac is used to flavor salads as well as grilled meats and sauces.

Tahini: Tahini is a paste made from toasted sesame seeds. It is used in many dishes and sauces such as Taratoor Bi Tahini and Hummus Bi Tahini. It is also mixed with grape or carob molasses to make a sweet snack with flat pita bread.

Bread: The “bread” here is not your everyday American white or wheat bread— it is flat Pita bread. This is a staple and makes an appearance at almost every meal. No Lebanese home is complete without it!!! Lebanese bread is a round thin flat bread about 10 inches in diameter and it has two sides, a red one and a white one. The two sides can be pulled apart to create a pocket that can be stuffed with all kinds of foods. It is used to make “sandwiches” or wraps. It is also used as a “scoop” for dips, meat, or any food on the table.

Legumes: These include chickpeas, white beans, red beans and lentils (red and brown).

Burghul: Another Lebanese staple, it is basically wheat kernels that are boiled, dried and then ground into small crumbles. The two textures of Burghul I use are the medium grind (for pilafs) and the fine grind (for stuff like Kibbeh).

Rose water (ma warid) and orange blossom water (ma zahir): These are mainly used in desserts. Rose water is extracted from a very fragrant pink rose called wardi el Jooriya. Orange blossom water, as the name indicates, is extracted from orange blossoms.

Plain Yogurt: Needs no introduction and is usually found in all homes. Yogurt is either homemade or store bought. It is used as-is, in cooking, as a sauce base or to make a delicious yogurt cheese called Labneh.

Rice: Mainly white rice.

Fats: Olive oil, butter, Samen which is clarified butter and is used for cooking everything from rice to meats to scrambled eggs. It has a delicious nutty buttery flavor.

Flour: White flour, Semolina.

Basics (fillings, sauces, sides)

Just as in any cuisine, a good knowledge of the basics will enable you to be a more efficient cook. Here are the basic recipes that could be used as bases, sauces, sides or even meals by themselves.

Laban (yogurt)

Yields 2 Quarts Yogurt.

Yogurt is found in all Lebanese homes, large or small, rich or poor. It is one of the cornerstones of Lebanese cooking. Even though decent plain yogurt can be bought, you should try to make your own at least once. It is very satisfying and the sweet taste is just unequaled, especially if you are going to use it to make Labneh.

• 2 Quarts (1.9L) Milk (usually 2% or whole)

• ¼ cup Starter (plain yogurt with active cultures, either store bought or saved from the previous yogurt batch.)

If using frozen yogurt as a starter: Remove it from the freezer and allow to defrost in the fridge for a few hours or put the container in a hot water bath for about one hour (that’s what I do) but NEVER microwave it.

Heat up the milk until almost boiling, then let it cool slightly. I know when it is ready by administering the "index-finger test": The milk is ready if it is cool enough for me to keep my CLEAN finger in it for no more than 10 seconds (it should still be quite hot and not lukewarm).

Pour the milk into a glass container with a lid, stir in the starter and wrap the whole thing with a wool shawl or a thick sweater and leave it overnight (or about 10 hrs) on your kitchen counter. The longer you leave it wrapped, the more the sour taste will develop. I prefer a sweeter tasting yogurt, so 8-10 hours is enough. The yogurt produced is sweet with a slight tang and a soft custard-like texture—absolutely fantastic. Remove a quarter cup of the fresh yogurt to freeze in a small plastic container for use next time as a starter and refrigerate the rest.

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Perfect Homemade Yogurt

Labneh (Yogurt Cheese/Drained Yogurt)

Labneh has always been one of my favorite snacks. Mixed with a little salt and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, it is heavenly. It could be eaten as a dip for pita bread, or as a spread, or mixed in with a myriad of flavorings (garlic, hot chili, mint, olive paste,…) to make an excellent mezze item. Although you can buy Labneh, a couple of the decent brands I used to buy have cream added to make it well…creamier. So, while the taste is great the addition of cream makes it fattier than butter!!!! Make your own, have the real fresh thing and control how much fat you want in your cheese.

• 1 Quart (1L) Yogurt

You can really use as much yogurt as you want provided that you have a colander large enough to accommodate it.

Place a large colander inside a slightly deeper bowl with the colander’s handles resting on the edges of the bowl. The colander’s bottom should be a few inches higher than the bottom of the bowl.

Place three layers of cheesecloth inside the colander.

Put the yogurt in the cheesecloth, cover with a plate or plastic wrap or more cheesecloth then place in the refrigerator overnight.

Check it after 8 to 10 hours:- the Yogurt should be set and it should have the consistency of whipped cream or soft cheese depending on your yogurt and on how long you let it drain. Remove it from the colander, and store in a sealed container in the fridge. Discard the whey that is left in the bowl.

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Fresh Labneh still in the cheesecloth

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Traditional way of serving Labneh: mix in a pinch of salt and drizzle with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Samen (Clarified Butter/Ghee)

Yields about ¾ lb (336g).

Along with olive oil, Samen is the most often used cooking fat in Lebanese cuisine. Samen is nothing but clarified butter, traditionally made from sheep’s milk. In today’s world Samen is made mostly from cow’s milk and could be purchased at major grocery stores as well as middle eastern shops. Butter can be substituted for Samen in most recipes, although one should be careful not to burn the more delicate butter.

