From my notebook:
During my trip to Palestine last spring, I stayed with my great aunt, Imm Tayseer, and her husband in Khalil, my family’s city of origin. I took the opportunity to ask her husband, Hajj Misbah, about what Palestine was like back when he was young. Sitting next to the window on his porch overlooking the neighborhood, hands clasped on his lap, his head wrapped in a traditional black and white hattah, 88-year old Hajj Misbah described how families used to hold weddings when he was young, inviting the entire town or village. Although serving meat to guests is considered the prime symbol of hospitality, not all families could afford to provide meat for their wedding guests. If that were the case, he explained, they would instead serve huge platters of steaming hot rice, seasoned with salt and drizzled with delicious, melted samneh baladiyyeh (clarified butter/ghee).
“The guests would come to the wedding, celebrate, eat. The women’s side of the wedding would always have many more people than the men’s, because each lady would bring all of her children with her. A lot of people were hungry back in those days, so a wedding was a chance for people to have a satisfying meal,” he recalled. “The guests would dig their fists hungrily into the hot, buttery rice. It was an excellent meal, that warmed you through, and curbed your hunger.”
(Apologies for the length of this post!)
It’s kind of silly of me to not have posted a recipe for rice yet. Rice and bread are the two staples of Palestinian cuisine, and no meal can be eaten without one of the two.
Although rice is always deemed the easiest thing one can possibly make, my experiences have proven quite the opposite. It took me many failed attempts, and eventually combining a bunch of different techniques, before I finally figured out the best way to make it.
And true to real Arab cooking style, this recipe has no quantities. Sorry!
The most common variety of rice we eat is a type that resembles American medium-grain. The second most popular variety is Egyptian rice, which is similar to a short-grain Spanish variety, like Arborio or Baldo. Egyptian rice is stickier than American medium-grain, and is absolutely delicious eaten just plain!
Basmati rice, although popular in the Gulf states, is not really commonly found in Palestinian cuisine. We use it to make Kabsa, and other Gulf-inspired dishes, but that’s about it, generally.
I have used the recipe below to make Egyptian, American short, medium, and long-grain, and Basmati rice.
You can do a lot with rice. You can make it plain, or add a variety of noodles, vegetables, meats, or spices to jazz it up, but:
The Basic Concept Behind Most Rice Recipes is:
i. Saute Ingredients
ii. Add Water
Plain White Rice:
Prep: Wash desired quantity of rice, then drain. Add fresh water to cover rice completely, and let soak for 15 minutes, then drain. (If using Egyptian rice or another short-grain rice like Arborio, you do not need to soak after washing.)
In a pot, melt several tablespoons of butter, vegetable oil, or samneh. The more fat, the better, although your arteries might beg to differ.
Saute the rice in the fat for a few minutes. Add salt to taste.
Pour in enough hot water to cover the surface of the rice by about half an inch. Bring to a boil, then cover and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Check the rice after ten minutes or so. There should be little holes all over the surface, and most of the water should be absorbed. Using a fork, pick at some grains, and test to see if they are tender. If so, leave the rice on the fire, uncovered, just enough to boil off any excess water.
If the rice is still tough, add a few more tablespoons of water, cover the pot, and let cook, checking back on it again after another 5-10 mins.
Basically you want to just keep coming back and checking the rice, adding small amounts of water and leaving to cook, until the rice is as soft as you like. Using small amounts of water and checking it constantly allows you to really control the process; much safer than putting in too much water and getting soggy mush, or using too little and getting burnt or brittle rice :(
When your rice is cooked and the moisture absorbed, fluff the rice with a fork before serving. Don’t use a spoon, otherwise it will get all mushy.
Rice with Vermicelli
Very popular and delicious, best made with Egyptian rice:
Wash and soak rice (don’t soak after washing if using Egyptian rice).
Use about 3/4 cup of vermicelli noodles for every two cups of rice.
Fry the noodles in hot oil, stirring constantly, until golden. Drain off the rice, then add to the pot, and fry with the noodles for about a minute. Add salt to taste.
Pour hot water into pot to cover rice by about half an inch. Allow to come to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium, and cover.
Let cook, checking constantly to see if it needs more water.
Fluff with a fork just before serving.
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.
Yes, the stuffing begins … and I don’t mean turkeys.
(I don’t do Thanksgiving.)
Since I just posted my recipe for the Best Mahshi Stuffing Ever, I thought it would be appropriate to follow it with an example where you could actually apply the stuffing recipe.
Stuffed turnips are the perfect choice right now, as the fall root vegetables are at their prime. Although the recipe is a bit labor-intensive, the end result is really worth the effort. (Also, Palestinian cooking is usually labor intensive in general, so you just have to deal with it!)
