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 ;)
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.
While I was walking through the market in the old city in Jerusalem, I overheard an Arab tour guide explaining what grape leaves were to the tourists he was showing around.
“Papers,” he said, in English. “You can stuff them with rice and meat or vegetables…Grape papers.”
In Arabic, leaves are literally “papers” (actually, it’s vice versa: papers are leaves, but anyway…). Later that day, the family I was staying with made “Meat on Leaves/Papers” for lunch (“la7meh 3a wara2”). Different from regular stuffed grape leaves, these ones are filled with meat only and then roasted in the oven till tender. Because the grape leaves are not boiled before being used, they hold up to the cooking and still have a bite to them, which was a really interesting textural experience for me. This dish was also ready in under 20 minutes, a big plus. It was my first time having this traditional dish from Jerusalem, and I loved it!
Fresh, green grape leaves (the fresher the better, because they’ll be more tender)
500g of ground meat
6-7 cloves of garlic (more if you like), crushed
1 bunch of parsley, very finely chopped
1 onion, finely grated
2 medium potatoes, finely sliced
2-3 tomatoes, sliced
1/2 a cup of lemon juice, or a pinch of”lemon salt” (ie citric acid), or some sour unripened green grapes (called “husrom” here); this is to make the dish sour
1 cup of chicken stock, optional; if you don’t want to use stock, use the same amount of water
Note: If you live in a country where you can get “kuftah” meat ready-made from the butcher, substitute the ground meat, parsley, and onions for half a kilo of ready-made kuftah. Then crush the garlic and add it to the kuftah, kneading till well-combined.
First, make your own kuftah meat. Combine the ground meat, parsley, and onion in a mixing bowl and knead well. Add salt&pepper to your liking. This is kuftah.
Add the crushed garlic, and continue to knead well. The more garlic the better!
Now for the grape leaves!
Take a grape leaf and lay it flat in your palm, with the shiny side facing down. Place a bit of meat in the middle of the leaf, then fold the edges of the leaf over it. It’s like wrapping up a package!
Place the wrapped leaves face down in a baking dish.
When you’re done with the leaves, layer the slices of potato and tomato on top. This is optional by the way; if all you want are leaves, just do leaves! But the veggies do give the dish a nice bit of extra flavor.
Drizzle a good amount of olive oil over everything. The more, the better! Add salt&pepper to taste also.
Pour your chicken stock over everything. If you don’t want to use stock, you can just use water (same amount). Also add the lemon juice/sprinkle of citric acid/sour, green unripened grapes at this point.
Cover (you can use foil) and put the dish into a medium oven until the potatoes get tender, and the meat in the leaves cooks through.
After it’s cooked, you can put it under the broiler for a few minutes so the vegetables blacken a bit. I liked it this way!
Serve with fresh bread, yogurt, pickles, and fresh sliced veggies. When I was eating this, I felt like I was consuming a really wholesome meal; you get a bit of meat and a lot of vegetable all in one convenient package! The grape leaves were fresh, sour, and not too soft. (My great aunt, who has false teeth, did not eat the leaves. She picked the meat out of them and left the leaves off to the side. Sorry if that’s gross.)