• 1lb (450g) unsalted butter

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer, skimming any “scum” off the surface (reserve the “scum” in a small bowl). Let cook for 4-5 minutes without letting the Samen take on too much color. Remove from the heat and let cool for about an hour or until it is barely warm and the milk solids have collected in the bottom. Strain through a fine strainer into a clean jar and store in the fridge. Do not throw the butter sediment (cooked milk solids) away. Remove them from the strainer and add to the reserved butter “scum”. Add salt and you will have what is called Raybit Samen, a tasty treat to spread on bread.

Plain Burghul (cracked wheat) Pilaf

Yields about 2.5 cups

This basic pilaf makes a great side dish to any meal. If you prefer to make it more substantial and have it as a meal, try one of the variations below or create your own, the variations are endless.

• 3 Tbsp olive oil

• ½ cup diced onions

• 1 cup medium grind Burghul

• 1 cup chicken stock (To make it vegetarian use vegetable stock or even water)

Heat the oil in a medium sized pot. Saute the onion until just colored. Add the Burghul and a couple pinches of salt and stir so that the burghul is coated with the oil. Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook on medium low heat for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes check for doneness. By now the bulghur should be soft with a little bite. If not, cover and cook for a couple more minutes. Once you get this texture, turn the heat off, keep covered and let sit for another 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

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Perfectly cooked burghul should not be mushy or clumpy, the grains should be fluffy and light

Burghul Pilaf variations:

- Add some shredded cooked chicken meat at the end and serve with some yogurt.

- Add one ripe diced tomato when adding the Burghul and you have red Burghul with Tomato (burghul bi banadura).

- Make Mujadarra. Double the diced onions and add half a cup of brown lentils when adding the burghul. Garnish with fried onions and serve with tomato salad.

- One of my favorite variations is to add sautéed zucchini and eggplant along with cubed Halumi or Feta cheese to the cooked Burghul. Mix everything real good and eat as is with a drizzle of evoo.

Rice with Vermicelli (Riz Mfalfal)

Yields about 2 cups

When I think of any dish served with rice, this is the rice preparation that comes to mind. I love the flavor of Samen in this rice but butter will work just as well.

• 1 Tbsp Samen

• ¼ cup very fine vermicelli crumbled into ½ inch pieces

• 1 cup white rice

• Salt

• 2 cups water

Heat the Samen in a pan and add the crumbled vermicelli. Cook until it turns light brown in color. Add the rice and salt and cook for two minutes making sure everything is coated with the Samen and the rice is turning a little opaque. Add the water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Let it cook uncovered until the liquid is a little reduced and you can barely see the rice under the water. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low and cook for another 20 minutes or until the rice is tender. Fluff and serve.

Meat Stuffing

Yields about 2.5 Cups

This meat stuffing (or a variation of it) is used as a filling for veggies, pastries and pies. Feel free to personalize it by adding more spices or a dash of cayenne or maybe some fresh herbs.

• Olive Oil

• 1lb (450g) Ground Beef or Lamb

• 1 Medium Onion diced

• 1/3 cup Pine nuts

• 2 Tbsp Pomegranate Molasses (or to taste)

In a pot, heat 2 Tbsp of oil and sauté the pine nuts until lightly colored. Add the onions and cook till soft. Add the beef and cook till browned. Season with salt and pepper and add the pomegranate molasses. Taste and adjust to desired flavor. Let it cool. It is now ready to be used.

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Meat Stuffing

Garlic Sauce

Garlic sauce is normally used with grilled chicken, whether chicken kebabs or chicken pieces (Djaj Mashwi). If you are a garlic-lover, this sauce will go great with anything. When a Lebanese family makes grilled chicken, the garlic sauce is used both as a marinade and as a dipping sauce for the cooked chicken. The sauce that many people in the US are familiar with is the white-mayo-like garlic sauce used in chicken sandwiches or as a dollop on the side of the plate. Indeed this white sauce is the restaurant type garlic sauce and you would be hard-pressed to find it in any Lebanese home. You would however find it in Lebanese restaurants and Shawarma vendors.

Homemade Garlic Sauce:

This is the easiest of the two. Mash up as much garlic as you want, preferably in a mortar and pestle (or you can use a food processor), then mix it in with enough extra virgin olive oil to make a loose paste. Add lemon juice to taste and season with salt.

Restaurant (white) garlic sauce:

For this one you need to use a food processor or a blender.

• ½ cup peeled garlic

• 1 Tbsp Mayonaise (optional)

• ¼ - 1/3 cup Vegetable Oil

• Lemon juice to taste

• Salt

Process the garlic with the mayonnaise, if using (most restaurants use it but I do not like it too much) to a very fine paste. With the motor running slowly, add vegetable oil till you get the desired mayo-like consistency. Add Lemon juice and salt to taste.

Tahine Sauce (Taratoor)

Yields about 1.5 Cups

One of the most frequently used sauces in Lebanese cuisine. It is used for fish, Falafel, Kibbeh, grilled lamb or Kafta, to name a few.

• 1 cup Tahine

• ¼ cup Lemon juice (or more if you like)

• 1 tsp mashed garlic

• 2 tsp ground Cumin

• Salt

Mix all the ingredients together with enough water (about 1/2 cup) to make a nice and creamy (NOT PASTY) mixture. The Tahine sauce might seem as if it is going to turn pasty at first but with enough water it will loosen up.

