It’s snowing for the first time this winter in Istanbul, and as I sit here watching everything become buried under a layer of thick, white fluff, I think of winters in Minnesota: the crisp air, cold feet, wearing a million layers, frozen nose hairs, peppermint mochas, shoveling the driveway, baking cardamom cookies, my sister’s leg warmers, stinging red cheeks, lemon-ginger tea, slippers, and obviously, the snow.
Sometime around the beginning of last year, I was making stuffed cabbage in Minnesota during a beautiful snowfall just like this one. Stuffed leaves of any kind are great in all weather, but winter is when things like cabbage, collard greens, kale, and chard are at their prime. These kinds of leaves are much easier to stuff and roll than grape leaves (which are best made in the spring anyway), because they tend to be larger, and you don’t have to worry about folding in the edges to keep the stuffing from falling out during cooking.
I can see the snow still falling endlessly outside my window, and it seems like a good time to post my recipe for stuffed cabbage in a simple broth. You can use it for other winter greens as well, and you can always mix tomato sauce into the cooking liquid if you’d prefer, since some people don’t like plain broth. This recipe is best served hot, although I’ve included a vegetarian variation at the end of this post that is delicious as a cold side or appetizer.
1 medium sized cabbage
half a batch of my stuffing recipe
approx. 4-5 cups of good quality meat or chicken broth seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, although you can use vegetable broth if you like
two tablespoons of allspice or “mixed baharat”
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
5-6 lamb or beef chops/ribs or any kind of bone-in meat (optional but adds good flavor) – I know some people use oxtails
Core your cabbage. You can do this by either hollowing out the center with a knife, or by quartering the cabbage and cutting out the core. The cabbage I used here was quite small, so I just hollowed out the center, although with bigger ones it can be pretty difficult to do.
Boil the whole cabbage or the quarters in water until the leaves become tender and pliable. I like to add a spoonful of cumin powder to the boiling water.
Remove from pot, strain. Separate the leaves out. Cut out any large, tough stems from each leaf. Do not discard!
Put a few spoonfuls of oil in the bottom of a large cooking pot, then use the stems you just cut out to line the bottom of the pot so the cabbage leaves don’t stick and burn. Also layer your meat pieces on top, if you’re using them.
Place a small amount of stuffing onto each leaf, and roll it up like a cigar. Layer the rolls quite tightly in your pot.
Combine the allspice with the broth, then pour it over the cabbage. The liquid should just surpass the top layer of cabbage, so make sure to add enough broth or top it up with water if necessary. Sprinkle in the garlic cloves.
Put the pot on high heat and let the broth come to a boil, then turn the heat down, put a heavy plate directly on top of the cabbage to ensure that it’s all pressed down, and cover the pot with a lid. Let it cook on low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. The cooking time will vary, so test a cabbage roll by cutting it open and checking if the rice inside is fully cooked. If not, let it cook more.
Serve steaming hot with plenty of lemon wedges and fresh yogurt.
Yalanji: a vegetarian alternative
Mix up a stuffing of rice OR bulgur; chopped mint, parsley, and dill; very finely diced tomato, cucumber, and carrot; grated onion, pine nuts, salt, pepper, allspice, a pinch of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander, and a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Use this to stuff the leaves, then cook them just like in the recipe above, using vegetable broth or water for cooking mixed with a quarter cup of olive oil.
Fun fact: yalancı (pronounced ya-lawn-juh) is Turkish for liar. I guess the vegetarian stuffed leaves are lying because they’re pretending to be proper mahshi but they don’t actually have meat in them ;)
Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel is a very popular and easy to prepare, baked pasta dish. Egyptians are known for their Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel, but Palestinians make it too. Bechamel is simply a white sauce that is thickened with flour.
There are so many different ways people make Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel. I’m posting what I find to be the easiest recipe, and will provide two variations on making the actual white sauce.
For a slightly healthier and lighter version of this dish, try Koosa Bil Bechamel, where zucchini is used as a substitute for pasta. It’s equally delicious, and you won’t feel as bad eating it :)
approx 2 lbs of ground beef or lamb (for ~8 people)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 tsp each of allspice (or “bharat” spice), black pepper
1/2 tsp each of cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric
salt to taste
large package of elbow macaroni (or penne, or any other medium-sized short-cut pasta)
For the Bechamel sauce:
5 cups of cold milk
4 tablespoons of flour
1 egg, whisked
3 tablespoons of butter
Start by boiling your pasta until it’s just cooked. Drain.
