Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Baked Kibbeh, or Kibbeh bi Saniyeh

In the Middle East, meat is sacred food, feasting food, celebratory food.  And while every day dishes are often vegetarian or feature vegetables, when it is time to celebrate, it is time to slaughter the fattened lamb.

So get ready:  we're serving meat today.  And by that I mean that meat stuffed with more meat.

On the outside, a glorious, buttery, crispy crust, laced with the savoriness of rich meat. Inside, sweetly spiced ground meats, tender onion.  A few stray buttery pine nuts tumble out.  This platter, cut deftly in the traditional diamond pattern, is enough to make any meat-lover swoon.  It isn't a party until a platter of kibbeh shows up at the door.

I imagine that without refrigeration, and in the hot, arid climate of Palestine, my grandparents and great-grandparents ate their meat quickly.   When it was time to slaughter the fattened calf, lamb or goat, everyone was invited to the feast, the dishes were served quickly, and any leftovers were eaten at the very next meal.

Kibbeh, (also kibbe, kubbeh, kubbi), is the steak tartare of the Arab world.  Immediately after the animal was slaughtered, my ancestors prepared this dish with choice cuts of fresh, extra-lean meat. The meat was minced finely, and beaten with burghol and spices, drizzled with fruity green olive oil and dressed with herbs, and served as a luxuriant raw appetizer.   If this seems strange, remember that most every traditional culture has a raw animal protein delicacy, from steak tartare to sushi, carpaccio to ceviche.

Today, while raw kibbeh (or kibbeh nayyeh) remains the darling of the Arab world (and I'm sorry, but for a good giggle, you just have to watch this ode to kibbeh nayyeh) it is most often cooked, formed into patties or a torpedo-shaped ball, stuffed with the meat filling, and then deep fried.   Fried kibbeh's less fussy sister is kibbeh bi saniyeh, or baked kibbeh.  It is just as tasty, but faster to pull together and perfect for feeding a crowd. Today, I'll show you how to make this baked version.

Wait, what is Burghol?

Since grains are hard for humans to digest in their natural forms, traditional cultures learned ways to properly prepare grains to lower their antinutrients and improve their digestibility.  They intuitively understood that grains have the potential to nourish humans, but only if treated properly, through fermenting, souring, soaking, sprouting or drying.  And with the rise of gluten-intolerance and other inflammatory diseases,  I am particularly careful about returning to the old ways and properly treating my grains, so that they are easier to digest.

Burghol (also often called "bulgur"), a traditional Middle Eastern grain, is a wonderful example of how Arabs understood this principle. Burghol starts with partially hulled wheat kernels (the more toxic, difficult to digest wheat bran is removed) but then those kernels are soaked, sprouted, steamed, or parboiled, and then ground to varying degrees of coarseness.  So while this is a wheat product, it is more wholesome and nourishing to humans than other forms of wheat.

Burghol has a lovely mild, but slightly nutty flavor, and is best known for its starring role in tabbouleh.  Dressed with a little lemon juice and olive oil, it makes a very satisfying and filling side or salad, especially in the warmer months.  And since this grain is pretreated, it requires very little cooking time and even a reduced soaking time.  In this dish, burghol is ground or kneaded into a dough, mixed with finely ground meats, and then baked into a savory crust.

Baking Kibbeh

This was one of those dishes that I didn't feel confident making until my mother coached me through the dish. I am after, all, a pilgrim here.  Only a few years ago, learning how to make my own culture's traditional foods seemed like an a great mountain for me to climb, and making this dish was yet another step on the journey.  So, we made this dish together in the summer, in her home in Michigan, and I watched, wrote, photographed.  I have learned, by experimenting in my kitchen, that working the dough can be a little sticky (ha!), but it will still come out delicious.

But  my mother sure does make it look easy, doesn't she?

Baked Kibbeh

Yield:  One large tray

Kibbeh Dough:

2 cups burghol (bulgur wheat), soaked for two hours or more
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
1/2 lb ground lamb or beef

Kibbeh Filling:

1/2 lb ground lamb or beef
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tsp allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil and butter

For the dough:

1.  Pour burghol into a large bowl, and cover deeply with water.  Soak for two hours.  Drain thoroughly, pressing liquid out through a strainer, and return to bowl.

2.  To the burghol, stir in cumin, salt, and cayenne pepper.

3.  Process in food processor in batches until the bulgur becomes smooth and doughy, adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary.  Each batch will take about five minutes in a food processor.  Alternatively, you can knead with your hands, or process with a meat grinder.  The dough should be wet enough to work with, but dry enough that it can be formed.  Return dough to a bowl.  (At this point, you can freeze dough for later use or continue with the recipe).  Taste and check seasonings.

4.  Stir into the dough 1/2 lb of finely ground lamb or beef.  Mix thoroughly and set aside.

For the filling:

1.  Fry onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, until browned.

2.  Add reserved beef or lamb, season with allspice, salt and pepper, and cook until browned, breaking up with a wooden spoon.  If you meat is lean, add a little olive oil to fry. Reserve.

3.  Toast pine nuts in skillet, until golden brown.

To assemble:

1.  Assemble your dough, filling, a large casserole dish (15 x 10 inches), and a bowl of cold water, a knife or offset spatula for spreading.  Preheat oven to 400 F.

2.   To form the bottom layer of the kibbeh, spread half of the dough as a thick layer on the bottom of a large casserole dish, about 1/4 inch deep.  Press down and smooth evenly with a wet knife or wet hands.

3.  Sprinkle cooked meat filling (with onion and pine nuts) evenly over the dough.

4.  To form the top layer of the kibbeh, take a handful of dough and press it into a thin pancake in your hands.  If dough is difficult to work with, wet hands in bowl of water.  Place "pancake" on top of your filling.  Continue to create and  place flat pieces of dough all over the dish, and then smooth and fill in any empty areas.  Smooth top with a knife.  Then score the top layer of dough by cutting through with a sharp wet knife, making a diamond pattern.

5.  Brush generously with olive oil, dot with butter.

6.  Bake at 400 F until browned and crispy.  Serve hot or at room temperature, with a dollop of tart, plain yogurt next to it.


Related Posts:  

*Palestinian Meatloaf, or Lamb Kefta, Two Ways
*How to Make Yogurt
*Middle Eastern Cabbage Salad

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