Variation: A very tasty variation on this is to use half the amount of Tahine and substitute a ½ cup yogurt for it. Finish with some fresh chopped parsley if you like. This goes great with Kibbeh.

Cucumber and Yogurt salad

This is a tasty and refreshing accompaniment to most dishes, especially grilled items.

• 3 cups Yogurt

• 1 10 inch long cucumber

• 2 tsp mashed garlic

• 1 Tbsp dried mint

• Salt to taste

Peel and seed the cucumber then dice into ½ inch pieces. Mix the cucumber with all the remaining ingredients and serve cold.

Pita Bread (Khobz Arabi)

Lebanese (Pita) bread is widely available in most major cities in the US and around the world, so obtaining good bread should not be a problem. When buying Pita bread make sure it is not the “thick” kind which I find is hard to use for making wraps or for scooping food. Good Pita bread should be soft and pliable (sort of like a tortilla), not brittle or dry. To store, keep it in the plastic bag it came in and put it in the freezer. Remove one loaf at a time (or more) as needed and defrost by either cooking in the microwave for about 10 seconds or leaving it covered at room temperature for about fifteen minutes. Never leave Pita bread uncovered lest dries out and become brittle. Always store it in a plastic bag.

If however, you cannot get a hold of good Lebanese bread in your city, then the following recipe produces good results even though the end product is a little thicker than I prefer.

Pita Bread

Makes 5 6-inch Pita loaves

• 3 Cups Bread flour or All Purpose flour

• ½ tsp Instant yeast (or 1 tsp Active Dry yeast combined with a Tbsp sugar and ¼ cup warm water till foamy)

• ½ tsp salt

• 1 Cup warm water (reduce the water by ¼ Cup if using Active Dry yeast)

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast (or yeast/water mixture) and add the water slowly while stirring with a plastic or wooden spoon until everything is combined into a ball. You might need more or less water than the 1 cup. Once the dough comes together, transfer it to a floured surface and knead for a good ten minutes until it is soft and elastic. Roll the dough into a log and cut it into five equal parts (cut into fewer pieces if you want bigger loaves). Form each piece into a ball and put them all on a floured baking sheet. Cover with a damp towel and let them rise in a warm place for about an hour or until almost double in size.

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Dough balls ready to be rolled

Preheat your oven to 500F (270C). If you have a baking stone, place it in the oven to pre-heat thoroughly. Flatten each dough ball and with a rolling pin form it into 1/8 inch (3mm) thick round about 6 inches (15cm) in diameter. After rolling all the dough, cover and let them rest on a floured surface for 15-30 minutes. If you have a baking stone then bake them on the stone by sliding the dough rounds onto the stone and baking till they puff up like balloons (about 2-3 minutes). Leave them in the oven no more than one minute after they puff up even though they might not have much color on them. This will insure that the bread will be soft and pliable once cooled. If you do not have a baking stone in your oven, place the rounds on a baking sheet (making sure they are not touching) and bake in the oven until they puff up.

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Ready for baking

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Pita bread ready to be taken out of the oven

As soon as you remove the baked bread from the oven, place in a container, flatten gently and then cover with a damp towel. Keep stacking the flattened baked bread on top of each other and covering them. Store the baked bread in a well sealed plastic bag. Never let the baked bread cool uncovered or it will harden.

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These last two were left in the oven a little longer. They were tasty but pretty brittle

Tabikh (Comfort Food)

In Arabic Tabikh literally means “cookery” or even “cuisine” so you would hear that so-an-so’s mom’s Tabikh is excellent or her Tabikh needs more salt. However, the word, at least in the home I grew up in, took on a much deeper meaning, namely the quintessential Lebanese comfort food. It is the meal that mom cooked during weekdays, the one I thought about all day at school especially if it was something I loved like the Shaikh el Mahshi. Tabikh is usually some kind of stew or a bake made with stewed meat and one or two veggies. It is almost always served with rice, although flat pita bread can also, and is often, used. A basic, general recipe would look something like this:

Brown your meat of choice in olive oil, add garlic and onions, and cook till the onions and garlic are soft. Now add your vegetable (eggplant, white beans, green beans, okra, potatoes,…) along with any seasoning, other aromatics or dried herbs and stir everything. Add water to barely cover and simmer covered. You should end up with a stew-like mixture with plenty of sauce and juices.

This description is certainly a simplified version, but after cooking many similar recipes the only differences I’ve found are in the condiments or prep work. For example, if cooking white dried beans you would add tomato paste AFTER the beans are soft. If cooking eggplant you would add fresh chopped tomatoes with your eggplant, while okra requires you to fry it before it added, and so on. Another point to keep in mind is that the vegetable is usually the star of the dish, not the meat. You should therefore have a larger proportion of vegetables to beef, lamb, or chicken. This is clear from the names of the recipes, such as “eggplant stew”, “okra with meat”, “rice with peas”, so in most cases the veggies are the dominant ingredient.

Below are a few of my favorite comfort food recipes. I do realize that the Shaikh el Mahshi does not really conform with the above general description for the Tabikh process. It is nevertheless a wonderful recipe and one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.

Shaikh El Mahshi (stuffed eggplant)

4 Servings

Traditionally Shaikh el Mahshi refers to the stuffed eggplant portion of this recipe. However my mom once had some extra tomatoes and she decided to use them as well. It was a big hit and since then she never makes this recipe without the stuffed tomatoes.