I find the use of both sumac and pomegranate molasses for acidity in this recipe really unique – I actually think this dish is on the more “creative” end of the spectrum when it comes to traditional Palestinian food, just because of how the vegetable is treated, as well as the strange flavor combinations that bring out the best of the spicy turnip. Most importantly, the turnips end up turning pink from the sumac, and nothing can possibly be better than pink turnips.
My “Lift Mahshi,” or stuffed turnips, are a must-make!
Ingredients (to serve 5)
1 batch of Best Mahshi Stuffing Ever
9 lbs medium sized turnips
3 cups vegetable oil, for frying
6-7 cups pureed tomatoes (puree fresh tomatoes in a blender/food processor for best taste)
1 cup water
2 cups of good quality sumac (should be quite sour)
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
salt to taste
I like to divide the tasks of preparation up in my head so that it’s easier to tackle. I’ve divided them up here as: Coring, Frying, Stuffing, and Cooking.
With a knife, cut off the rough tops and bottoms of each turnip, then peel them. Rinse them off.
With a “corer” (ma2warah), core out the insides of the turnips, scraping the tool around inside to hollow them out.
You don’t want the hollowed-out turnips to be too thin though, or they will fall apart upon cooking, so be careful. If you accidentally poke a hole through them, don’t worry; I will address how to fix t hat below.
Important: Do not throw away the insides of the turnips! Keep them in a bowl to the side, because you will be using them later.
Heat the oil for frying in a pan. When hot, fry the turnips on all sides till they’re golden brown. The vegetable will start to form bubbles on its exterior as it fries; it’s kind of neat to watch.
When the turnips are fried, take them out and put them on paper towels or newspaper to absorb some of the oil. Let them cool.
Once the fried turnips have cooled down, they’re ready to stuff. Fill each turnip with the stuffing, and use the tip of your pinkie finger to measure when they’re good to go: there should be about the tip of your pinkie’s worth of space between the stuffing and the “mouth” of the turnip. Don’t worry about being accurate; the basic idea is that you need to allow space for the rice to expand inside the turnip when it cooks.
Finally, close the mouths of the turnips with some of the turnip insides you have sitting off the side. This should prevent the stuffing from spilling out of the turnips.
Holes: If you accidentally poked holes through your turnip while coring, patch them up by putting some of the turnip insides back into the turnip and covering the holes with them. Then, you carefully put the rice stuffing in over the patches, and continue on as above.
In a large bowl, combine the tomato puree, the cup of water, the sumac, the pomegranate molasses, and salt to taste. Stir to blend well.
Put a few tablespoons of oil in a large pot, then add a few handfuls of the turnip insides you have waiting off to the side. You want the layer of “insides” on the bottom of the pan to be about an inch thick.
Next, carefully place the stuffed turnips in the pot, with the mouths facing upward. When you layer them on top of each other, try to be gentle so they don’t fall over.
Pour the tomato puree mixture over the turnips. The puree should just barely cover the turnips; if you don’t have enough to cover the turnips, just add some water to bring the liquid up to the tops of the vegetables.
Put the pot uncovered on the stove on high heat, until the tomato puree mixture comes to a boil. Let it boil for 2 minutes, then turn the heat down to medium-low, and cover the pot. Let the turnips cook for about an hour to an hour and a half, until the turnip is tender and the rice inside is cooked and soft (after about an hour of cooking, you can take one out and cut it open to see how far cooked the rice is, and based on that, decide how much more cooking time the pot needs).
Fish the turnips out of the pot, and serve them on a platter or in a large bowl. Ladle out the tomato sauce into small, individual bowls to serve with the turnips, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot to get that layer of turnip insides. This sauce is the best part; you drizzle it over your turnip after you cut it open – or, if eating with your hands (the best way!), dip the turnip into the bowl of sauce as you eat! Also serve the stuffed turnips with little bowls of fresh yogurt and some slices of lemon/lime.
Extra: If you still have turnip insides left over, fry them like a hash brown in a frying pan with some oil until golden. Add salt and pepper; this stuff tastes amazing.
Don’t get me wrong; I love mahshi, or “stuffed” things (usually vegetables), of all shapes and sizes. Our family is from the city of Khalil, and trust me, Khalilis will stuff anything they can get their hands on. Khalilis have stuffed eggplants, turnips, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, grape leaves, cabbage leaves, “tongue leaves” (I don’t know what they’re called in English), cucumbers, carrots, and even eggs. Yeah. So I’m programmed to love mahshi. And I do.
But sometimes, the stuffing just gets really boring.
Today I’d like to share a recipe for stuffing that is way better than any stuffing you’ve ever tasted. You can use it for stuffing pretty much anything. Once I post the recipe for the stuffing itself, I can then follow it with different kinds of mahshi variations, because each vegetable has its own particular method of preparation.
