Kibbeh, take one

Over the past few years, I can safely say I’ve become pretty well acquainted with Arab cuisine, but I had never attempted cooking any dish for myself until now. It was a new experience, and even though the final product didn’t turn out quite as I had first envisioned, it hinted toward the authentic dishes I was familiar with and provided ample motivation to try again.

I can remember the exact moment my life started focusing on learning Arabic, Arab culture and Middle Eastern affairs. It was the summer before my senior year in high school and I attended a two-week “leadership program” in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. The program was entitled “International Diplomacy” and up until that point I had decided my life would involve becoming a fluent-French speaker and I would simply “work at the U.N.” I really had my life figured out, can’t you tell?

One part of the program was to meet with real live U.N. employees at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. One quick comment about how the need for fluent Arabic and Chinese-speaking employees will increase in the coming years ended up changing my entire life path.

A little more than a year later, I entered the George Washington University as a bright-eyed freshman, full of ambition and will all intentions of continuing my French studies, as well as starting up Chinese classes.

…umm? Chinese?

It turned out that all of the Chinese intro classes were all full, but Arabic wasn’t! So here I am today, four years later, showing off my first attempt at emulating a culture that grabbed me by surprise, veered a stubborn 18-year old away from my big dreams of international diplomacy, shoved me headfirst into foreign places (even war zones!) and got me hopelessly hooked on a new cuisine.

My first trip to the Arab world was a semester-long study abroad program in Amman, Jordan, where I first had kibbeh. Kibbeh is a common dish found throughout the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) that consists of a shell of ground lamb and bulgur, filled with any variety of tasty mixtures like (more) lamb and pine nuts or labneh.

The recipe for the basic kibbeh mixture comes from Lebanese Cuisine by Madelain Farah. She dedicated a whole chapter of her book to the many varieties of kibbeh, describing the dish as “one of the prizes of Lebanese cuisine.” She includes helpful tips on making kibbeh, such as the ratio of bulgur to meat and ways to use extra filling or kibbeh mixture for your next meal.

– Basic kibbeh –adapted from Madelain Farah’s Lebanese Cuisine
1 1/3 cup bulgur (add another 1/2 cup if using ground lamb)
1 medium onion, grated
1 tbsp salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 lb ground lean beef or lamb (Madelain suggests leg of lamb as the preferred cut)

– Soak the bulgur under cold water for 10 minutes. Drain and wring out as much excess water as you can.
– Using your fingers, work together the spices and grated onion until thoroughly combined.
– Add the meat and continue kneading the ingredients thoroughly.
– Add the bulgur and continue kneading thoroughly. Try to keep the ingredients chilled by dipping your hands in ice water while you knead the mixture.
– To achieve a finer consistency, pulse the mixture in your food processor a few times. (For the sake of time, I skipped this step but wish I hadn’t! Unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time working the mixture through your fingers, you’ll want your processor’s help in breaking everything down a bit more.)

For the filling, you can get creative. While I was grocery shopping I had forgotten that the traditional kibbeh uses meat in the shell and the stuffing and didn’t buy enough for both. Here’s the recipe for my improvised filling, a simple and hearty vegetarian mixture.

– Carrot and potato filling – by Ivory Pomegranate
4 medium carrots
3 medium potatoes
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 tbsp water or chicken broth
(optional) carrot tops, blanched in salted water to remove bitterness

– Wash, peel and dice carrots and potatoes. Chop garlic. Over medium heat, add the olive oil to a large skillet and cook garlic, potatoes and carrots, along with spices.
– Add the water or chicken broth, turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the veggies are soft, about ten minutes.
– In the meantime, toast the pine nuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat until they are fragrant and browned.
– If your organic carrots came with the tops attached, chop them and add them to the veggie mixture. Only use the tops from organic carrots because of pesticide concerns.
– Add the pine nuts and remove the mixture from heat. Let cool before assembling kibbeh.

– Assembling your kibbeh –
Probably because this was my first time making kibbeh, mine came out looking like oversized meatballs more than the typical torpedo shape. Madelain Farah constantly reminds readers that shaping the kibbeh works best when it’s cold and describes carefully working the mixture between your thumb and finger to achieve a thin, tapered shell. Spoon some filling inside the hollow kibbeh and seal it up, resulting in a cute little football.

My method is simpler and more haphazard…smash a bit between your palms and stuff with filling, squishing together to seal. If my hands weren’t covered in raw meat, I may have read her instructions more closely.

I’m part Italian, let’s just say that my natural heritage is shining through in my technique. A merging of cultures, perhaps?

However you manage to combine the kibbeh and filling, bake the kibbeh at 350 F for about 20-25 minutes. They will probably shrink a bit and develop a delectable brown crust. Let cool for several minutes before serving. From personal experience I can say that a side of rice topped with plain, low-fat yogurt, garnished with some leftover toasted pine nuts and a sprinkling of dried mint flakes is absolutely superb with the kibbeh.

And, if you happen to have some of this delicious, hearty filling left over, maybe you could whip up some pasta or dough and make some raviolis or empanadas? Just saying…it could be a good idea.