The traditional method of prepping the eggplant is to fry it and that is what I demonstrate here. However, brushing with olive oil and broiling also works great and produces less oily eggplant.

• 12 Thin slices of eggplant (~1/4 inch)

• Oil for frying

• 4 firm, small, round or plum Tomatoes

• 1 recipe Meat Stuffing

Preheat the oven to 375F. Heat 1 inch (2.5cm) of oil in a deep pot to about 350F (190C).

Fry the eggplant slices a few at a time until browned on both sides.

Move to a rack to drain and season with salt and pepper.

Cut the stem end from the tomatoes and, using a spoon, remove all seeds and pulp to create a hollow bowl (reserve seeds and juices and the cut “caps”).

Slice a piece from the bottom of the tomatoes to form a flat surface on which to stand straight (take care not to make any holes in them though). Season with salt and pepper.

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Fried eggplant and prepared tomatoes

In an oven-proof baking dish, make 4 eggplant stacks by placing one slice in the dish and topping with about 2 Tbsp of the stuffing. Top with another slice, then stuffing and then a third slice. Repeat three more times and you should end up with 4 stacks.

Stuff the tomatoes with the meat stuffing (pack them real good) and place in the dish as well. Put the stem end “caps” back on them .

Spread the reserved Tomato seed and pulp and juices all over the eggplant and tomato.

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The dish ready to go into the oven

Place in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft but not mushy.

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Finished Dish

Serve immediately with rice.

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Eggplant Stew

6 Servings

• ½ lb (450g) Stew beef cut into cubes

• 1.5 lbs (670g) eggplant

• 1 large onion, diced

• 2 Tbsp finely chopped garlic

• ½ lb fresh tomatoes, diced

Peel and cut the eggplant into 1 inch dice.

Season the beef with salt and pepper.

In a large heavy pot, heat some olive oil and brown the beef. Add the onions and garlic.

Cook till soft then add the eggplant.

Cook for a few more minutes until the eggplant is covered with the aromatics and oil and meat drippings. Add the tomatoes and season with more salt and pepper.

Stir everything together, add water to barely cover everything and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about one hour or until the eggplant is cooked through and very soft.

Correct the seasoning if necessary.

Serve over rice or burghul.

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Riz w’ Bazilla (Rice and Peas)

4 Servings

I could never figure out why this recipe is called rice and peas. Granted, it has peas and it is served with rice, but it also has an equal amount of carrots as well as ground beef. Why not call it “rice and carrots” or “peas and meat”. No matter what you call it, this recipe is easy and definitely good eats.

• 1 cup diced onions

• ½ lb (225g) ground beef

• 1 cup frozen peas

• 1 cup diced carrots (or use ½ lb (225g) whole baby carrots)

• 2 Tbs tomato paste

• Salt and pepper

Heat 2-3 Tbsp of olive oil in a pot with a lid and sauté the onions till soft.

Add the beef and cook till browned.

Add the peas and carrots with salt and pepper and stir well.

Add water to barely cover the mixture.

Bring to a slow boil and add the tomato paste and stir it until dissolved.

Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until everything is cooked and the mixture has thickened slightly.

Taste, adjust seasoning and serve hot over rice.

Koussa Bil Zait (Zucchini in Olive Oil)

Makes 4 Servings

This recipe represents a certain type of Tabikh, that which is cooked with plenty of olive oil and eaten, in most cases, at room temperature or even straight out of the refrigerator. This type of food is very common during Lent since it utilizes no meat products. Pita bread is used to scoop the food rather than serving it with rice.

• ¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

• 1 cup chopped onions

• 1 lb (450g) mixed green Zucchini and yellow Squash

• 1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes

• 1 Tbs tomato paste (optional: if the tomatoes are a little under ripe)

• Salt and Pepper to taste

Wash the squash and cut into ½ inch cubes or half rounds if they are very small.

Heat the olive oil in a pot with a lid and sauté the onions until soft but not browned.

Add the squash and cook for a couple of minutes then add the tomatoes and tomato paste (if using).

Season with salt and pepper and add a splash of water (a few Tbsps, enough to create some steam) then cover the pot and cook for about 10 minutes or until the squash is barely cooked but not mushy.

Serve hot or at room temperature with Pita bread.

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Variations:

- Green beans in olive oil: Substitute green beans cut up into 2 inch pieces for the squash and zucchini and omit the tomato and paste. Serve it with a cucumber and tomato salad.

-Dried beans in olive oil: Substitute dried red or white (I love the white ones) beans that have been soaked overnight for the squash and zucchini and omit the tomato. Cover the beans with water instead of just a few Tbsps. Cook till soft (about 1 hour). When the beans are pretty much done add 1 generous tablespoon of tomato paste. Serve it with a heavy sprinkling of fresh black pepper.

-Okra in olive oil: Substitute okra that has been cut into rounds and deep fried for the squash and zucchini. Add 1 tablespoon chopped garlic and a teaspoon Cayenne when sautéing the onion. Add ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro before adding the water and tomatoes.