So here it is! And yes, I’m using American weight measurements today!
To 3 cups of washed, short-grain American or Egyptian rice, add:
1/2 cup of washed basmati rice
1/2 lb ground lamb or beef
1 large onion, grated
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp salt – or more, if you prefer
2 tbsp curry powder
2 tbsp allspice (or “mixed bharat” if available)
1.5 tbsp turmeric
1.5 tbsp ginger
1.5 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp cardamom
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
Mix it all together! Done! This is your way better than anything you’ve ever tasted stuffing. Trust me.
By the way, you can always add more or less of any of the spices above, based on your personal preference.
I have been waiting for a looong time to post a recipe for kabsa, because I absolutely LOVE it. Kabsa combines fragrant, spiced hot rice with tender meat/chicken, and a very exciting (and spicy!) tomato chili sauce on the side. I can’t get enough kabsa! It’s also incredibly easy to make, and is a great dish to serve if you have a lot of people to feed. Serve it piled high on a huge platter, decorated with raisins and toasted almonds, and you’ve got a serious feast for your guests. We serve fresh yogurt, a simple salad, and a hot tomato-chili sauce on the side to complete the meal.
Kabsa is known as being a traditional Saudi Arabian dish, although some say it originated in Yemen. Other Gulf countries, like Kuwait and the UAE, make a variation of kabsa but they call it machboos. In Jordan, Palestinian families have started making it, and it has become very popular, especially for people who like their food with some heat in it! It is most commonly made with meat (usually lamb), but I like it a lot with chicken. My aunt Hanan makes absolutely amazing chicken kabsa, and I’m very happy to share her recipe with you now :) I know a lot – most? – Saudi recipes don’t add tomato to the stock that the rice is cooked in, but my aunt does, and it tastes very flavorful this way. I’ve made this recipe many times and it’s perfect! Make. This. Dish.
A couple notes:
Kabsa is usually made with basmati rice. I have found that for my aunt’s recipe, American long grain seems to work better. Basmati just ends up being a bit dry for my taste, but you can use basmati if you prefer it.
Kabsa requires a special mix of spices. If you live in an Arab country, just ask for “kabsa spice mix” at the spice market/spice section of store. In the US, most Arabic/Middle Eastern grocery stores sell prepared kabsa spices, but I think making your own mix is just as easy and is definitely more fresh.
Here is how to make a kabsa spice mix (the spices will differ from household to household):
Process equal parts of the following spices in a spice grinder/food processor:
ground red pepper or red pepper flakes
also, 2-3 small dried black lemons
also, a lesser amount of ground cinnamon
Alternatively, you can just combine all of the above ingredients if you buy them each ground and ready to go. Also, lessen the amount of peppers used if you like it less hot.
And now, for Unbelievable Chicken Kabsa:
1 chicken, washed properly and cut up into 4-6 pieces (or you can use a package of thighs or whatever cut you like best)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4-5 tablespoons of vegetable oil for browning the onions in
5-6 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
Kabsa spice mix
extra teaspoon of turmeric
extra cardamom pods for extra flavor (crack each pod open slightly with your teeth so the flavorful seeds can get into the food)
4 bay leaves
salt to taste
approx 2 pounds of American long grain rice (wash it, soak for about 15 mins, then drain off the water)
Sautee the onions in the vegetable oil until soft and transparent.
Add the pieces of chicken, and let them brown. Add the chopped tomatoes, the spices, the tomato paste, the cardamom pods, the extra teaspoon of turmeric, the bay leaves and salt to taste to the pot.
Pour in warm water until the chicken is just covered, and give it a stir. Turn the flame up to high. Let the contents of the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pot.
Let the chicken cook – about half an hour.
When thoroughly cooked, scoop the pieces of chicken out of the pot and put off to the side. Pour the rice into the pot of spiced tomato-chicken stock. Turn up the flame, let it come to a boil, then cover the pot and turn the heat way down to very low. Add some more salt here if you want. Let the rice cook for about 15 minutes, then check it, picking at it with a fork. If it’s dry but is still not cooked, add some more water and re-cover. If it’s cooked, you’re done!
To serve: (reheat the chicken pieces in the oven upon serving)
We pile the rice high on a large serving platter, then arrange the pieces of chicken on top. Sprinkle fat yellow raisins and golden toasted almonds on top for garnish (I don’t like raisins so I always leave them out).
Sides you must serve with kabsa:
Simple green salad: diced tomato and cucumber mixed with chopped lettuce and parsley, dressed with lemon juice, salt, and a bit of olive oil.
Our version of Daqous: a spicy tomato chili sauce. To make our version of Daqous: in a blender, puree 2 large tomatoes, 4 large cloves of garlic, one hot green chili pepper, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Serve immediately.