In a pan, saute the chopped onion until soft, then add the ground meat. Cook the meat thoroughly, breaking it up so you don’t end up with any large clumps. Season with the allspice/bharat, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and salt to taste.
Coat the bottom of a large baking dish with a few drops of oil. Using half of the cooked pasta, make an even layer of pasta in the bottom of the baking dish. On top of that, add all of your cooked meat, spreading it out to make an even layer.
On top of the meat, add another layer of pasta using the remaining half.
Set this aside while you make the Bechamel sauce:
Method 1 (easier, less likely to clump):
Pour one cup of the cold milk into a saucepan. Add the flour and egg, and whisk until smooth. Add the rest of the milk, the butter, and salt&pepper to taste, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. After it boils, keep cooking for approx. five more minutes, then remove from the heat.
Method 2 (more difficult and likely to clump, but richer tasting):
In a saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir constantly, letting it cook for about a minute and turn golden brown (basically making a roux). Add the cold milk and whisked egg to the pan slowly, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When it boils, cook for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat.
Pour the Bechamel all over the top of the pasta.
Spread it to even it out, making sure to cover the pasta entirely. Set it aside for a few minutes to let it cool and set a bit.
Finally, bake in a hot oven (~450 dgrees) until the top of the Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel browns. This usually takes about an hour. You can put it under the broiler for a couple minutes at the end to make sure the top is perfectly golden, with some darker patches here and there (the best part!).
Alternatively, when I’m in a hurry, I don’t even bother baking it since all the components are already cooked. I simply broil the top, which takes about ten minutes; this method is good for when you’re in a rush, but the layer of Bechamel will have a slightly runnier consistency. If you chose Method 1 for the Bechamel sauce, I highly recommend you bake the dish thoroughly.
So to keep with the whole stuffing theme, I’m posting my aunt Hanan’s recipe for another kind of mahshi (stuffed vegetables): stuffed eggplants. The steps are very similar to the stuffed turnips recipe, but this one calls for less ingredients.
Eggplants occupy a special place in my heart. They have the most amazing taste, and a very rich, creamy texture. The simplest way Palestinians fix eggplant is to fry slices in hot oil till they turn golden, then garnish them with crushed garlic, lemon juice, and hot chili peppers. We serve this with bread, and you have the simplest, most delicious melt-in-your-mouth meal ever. Aside from that, there is a multitude of ways to prepare eggplant, ranging from layering it between tomatoes and ground beef like a casserole, to pickling it with a stuffing of walnuts and ground hot chilis.
It is such a versatile vegetable, and an absolute pleasure to consume.
Of course, in keeping with their love of stuffed things, my Khalili relatives make stuffed eggplants at least once a month (usually more, especially if my uncle Abed happens to get a good deal on eggplants at the vegetable market and comes home with 30 lbs of the stuff, to the exasperated groans of my aunt). So here you go: Batinjan Mahshi!
Note: In Palestine and Jordan, they use medium-sized to large, round-shaped eggplants for stuffing. When I made stuffed eggplants recently and took pictures for this blog, we only had a slender, long, kind on hand that was somewhat like a Japanese variety. Worked just fine.
Ingredients (serves approx 5)
1 batch of Best Mahshi Stuffing Ever
approx 9 lbs of eggplants
2/3 cup salt
6-7 cups pureed tomatoes (puree fresh tomatoes in a blender/food processor for best taste)
2 tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of water or stock (beef/lamb/chicken/vegetable)
salt&pepper to taste
Cut the green tops off the eggplants. Using a ma’warah (coring tool), core the eggplants, removing as much of the insides as possible without poking a hole through the skin. If the eggplants are big enough, you might be able to use a spoon to help make the process faster.
As you can see, the eggplants we had on hand were this slender type that were unfortunately very difficult to core without poking holes through the skins or cracking them near the tops.
Discard the insides of the eggplants.
Next, fill a big bowl with water and add the 2/3 cup of salt, stirring until the salt dissolves completely. Take each eggplant and dunk it in the salty water, letting it become completely immersed, before removing it and putting it off to the side for stuffing.
Stuff the eggplants with the rice stuffing, making sure to leave about an inch worth of space at the top for the rice to expand upon cooking. Insert slices of tomato to plug the mouths of the eggplants so the stuffing doesn’t fall out.
You will need a large pot to cook the eggplants. When making mahshi, always remember that you have to make a protective layer at the bottom of the pot to keep the actual vegetables up off the direct heat. Some people slice up a potato and layer the slices at the bottom of the pot, others use soup or chop bones – this is definitely the best option because it gives the dish a lot of extra flavor, and the meat fans at your table can munch on the little bits of meat amid bites of eggplant and rice. If you don’t have bones on hand, and don’t want to cut up a potato, you can wash the green tops that you cut off the eggplants, and layer those down instead. (Just remember to fish them out of the pot later and not accidentally serve them!)
Arrange the eggplants in the pot.
Combine the pureed tomatoes, the cup of water or stock, and salt&pepper to taste, then pour the mixture over the eggplants in the pot. Place something heavy, such as a plate or bowl, on the eggplants to keep them pressed down, so they don’t float around in the liquid.
Cook on high heat until the tomato mixture starts to boil. Let boil for two minutes, then turn the heat down to medium-low. Cover the pot, and let it cook for about an hour to an hour and a half.
To serve: Arrange the eggplants on a serving platter; serve the tomato sauce in individual bowls too, for dipping the eggplants in. Also serve fresh yogurt on the side.
I love zucchini. It’s such a versatile vegetable, and its flavor can really be brought out with the simplest of seasonings: some salt and pepper. Zucchini is also relatively cheap here in Jordan, so people cook with it all the time.
Taita makes a really good pasta dish called “Ma’karonah bil beshamel,” where she layers macaroni, spiced ground meat, and a thick bechamel sauce. She then bakes it in the oven till the sauce browns on top. It’s amazing, but very rich. Recently, she introduced me to the (slightly) lighter version, where she uses sliced zucchini instead of the layer of macaroni. I try to convince myself that I’m eating healthy when I eat this version since it’s vegetables, not pasta, but I still end up feeling guilty because the dish is still just as rich!
Approx 1 kilo of fresh, firm zucchini, washed
Approx 1/2 kilo of ground meat
1/2 a large onion, finely chopped
1/4 tsp each of cinnamon and allspice (optional)
5 tbsp of flour
1.5-2 cups of cold milk
Cut the stems and the bottom parts off of the zucchini.
Slice each zucchini into slices of medium thickness. You don’t want them to be too thin or they’ll just sort of dissolve and get mushy when you cook them. If the zucchini are really “fat,” you can do half-slices (pictured below).
Lightly sautee the slices in some hot vegetable oil until just tender. Add some salt&pepper.You don’t want to cook the zucchini through too much, or they won’t hold up to the baking later.
Also, sautee the chopped onion in some oil in another pan until soft, then add the ground meat. Brown the meat, breaking it up with your spatula as it cooks. Add the seasonings: salt&pepper, plus the cinnamon and allspice if you want.
Now, prepare the bechamel sauce that will be the fourth layer in your dish. Dissolve 5 tbsp of flour in about 2 cups of cold milk. Then, heat the milk+flour on a very low flame, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Add salt&pepper, then take it off the fire and let it cool.
Take a glass or metal baking dish, and grease it with some oil. Spread out half of the sauteed zucchini in the bottom of the pan, making your first layer. Then, make your second layer of the browned meat (use it all).
Make your third layer using the rest of the zucchini on top of the meat.
Take your cooled bechamel sauce and crack an egg into it. Stir well until it’s all mixed in. The egg will help the top of the casserole to brown. Pour the bechamel sauce on top of the final layer of zucchini; this is the fourth layer. Put the dish into a medium oven, until the bechamel sauce is baked through and the top browns. You can use the broiler to brown the bechamel sauce at the end if it’s taking too long!
I didn’t have any time to take a picture of the final product in the baking dish, because we dug right in. This is a picture of my own plate, which I took hastily before I gobbled it up.