Kibbeh

Kibbeh is the national dish of Lebanon. The basic Kibbeh is made with minced lamb, mutton or beef mixed with spices, minced onion and burghul. It can be eaten raw, fried, baked, or grilled. Another type of Kibbeh is Potato Kibbeh which uses boiled mashed potatoes (instead of meat) and adds fresh mint to the mix as well. Below, I provide recipes for two of the most common Kibbeh preparations - the Fried (which many of you will recognize) and the baked.

Kibbeh

• 1 cup fine burghul

• 1 meduim onion, peeled

• 1lb (450g) ground beef or lamb

• 2 tsp Salt

Put the burghul in a large bowl and cover it with cold water. Let it soak for about 30 minutes then drain in a strainer while pressing down to remove as much water as possible. Return to the bowl.

Cut the onion into quarters and puree in the food processor.

Add the onion, beef (or lamb) and salt to the burghul and knead the mixture with your hands till smooth. If it becomes too sticky, add a little ice cold water till it gets smooth.

NOTE: For Raw Kibbeh cut the burghul amount by half and add 1tsp of ground Cumin to the mixture when you add the salt.

Fried Stuffed Kibbeh

Makes about 20 pieces

• 1 Recipe Kibbeh

• 2 cups meat Stuffing

• 1 small bowl of water with ice cubes in it

• Oil for frying

Making these stuffed torpedo shaped pies takes some practice and the first few you make will probably look odd or fall apart. Keep trying, and once you get the hang of it, it will become quite easy. Here are the steps to making a perfect fried Kibbeh.

Make the shell by forming a piece of the Kibbeh into a small ball, the size of a golf ball. Rub your hands with a little ice water if the ball becomes sticky while you are rolling it between your palms.

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Using an index finger and holding the ball in your other hand, make a tunnel in the ball. This is where the stuffing will go. Rotate the ball while “digging” the tunnel to make it an even thickness. The trick is to get the shell as thin as possible without breaking it. You should end up with a hollow, cone-shaped shell.

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Spoon about 2 tsp of the meat filling into the prepared shell, leaving enough room to close it.

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Using both hands gently close and seal the shell over the filling and, using the ice cold water as lubricant, form it into a football shaped pie.

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Heat about 2 inches (5cm) of oil in a deep pot to 375F (190C). Fry the Kibbeh a few at a time until they are deep brown on all sides. Drain and serve with “Yogurt Tahini Sauce”, “Cucumber Yogurt Salad” or “Tomato Salad”.

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Baked Stuffed Kibbeh

Makes one pie, about 4-6 servings

• 1 Recipe Kibbeh

• 2 cups Meat Stuffing

• 1 small bowl of water with ice cubes in it

• ¼ cup Samen (or melted butter).

Preheat your oven to 375F (190C). Prepare a baking dish or pie pan by rubbing the insides with a tablespoon of the Samen.

Build the first layer of Kibbeh. The easiest way to do this is by building it in patches. Pat a piece of the Kibbeh between your palms until 1/8 - 1/4inch (3 - 6 mm) thick (depends how thick you like it). Lay the Kibbeh disc in the prepared pan. Keep doing this, placing the discs next to each other till you cover the bottom. You will have several “holes” which you need to patch with small Kibbeh pieces. Wet your hands with ice water and smooth the first layer till it looks uniform and with no holes.

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Put your stuffing all over the first layer of Kibbeh, then top it off with another layer of Kibbeh using the same technique you used to build the first one. Close all the holes and smooth it out.

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Using a sharp knife cut the unbaked stuffed Kibbeh into wedges and make a small hole in the center where the cuts cross. Drizzle the remaining Samen (or Butter) all over and make sure it goes into the cuts and the hole in the center. This will give it a beautiful color and amazing flavor.

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Put the stuffed Kibbeh in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until it is nice and golden brown in color. Remove from the oven and serve the slices with “Cucumber Yogurt Salad”.

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Fried Kibbeh, Baked Kibbeh with Tahini Yogurt Sauce and a salad

On The Grill

Like most American households, the grill in the Lebanese home is a symbol of family get togethers, weekends, and nice summer afternoons. The fuel of choice –at least in my household- is always lump natural charcoal, never gas. Certainly it is never “briquettes” which is something I had never seen till I got to the US and mistakenly thought it was charcoal.

The three most common items put on the grill in the Lebanese kitchen (or back yard, balcony or front porch) are lamb kebabs, garlic marinated chicken pieces with potatoes, and of course Kefta. Other grilled items include Kibbeh, and grilled vegetables such as mushrooms, cauliflower and sometimes fish. Usually at the end of the meal my grandmother would place a kettle (rakwi) between the leftover coals and she would make the best after meal coffee. Here I list recipes for these three simple grilled items. Probably the most complicated one is the Kefta. It is a little tricky to get them on a skewer but you can just as easily form them into patties instead.

Kefta (ground meat Kebabs)

Makes 6-7 Kebabs

• 1lb (450g) ground lamb or beef or a mixture of both (use meat that is about 85% lean at the most).

• ½ cup finely chopped parsley

• ½ cup finely diced onion

• 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint

• 2 tsp ground Cumin

• Salt and pepper to taste

Soak 6 or 7 bamboo skewers in water for about 30 minutes (or use the metal ones).

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl using your hands until everything is well incorporated and the mixture is smooth.

To make the Kefta Kebabs, form a short 2 inch piece of the meat mixture into a fat sausage shape. Pass a skewer through the small sausage lengthwise. Now start rotating the skewer with one hand while cupping the meat with the other and pressing it to create an elongated kefta sausage on the skewer. Rotating the skewer helps you distribute the meat evenly which reduces the chance of it falling off.

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Kefta ready for the grill

Grill the skewers till the desired doneness.

Serve with pita bread, onions tossed with sumac, Hummus, rice, and turnip pickles.

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Djaj Mashwi (grilled chicken)

Makes about 4 servings

• 1 Chicken cut into eight pieces

• 1 lb (450g) potatoes peeled and sliced crosswise into ¼ inch thick rounds

• 1 cup Homemade garlic sauce

Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Put them in a bowl and add ¼ cup of the garlic sauce. Mix everything really well and marinate covered in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Do the same with the potatoes.

Remove the chicken and potato from the refrigerator. Season both with salt and put on the grill. The potatoes will need about 5 minutes per side on a hot grill and they will come out cooked but still firm, if you like them softer then cook longer on a cooler side of the grill.

Serve with the remainder ½ cup of garlic sauce for dipping, pita bread and a nice salad like Fattoosh or Tabbouli.

Lahm Ghanam Mashwi (Lamb Kebab with Sumac)

Makes about 6-7 Kebabs

The lamb is traditionally skewered along with cubes of lamb tail fat (Liya). The lamb used in Lebanon is typically without a tail- instead they have a large lump of pure fat dangling where the tail is supposed to be. That is called the Liya and is very tasty. Since I’ve never seen it in the US I usually use very nicely marbled leg meat.

• 1 lb (450g) Lamb meat from the leg cut into ½ inch cubes.

• 10-12 small onions not more than 2 inches in diameter

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 2 Tbsp Sumac

Soak 6 or 7 bamboo skewers in water for about 30 minutes (or use the metal ones).

Peel the onions and trim the stem and root ends. If your onions are too big to put on the skewer, halve or quarter them, making sure that they do not fall apart.

Put two pieces of lamb on the skewer then one onion, then two lamb and one more onion and finish with two more lamb pieces. Repeat with the remaining meat and onion. Season the skewers with salt and pepper and grill over high heat until done. Once removed from the grill, sprinkle the kebabs with Sumac and serve with Pita bread, Tahini and yogurt sauce, cucumber and yogurt salad, or with rice.

Falafel

My fondest memories involving Falafel are the ones of our weekend trips to my home town. It is Friday afternoon, I do not have to be back to school till Monday which seems so far away and we are driving along the Beirut coast towards our home town. Inevitably my father would pull over at a small Falafel shop in Tripoli to get some hot steaming Falafel sandwiches. Stopping for Falafel in Tripoli was a much loved tradition in our family. Nostalgia aside, Falafel is one of the most popular middle eastern foods anywhere in the world. This should come as no surprise, as anyone who has tried it knows that it is absolutely delicious.

The proper way to eat Falafel is in a sandwich or wrap. The fried falafel patties are wrapped along with all their garnishes in soft Pita bread and eaten on the go. I’ve never really seen a “Falafel platter” until I came to the US. It is not a fancy food that should be eaten with silverware, it is rather the ultimate street food eaten at sandwich shops that seem to be at every street corner in Lebanon.

In my recipe I use a mixture of Fava beans and chickpeas because I believe this gives the best results in terms of taste and texture. However, you can use just chickpeas if you prefer or even just fava beans.

Falafel

Makes about 20 Falafel patties

• 1.5 cup dried peeled fava beans (Ful Majroosh)

• 1/2 cup dried chickpeas

• 1 cup chopped green onions

• 2 Tbsp minced garlic

• 1 Tbsp Cumin

• 1 tsp Baking Powder

• 2 tsp salt

• 1 tsp Black pepper

• 1 tsp hot chili powder (or to taste)

• 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

• Oil for frying

In a large bowl, soak the Fava beans and Chickpeas for 12 to 20 hours. They should be soft enough to eat without cooking but still crunchy. Drain the beans and try to get as much water out of them as possible.

In a food processor chop the beans till very fine.

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Add all the remaining ingredients to the food processor and process to a nice coarse paste. To test, take a piece and squeeze it in your palm. It should stay together and not crumble much. If you think the mixture is too dry, add a few teaspoons cold water while the processor is running.

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Heat 2 inches (5cm) of oil in a pot and using the Falafel scoop, form the falafel into discs and drop directly into the oil. Fry on both sides till deep brown. Remove and drain on a rack. If you do not have a Falafel scoop use your hands to form the falafel into thick patties, they will come out just as good although a little uneven in shape.

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Falafel scoop and spatula

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Use the scoop’s spatula to pack the mixture in the scoop

Serve the falafel with Pita bread, Tahini sauce, chopped parsley, tomatoes, pickles, or any other veggie or dip you like.

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The Falafel sandwich (wrap)

Across Lebanon, the proper way to eat Falafel is in a Falafel sandwich. The Falafel patties are put in a pita bread and topped with greens, veggies, pickles and Tahini sauce and then wrapped with the bread. The following explains step-by-step how a Falafel sandwich is made:

Split the Pita bread open into two pieces (a light one and a darker one).

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Cut one of the two Pita pieces in half and lay that half down the center of the whole Pita piece. This extra piece will add support and strengthen your wrap.

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Put three Falafel patties down the center (on top of the pita half you laid there) and crumble/mash them with your fingers.

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Top the patties with your selected condiments.

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Fold the pita in half "lengthwise" covering the Falafel and condiments, then wrap tightly forming a nice Falafel wrap.

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Dessert

Most Middle Eastern desserts fall into two groups: Cream stuffed and nut stuffed. Almost all Middle Eastern desserts are served drizzled with fragrant rosewater syrup. I do realize that these are broad generalizations and that there are other kinds of desserts, but these two groups are certainly the most prevalent.

Another fact about Lebanese desserts in general is that they are rarely consumed at the end of a meal. An interesting aside (and this occurred to me when I was trying to type a title for this section in Arabic), is that there is no Arabic word for dessert!! Sure, we have words like Halwayat or Helu, both of which mean sweets or pastry but there is no word whose literal translation would be “Dessert”. A Lebanese host is more likely to offer you some fresh fruit and, a little later on, coffee rather than a plate of Baklava. These desserts, including the two recipes below are actually very common breakfast items especially Kenafi which is usually eaten stuffed into a sesame-studded bread called kaak.

Cream Filling (kashta)

Yields about 2 cups

Kashta is one of two basic dessert fillings used in many Middle Eastern desserts, the other being a nut filling. It is normally made from the cream that floats on top of whole cream milk when simmered. I have never managed to make the real Kashta. In Lebanon one would buy already made Kashta from pastry shops or buy the canned clotted cream variety (which I am not too crazy about). This recipe gives excellent and tasty results every time and is the best substitute for the real thing.

• 2 cups Heavy Cream

• 2 Tbsp Corn Starch

• 2 tsp Orange Blossom Water

• 2 Tbsp Sugar

In a saucepan, bring the cream to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile make a slurry with the corn starch and some of the cream. Add the slurry to the cream in the pan and bring to a boil. Add the orange blossom water and the sugar and keep stirring until you get a very thick spreadable mixture resembling cream cheese in texture.

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Cream Filling

Nut Filling

Yields about 2 cups

The nuts used are just an example. You can use just one or the other or substitute any other nut such as pine nuts or pistachios.

• 1 cup finely chopped walnuts

• 1 cup finely chopped almonds

• 1 cup Sugar

• 1 tsp Orange Blossom water

• 1 tsp Rose water

Mix all the ingredients together.

Fragrant Syrup (Atr)

Yields about 1 cup

Pretty much ALL middle eastern desserts are doused with this fragrant syrup.

• 1 cup Sugar

• ½ cup Water

• 1 Tbsp Lemon Juice

• ½ tsp Rose Water

• ½ tsp Orange Blossom Water

Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat until it boils and all the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, cool and store in a jar. It keeps for 2 weeks without refrigeration and for months refrigerated.

Kenafi (Semolina pastry stuffed with cream)

Makes 10 Servings

• 2 cups Semolina Flour

• 2 tsp salt

• 1 stick (1/4 lb/125g) butter melted and cooled

• 1 recipe Cream Filling

• 1 recipe Fragrant Syrup

• Orange Blossom Jam (optional Garnish)

To make the pastry:

Preheat the oven to 375F (190C).

In a bowl mix the Semolina with the salt.

Add the melted butter and stir to create a semi-homogenous, crumbly dough.

Turn the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and form roughly into a disk shape.

Cover with another piece of plastic wrap and wrap the disk tightly. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Take the dough out of the fridge and, on a clean work surface, divide it into two equal pieces.

We need to create a thin rectangle of dough, working with one part at a time while keeping the other one wrapped. The best way to do this is to flatten the piece with the palm of your hand, top with a piece of wax paper and use a rolling pin and roll it to a 1/8 inch (3mm) thickness. Once this is done, transfer the dough to a rectangular shaped baking dish. Since the pastry is very crumbly, the method I use is to cut it into smaller squares and, using a spatula, transfer the smaller squares to the baking dish . Once the first layer of pastry is in, use your hand to pat it and smoothen it and use any extras to close any gaps.

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First layer of pastry

Using a spatula, put the cream filling on top of the first layer of pastry and level it out.

Top the cream with the second half of pastry using the same method as the first layer.

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Cream Filling in place and the second layer of pastry going on top

Place the dish in the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the pastry has a nice golden-brown color.

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Baked Kenafi

Serve warm or hot topped with some Fragrant Syrup and orange blossom Jam for garnish.

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Asabih El haroos (nut-stuffed phylo rolls)

Makes about 25 little rolls

The Arabic name for this dessert literally means “Bride’s Fingers”. These flaky, nutty and delicious Baklava-like pastries are very easy to make and very addictive. After making them you will never settle for the mushy, cloying store-bought Baklava.

• 2 cups nut filling

• ½ lb (225g) phyllo sheets

• Melted Samen or butter

• 1 cup (or to taste) Fragrant syrup

Preheat the oven to 350F (190C).

Cut the phyllo sheets into rectangles (about 10x4 inches / 25x10cm). I use a pizza cutter for this to avoid tearing.

Working with one phyllo rectangle at a time brush it lightly with the Samen.

Place about 1 teaspoon of the stuffing on one end. Use your fingers to compact the stuffing into a sausage shape (this will make it easier to roll).

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Roll the phyllo with the stuffing like a jelly roll. About ¾ of the way up, fold the sides inward so that the roll is sealed and the stuffing will not fall out.