Yeah. Chicken Kabsa. Must eat now.
A quick, rich Egyptian dessert that Taita likes to make every once in a while when we want something sweet but are lazy:
Soak about 2 cups of rice in water for five minutes. Drain the water off.
Boil some water in a large pot. Put the soaked rice into the boiling water. Boil until the rice is just cooked, then add about 1 liter of milk to the pot. Add a cup of thick cream if you have some on hand, to make it even richer.
Add sugar and vanilla to taste.
Add a handful of coconut to the mixture.
You could add a handful of raisins too, if you like them (I don’t like raisins, personally, hence the green highlight color). Stir constantly until it thickens.
Pour the thickened mixture into a baking dish, and put it under your broiler until the top of the pudding turns a rich golden color.
Let it cool, then cut it and serve! It can be eaten at room temperature, or chilled.
Couldn’t be simpler :)
One thing I love about Palestinian cuisine is its wide variety of simple yakhani (“thick stews;” sing. yekhen) featuring seasonal vegetables. Many of these yakhani are cooked following a basic pattern: cook meat and obtain broth, add featured vegetable and tomato sauce, then let cook. I love these dishes because I can savor the freshness of the vegetables, and it makes me feel like I am connected to the earth in which they were grown. I always end up pushing the chunks of meat off to the side and eating all the vegetables! Some of my favorite yakhani are yakhnit green fava beans, yakhnit tomato with ground meat, yakhnit white beans, yakhnit okra, and yakhnit spinach. You can eat most of these yakhani with bread or rice (or both, like my Taita does!).
Today we made Palestinian bamyeh, or okra, and I was really happy at the chance to take pictures so I could post the recipe here. The okra that Palestinians know and like best is the small, short kind. I really do not know what variety this is called, but it’s not usually what I have seen sold back in Minnesota. Even in the frozen foods section, it’s easy enough to find chopped frozen okra or long, thin okra, but those don’t work very well for the Palestinian okra dish. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Two things about our bamyeh:
1) We’re going to be cheating a little bit in this recipe, by using frozen okra. If you have fresh okra, all the better, but frozen works just fine when you can’t get fresh.
2) There are several Palestinian dishes that taste even better the next day (actually, they seem to get better day after day :p). Bamyeh is the best example. If you can, I really suggest making this dish a day before you actually want to have it. I’m serious; sitting in your fridge overnight just enhances its flavor, somehow!
500 grams (aprox) of small cubes of beef or lamb
500 grams (aprox) of frozen okra – if using fresh, wash and cut off the stems
8 tbsp of vegetable oil
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cube of chicken or beef bouillon
1 small green chili pepper, chopped (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes, quartered
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the cubes of meat. Heat two tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a pot, then add the meat and brown it. Add enough water to cover the meat, then add 2 more cups of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and leave it until the meat is just cooked.
Remove the just-cooked meat from the pot and set aside. Remove the broth from the pot and set aside. Keep the pot with the bits of meat for later use!
In a small bowl, empty your package of frozen okra and add 4 cloves of the chopped garlic, the chopped chili pepper, and the bouillon cube.
In the pot used to cook the meat earlier, heat two more tablespoons of the oil. When hot, add the okra (+ stuff), and brown it for a bit.
Now add the cooked meat…
Crush the tomatoes in a blender with about half a cup of water. If it’s still very thick, add some of the broth from the meat cooked earlier.
Pour the crushed tomatoes through a strainer into the pot of okra and meat. Add enough broth from the meat cooked earlier until you get the stew to your desired thickness. I like it a bit on the thicker side. (Use the rest of the broth for making soups!) Let the stew come to a boil, then taste and adjust salt if necessary. Let it gently simmer for about 10-15 more minutes, or until the okra is cooked.
The final step is the most fun part! In a small frying pan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil well. Add the remaining two cloves of chopped garlic, and fry the garlic until it is “sha’rah” (“blond,” or golden brown). Then quickly pour all of the oil with the fried garlic into the big pot of bamyeh and meat. It should make a sizzling sound as the hot oil hits the surface of the stew. Mix into the stew. This hot oil + garlic technique is called ” ‘ad7ah,” and is used to add a final layer of flavor to several different yakhani.
Serve your bamyeh with Egyptian or American short grain rice, or with fresh bread for dipping into it. Bamyeh is also commonly accompanied by a simple soup, and mlokhiyyeh, two great dishes for which I will be posting recipes soon insha’Allah :)
(Note on why chopped bamyeh doesn’t work well for this dish: Okra by nature has a “slimy” feel to it (in a good way!), and the “slime” is increased by cutting the vegetable open. If you use chopped okra, the stew itself will become very thick and slimier than it should be. )
Recipes coming soon for: