Cooking is a communal activity in traditional Palestinian culture, and when you read this recipe, you will see why. Whenever families gather together to share a meal, you will find aunties and tetas (grandmothers) gathered around the kitchen table, rolling these delicate grape leaves and scooping out the soft flesh of the cousa. Time flies quickly when many are gathered to do the work, while sharing jokes and family gossip, and passing cups of hot mint tea. Aunties teach their nieces how to roll the grape leaves hayk, like this, nice and tight, so that they don't unravel in the hot pot. Grandmothers cluck their tongues and roll, and re-roll the grape leaves until every one is just right, and then pop them all into the pot. Rolling grape leaves and stuffing cousa is an art form, one that can be learned in an hour, but mastered over years.
These two dishes, often served together, are the jewels of Palestinian cuisine. The lemon flavors of grape leaves, cooked until tender and stuffed with a fragrant rice and meat mixture, and the softly cooked squash, also stuffed with the same mixture of rice and meat - these dishes are special enough to serve guests, but also well-loved enough to be served to the family every week.
Both of these dishes are traditional Palestinian dishes, made from local foods and prepared over wood burning stoves for generation upon generations. Some conjecture that this branch of Middle Eastern cuisine - this detailed and ornate work of stuffing various vegetables - are born from an Ottoman influence in the region. Nonetheless, these dishes have settled into the hearts and onto the tables of Arab homes and are here to stay.
Middle Eastern Summer Squash, or Cousa
Cousa is simply the Arabic word for squash. The particularly variety of squash used for this dish is smooth, pale green, has a slightly bulbous shape, and has a very mild, sweet flavor. Arabs harvest these summer squash when they are still small and tender, only about four to five inches long. These squash can be found throughout the Levant, and because they are the most common variety of squash available, we just refer to them as cousa. Much to our delight, you can find them here in the United States in the summer at farmers markets or at larger grocery stores. When we stumbled upon some of these squash at the farmer's market near my parents' summer home in Michigan, we gasped in delight and asked the young Dutch farmer, What do you call these squash? He replied, Oh those? We call them cousa. Indeed.
A Note About the Equipment
The only special piece of equipment that you need to make this dish is a narrow corer for coring the squash. You can buy these at specialty shops, particularly Middle Eastern grocers, but you can also just make one very easily by taking a regular coring tool, like the kind used to core apples and narrowing it with a squeeze of a pair of pliers. That's what we did, since my mother didn't have her special tool on hand.
Cousa Mahshi, or Stuffed Baby Summer Squash
4-5 lbs cousa, washed
Water, or Bone Broth, enough to cover
Optional, added chicken pieces,or meat pieces, browned, and layered in.
1 cup white rice, soaked, rinsed and drained
3/4 lbs ground grassfed beef or lamb
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 1/2 tsp allspice
3 tablespoons olive oil, particularly if the meat is very lean
1. Prepare the cousa by cutting off the stems on one side of the squash and then scraping off the nub on the other end. Make sure that your cuts are straight and that you do not scrape off too much at the bottom, or you may puncture your cousa when coring. Check that each cousa is clean and free of dirt and sand.
2. Core the cousas. Working slowly and gently, insert the coring tool into the cut end of the cousa, scoring a little circle in the end, and remove the center of the cousa. Work slowly, inserting and turning your corer until the cousa has been cored, taking care not to crack the cousa. Rinse the cousas and set aside.
3. In a small bowl, mix together the rice and meat stuffing.
4. With clean hands, stuff each cousa with the rice and meat mixture, tamping down slightly with your pinky or with the coring tool. Leave the last inch of the cousa unfilled - the stuffing will expand while cooking.
5. Layer your cousa into a large pot. Pour water or broth over your cousa, to cover. Bring to a boil and then boil over medium-low heat until softened, about one hour.
Notes: I recommend using bone broth (chicken, lamb or beef stock) instead of water, for the much greater nutritional value and the flavor.
Serve with yogurt to dip, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
May this double your health.
*How to Make Palestinian Rolled Grape Leaves
*How to Make Yogurt, or Laban