Around the World in Seven Days

Last week (week 7 in isolation) I played with dinners. Monday was Cinco de Mayo, had to Mexican. On another night because my favorite grocery store had ground lamb, I made kibbeh. And in honor of a film I was reviewing, Breaking Bread, I thought I’d try mahlouba, a Palestinian, layered rice, vegetable, and meat dish.

Cinco de Mayo. While the rest of America in seclusion, and elsewhere no doubt, was chowing down on tacos, we enjoyed something altogether different in chez nous, our casa. I love tacos but the rest of the family does not. A favorite dish of Daughter’s when she was younger was camerones en mojo de ajo, baked shrimp in garlic sauce. In fact, for a few years it was the dish I prepared for her birthday. I served it with an ensalada de calabacitas and green rice.

The recipes are from my well-used grad school Mexican Cooking Class Cookbook.

I started preparations earlier in the day with the zucchini salad so it had time to marinate. Cut about 3 zucchinis lengthwise in half, then crosswise into half circles. Sprinkle with salt and let sit for about 30 minutes. Mix 5 tbsp of white vinegar, 1 minced garlic clove, and ¼ tsp of dried thyme with ½ cup olive oil for the dressing. Next, pat the zucchini dry and add the dressing. Add 1 cup of canned garbanzo beans, ½ cup chopped, ripe (California) black olives, 3 chopped green onions and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Before serving, add 1 drained and seeded chipotle pepper (I omitted this), 1 ripe, chopped avocado, and 1/3 cup crumbled queso anejo or feta (also omitted). Toss well. Line a bowl with nice lettuce leaves and top with the lovely ensalada de calabacitas (often a favorite at potluck dinners. Will we ever see these again now that buffet restaurants are a thing of the past life?).

Green rice was the next up. I adjusted this recipe to meet the tastes of the family – no piquant or cumin for Daughter, no cheese for Constant Companion (though he is eating some dairy now) and no cilantro in the house! Heat oil in a frying pan, add one cup of long-grain rice and stir about two minutes. Add ¼ chopped white onions for about a minute. Add 2 chopped poblano peppers (omitted), 6 thinly sliced scallions, some frozen green peas, 1 chopped garlic clove, salt and ¼ tsp cumin. Stir til nicely mixed. Add 1¾ cup chicken stock and mix. Heat til boiling, cover, and simmer for about 15 minute. [I have never done the following, looks good though.] Remove from heat and add 1 cup of queso Chihuahua and 1/3 cup chopped cilantro. Transfer to a greased baking dish and top with some more cheese. Bake, uncovered for about 15 minutes.

Last to prepare was the shrimp because it cooks very quickly. I used peeled shrimp this time.* Heat the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse the shrimp. Combine ½ cup butter with ½ cup of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat (I used only oil). Add 8 finely chopped garlic cloves, 1-3 dried chile de arbol (in the past, I used a small can of green chiles), 1 tbsp lime juice, and ¼ tsp salt. Remove from heat. Spread the shrimp in a 2 quart shallow baking dish, pour hot butter mixture over the shrimp. Bake the shrimp, stirring once or twice no more than 12 minutes. Garnish with chopped green onions.

*Tip: If you use shrimp that needs to be peeled, peel them before preparing the rice; put the shrimp shells into a pot of water (about 4 cups), bring to a boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes. That makes a great shrimp broth for another time.

A few days later, in honor of the great find of ground lamb (I still have 2 pounds for another dinner or two), I made kibbeh. This Lebanese dish mixes the meat with bulgur wheat. It can be made in torpedo shaped orbs and fried or baked in a loaf. I’m not a good fryer, so the baked version is what we enjoy. I searched through several of my cookbooks and chose the recipe that suited my needs in this book purchased a while ago from a Borders Book Store; this series of cookbooks is great because they include historical background to the region(s), information about the cuisine in general, more information about the typical ingredients before even getting to the recipes, and excellent photos. They make excellent reading these days if you’ve bored yourself with tv, YouTube, and films!

For this kibbeh, preheat the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. For the crust/outer layer, rinse 2/3 cup bulgur (the grind of the wheat was not specified) in a sieve and squeeze out the excess water. Mix 1 pound of ground lamb with 1 large, grated onion, and salt and pepper. Mix it really well; I used a potato masher. Mix well with the bulgur and set aside.

For the filling, heat some oil in a frying pan and fry 1 finely chopped onion til golden. Add 1 pound of ground lamb and cook til evenly browned. Add 1/3 cup of pine nuts, ½ tsp allspice, salt and pepper.

Spread half of the meat and bulgur mixture in an oiled baking pan. Add the filling to make a second layer. Top with the rest of the meat/bulgur crust. Press down firmly with the back of a spoon. Pour 1 tbsp melted butter on the top. Bake for 40-45 minutes.

The third stop on last week’s trip around the world did not take us much further. I recently saw the movie Breaking Bread by Beth Hawk. This film explores an amazing food festival held annually in Haifa which pairs Israeli Arab chefs with Israeli Jewish chefs to celebrate some of the outstanding and little known Arab foods of the region. One participant from Akko/Acre brought his grandmother’s mahlouba, a rice dish layered with meat and vegetables. I’d actually bought some baby octopuses but was a bit scared to experiment. There are loads of recipes on-line to follow. Here’s what I used:    

Cut one eggplant into 1/2-inch-thick half-moons. Season well with salt, and let sit 30 minutes.* Place 4 chicken thighs and 4 legs in a large pot, add salt and 1 tsp. black pepper, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 6 cloves, 6 cardamom pods, and 3 bay leaves (these spices were omitted in deference to Daughter). After 20 minutes drain the chicken, SAVE the broth. Pour 3 cups of boiling water over 2½ cups of long-grain rice. Soak for 10 minutes, then drain well.

*Note: I did not have an eggplant, so I used a zucchini instead, this being isolation shopping and cooking.

Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a large skillet, fry the vegetables [I used ½ head of cauliflower florets, zucchini, and small potatoes halved. You can use sliced carrots]. Drain on paper towels, lightly with salt. Add ¾ cup of broken (about 1” pieces) vermicelli to the same pan with oil; stir until browned, about 2 minutes. Add the drained rice and stir about 4 minutes. Add 1 tbsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp turmeric, ¾ tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp allspice, ¼ tsp ground cloves, and 3 grated cloves of garlic, and cook, stirring, until very fragrant.

Put the chicken back in the pot you cooked it in, skin side down. Add the vegetables, then the rice. Pour in 4 cups of the SAVED chicken broth. Press down the rice; add more broth or water if needed to bring the liquid barely to the level of the rice. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then turn it down to medium low. After 10 minutes, carefully stir just the rice to evenly combine the harder rice on top. Repeat after another 10 minutes. After a total of 30 minutes, the rice should be cooked, but not soft, and the liquid should be absorbed.

Place a very large serving dish on top of the pot. Protecting your hands (and maybe with a partner), invert the pot onto the dish in one smooth motion. If there is liquid seeping out, spoon it out or soak it up with paper towels. Let the pot rest at least 5 minutes.

My pot of rice et al combined with the platter were way too heavy for Constant Companion and I to flip. The three of us served ourselves straight from the cooking pot. My apologies to real cooks of this dish as we lost the visual effect of the stacked ingredients.

Miami Jewish Film Festival: 2020 Films
Osama Dalal (left) and Ilan Ferron (right), mahlouba

It’s hump day of week 8 of isolation. I read that our community might be opening salons next week. We can get hair cuts! No more total wildness. What else can we look forward to? Just as long was we continue to take precautions and take care as we move to the very unknown future.

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