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Brush a baking dish lightly with Samen or butter and place the rolls close together in it. Brush the rolls generously with Samen and place in the oven. Bake for about 30-45 minutes or until golden brown.

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Let cool for about 30 minutes and drizzle with about ½ a cup of the syrup (use less if you like). Serve at room temperature with more syrup on the side for those who like it extra sweet.

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Beverages

In this section I introduce three major beverages that are common in a Lebanese home: Coffee, Tea, and Arak.

Coffee (Ahwi- Lebanese/Arabic Coffee)

Makes 3 servings

Lebanese coffee is a strong brew served in small cups very similar to espresso cups. The coffee grind is very fine, almost powder-like and the roast is usually very dark. Coffee beans are not indigenous to the Middle East and are imported- the Brazilian ones are considered the best.

A good Lebanese host always makes coffee for his or her guests –usually without asking if they want any- and it is considered bad manners not to. So, if you visit three different homes on any day, count on drinking coffee at least three times. My wife was so sick from drinking Lebanese coffee during our visit to Lebanon that she never touches the stuff now. Arabic coffee is available at middle eastern grocery stores and some ethnic sections of major grocery stores. It is usually vacuum packed. The brand I use is called Café Najjar and it is made in Lebanon. The recipe for making coffee below is of course based on my taste, so feel free to make it stronger or lighter if you like.

The scale I use is 1 heaping teaspoon of coffee for each small cup of water (cup here refers to the small espresso coffee cups –maybe three ounces- NOT a measuring cup):

• 3 small espresso cups of water (about ¾ Cup)

• 3 Heaping tsp of Arabic coffee (or a good dark finely ground coffee)

In a small kettle or a small pot bring the water to a boil. Remove the kettle or pot from the heat and gently add the coffee. Stir to combine and put back on the burner (DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON IT). In a few seconds the coffee will start rising and it will boil over if not removed from the heat. You want it to rise to the point where it ALMOST boils over. So let it rise and just before it boils over, remove it from the heat and stir gently. Repeat this “boiling” three more times. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit for a minute so that the grounds can settle. Slowly pour the coffee into small espresso cups in a thin stream to disturb the sediment on the bottom as little as possible.

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You can see the ground coffee in the left side of the picture

Variation: Cardamom is often added to Arabic coffee especially when you buy it from street vendors. I normally enjoy mine without it but every so often I do like to add some cardamom. Simply add some ground Cardamom when you add the ground coffee. For the above recipe a ¼ teaspoon is enough or else the Cardamom will overpower the coffee.

Tea spiked with Cinnamon (Shai)

Makes 2 tea cups

If your host does not serve coffee, you will surely be served tea. Actually, in some Lebanese communities and regions you are more likely to be served a good cup of strong tea rather than coffee. Tea is the beverage of choice with most breakfasts whereas coffee is more a stand-on-its-own beverage. So, if you walk into a Lebanese home during breakfast time, chances are that they will be drinking tea.

We used to go hunting in a small mountain town in North Lebanon about three hours drive from my home town. We would usually spend the weekend staying with a family of shepherds and farmers who were old family friends of ours. On their front porch, under a huge walnut tree, usually at about four in the morning or so, still dark and chilly outside, we would have a simple breakfast with small cups of steaming sweet hot tea before we would go hunting. That, unquestionably, is the best tea I’ve ever had. Every time I make tea I am trying to re-create what these nice farmers make everyday.

• 2 cups water

• 3 Tbsp sugar

• 1 stick cinnamon about 2 inches long

• 1 Tbsp loose black tea leaves

In a tea kettle or small pot bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and bring to a boil again. Add the cinnamon and tea and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and cover. Let it steep for a minute or two. Pour the tea into tea cups and serve piping hot (If loose tea leaves in your tea cup really bug you then you can pour it through a small strainer).

Variation: Try substituting different spices or herbs in moderate amounts for the cinnamon stick. My favorites include a fresh mint sprig, Fennel seeds and Star anise.

Arak

Without a doubt, Arak is the national alcoholic beverage of Lebanon. No real get together or celebration is complete without Arak. This strong spirit is made from fermented white grapes and flavored with fennel seeds (yansoon) so it has a distinctive licorice taste. It is distilled three times. Out of the bottle, Arak is colorless (like Vodka) but when served, water is added, turning the Arak milky white. It is then topped with some ice cubes.

Even though Lebanon produces very good quality wine and a delicious pilsner beer, Arak always takes center stage at important events. It is the one and only companion to Kibbeh, especially in its raw form, as well as to anything cooked on the grill. The Arak I use is distilled three times by my family from my grandfather’s own vineyards and for our personal use and this is the best kind you can get. However, good quality Arak is available at some liquor stores. Good Arak brands include “Ksara”, “Kefraya” and “Al Masaya”.

Pour Arak into a small glass until it is quarter full (or more if you want it stronger), top off with ice cold water, leaving an inch at the top to make room for a couple of ice cubes. Add the ice cubes and enjoy.

References

If you enjoyed this class and would like to expand your knowledge of Lebanese and middle eastern cooking then check out these two fantastic books. Pretty much all you need is in there and I refer to them often.

“The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden

“Recipes and Remembrances From an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen” by Sonia Uvezian

Post your questions here -->> Q&A

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