I was first introduced to Kibbeh (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbeh) at a tiny little restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, Bethlehem restaurant, where I worked, briefly, as a waitress, back when I first moved to the city. I think the job lasted three weeks. I wasn’t fired. Nor did I quit. The owner simply disappeared, so that one evening when I showed up for work he simply wasn’t there. Which was fine. I was not a very good waitress. I was constantly convinced I was going to drop food. It made me nervous. And I don’t think I made enough money to cover transportation costs.
Because there were so few customers, I passed the time by talking to the owner. Or, rather, listening. Mostly he spoke of things I didn’t understand. He was Palestinian. I was a completely ignorant 22-year-old who at that time in my life (yes, I am ashamed of this) was wilfully disengaged from the political process and cared little, because I knew nothing, about the middle east. So I didn’t have any concept of what drove this man to drink various airplane sized bottles of alcohol at the end of each night. All I cared about was his food. He cooked delicious, intriguing food, much of which I’d never heard of or tasted.
I was familiar with hummus, of course, and falafel, both of which he made and made well. But kibbeh? Completely new. It reminded me of the aranciata I used to devour during the glorious bit of my life that I spent studying abroad in Florence, Italy. But instead of gooey rice and cheese, a relatively bland comfort food that one could sink into without thought, food as escapism, kibbeh required engagement. Analysis. One could not help but think about the contrasts in taste and texture brought with each bite, unfamiliar and intriguing. Yet, because of the unfamiliarity, I was overwhelmed. Plus, while delicious, the first kibbeh I experienced was more of an appetizer than a dinner. Not something I would ever cook at home. I therefore never asked for the recipe or thought much about how to make it.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when a friend and I were at Semirami’s, my favorite local Lebanese restaurant. (http://www.semiramisrestaurant.com/) We both ordered the special. kibbeh poached in tomato sauce. It was revelatory! And also inspiring. I was planning to cook dinner for a friend’s birthday the following weekend and had been at a loss for what to make. Because we were going to a play beforehand. Which meant the dinner needed to be made ahead. Yet, because I was cooking as part of a gift, I wanted it to be special. This would be perfect! And I was pretty sure I could it with beans.
Since I started this project, dreamsofmyfava, I’ve stockpiled quite a few beans. Some I ordered and others I received as gifts, from supportive friends. So I had quite an array of choices to consider. None of them seemed quite right, though. Then I remembered–a good friend recently visited Turkey, where, apparently, beans are so popular that entire restaurants are devoted to them. So she brought me a sack of Turkish beans. Which I’m pretty sure are cranberry beans. Which are my favorite. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/03/cranberry-beans-with-garlic-sage-and-olive-oil/)While Turkey is not Lebanon, and I didn’t actually find any recipes for Turkish Kibbeh, it felt right. Decision made.
Now that I knew what kind of bean I would use, I faced the fact that in addition to making a version with beans, the challenge for this recipe was that I’ve never even made the traditional, tried and true kibbeh with lamb. And when I looked online, I could not find a single example of poached kibbeh. I therefore had no frame of reference beyond my single meal from Semiramis. But, having made the decision, I was undeterred. And perhaps a little manic. Because during that week I was also trying to write a tricky, long, and painfully fruitless brief at work. In my spare time, I was working on organizing a panel discussion on prison reform. And I was also texting back and forth with a much younger man who had asked me out on a date. Which, for where I’m at right now, was terrifying and exciting on pretty much every possible level. In short, my mind was overflowing with hopes and anxieties and dreams.
Thankfully, there was also yoga. Which enabled me to continue moving forward, non-grasping, through the hopes, past the anxieties, and without investing in any dreams. I focused.
First, I read several recipes. All shared the same ingredients of bulgur, lamb, onion, and pine nuts, flavored with allspice and cinnamon. I finally settled on this one from Epicurious as my template because it was baked, not fried. (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Baked-Kibbeh-107351)
Next, I cooked the beans. Because I wanted them to retain their shape, I brined overnight. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/05/brining-beans/) I added spices and olive oil in an effort to create a richer mouth feel and a deeper, more complex flavor.
1-1/2 c. dried cranberry beans
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
3 T. olive oil
1 thumb-sized piece kombu (for digestion)
Add all of the ingredients to the insert of a crockpot or a medium-sized pot. Cover with 1″ water. If using a crockpot, cook on high for 3 hours, or until done. If cooking on the stove, bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer checking the water level and testing for doneness. They will probably take about 1-1/2 hours. When they’ve done (or a little earlier, when they’ve given up but aren’t yet finished), salt liberally, starting with 1 teaspoon. I believe I used about 1-1/2 teaspoons. Cool in the cooking liquid and refrigerate until ready to use.
Next I started working on the kibbeh, which is a bit of a process.
1/2 medium, sweet onion, finely chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 c. cooked beans, drained but not rinsed
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. dried crushed chili pepper
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c. pine nuts, toasted
salt, if necessary
1 c. fine bulgur
1/2 medium, sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1-1/2 or 2 c. cooked beans, drained but not rinsed
1 t. ground allspice
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper
1. To make the filling, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over moderate heat. Cook the onion until golden, 8-10 minutes. Add the beans and spices, stirring gently to combine, and cook until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the pine nuts. Salt to taste.
2. To make the bulgur mixture, first cover the bulgur with 1 inch of cold water in a bowl. After the dust and chaff rise to the surface, pour off the water. Repeat twice. Then cover the rinsed bulgur with 1″ of cold water and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain in a fine-meshed sieve, pressing down on the bulgur to remove excess liquid, and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
3. To assemble the kibbeh, I used an ice cream server to scoop about an egg-sized portion of the bulgur mixture into the palm of my hand. I pressed an indentation in the center and added a scant tablespoon of the filling. I then formed the bulgur mixture around the filling. Transfer the filled kibbeh to a lightly oiled plate and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling and bulgur mixture. Refrigerate, uncovered, while you make the tomato sauce.
The tomato sauce at Semirami’s was delicious, unctuous and sweet with definite chunks of tomato and onion. Although I did not identify the spices when I was at the restaurant, from my research I was pretty sure it was flavored with allspice and cinnamon. So that’s what I decided to use. The Semirami’s sauce was also very sweet, almost certainly made with a generous amount of sugar. Since I try not to cook with refined sugar, I decided to use honey.
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28-oz can whole plum tomatoes, chopped
1 medium, sweet onion, chopped medium
1/4 c. olive oil
1 T. honey
salt to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet, over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until golden, approximately 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the honey and salt to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
Okay. Here’s where I took a misstep. What I should have done was bake the kibbeh for about 40 minutes at 350. That’s what I did with this one. And it’s what I’ll do next time. As you can see, you then have a cohesive little bundle, which is presentable. But, of course, I, being impatient, over confident, and generally overwhelmed, did not take that route.
Instead, I took the carefully formed, uncooked kibbeh from the fridge and nestled them directly into the tomato sauce. The little guy overhead got the special treatment only because he wouldn’t fit into the skillet with his friends. Who, after cooking on the stove for about 10 minutes and then in the oven, covered for another 45 minutes, looked like this. Not pretty. I tried a bite. It was delicious. But I had to transport this dish to my friend’s house. And then serve it for her birthday dinner. By which point it would bear no resemblance to kibbeh. It would be stew. Which might be okay. But I was not going for stew. I wanted kibbeh.
At this point, the person I was until very recently would probably have been freaking out. So I’m very proud to report that I wasn’t at all stressed. It was improv. The original idea didn’t work. The possibility remained, however, for something new. So. Onward.
In an act of bold desperation, laughing, I took out a baking sheet, lined it with parchment paper, and carefully scooped each fragile kibbeh from the sauce to the baking sheet. Then I crossed my fingers and jumped in the shower. 20 minutes later things were smelling good. They weren’t quite firm, but something was happening. And, after an additional 25 minutes, I had these. Not the most beautiful dish I’ve ever made. Not what I intended to make. But, hands down, the most delicious food I’ve ever created. Complex flavor, toothsome bite, and deeply satisfying. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to recreate that magic. But I plan to try. Because even if it doesn’t turn out the same as the first time, I can’t imagine that it will be bad. And even if it is bad, I will have fun. Living love. Full of gratitude for the ability to feed myself and people I love. And, through creating delicious, healthy food, manufacturing joy.