Vegan Kibbeh with Turkish cranberry beans

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 aTurkish beanss 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.

Beans
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.

KIBBEH

Filling
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

Bulgur mixture
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.

Tomato Sauce
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 timebaked kibbeh. 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. poached kibbehNot 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 quitcranberry bean kibbeh poached in tomato saucee 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.

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Saying “Yes”

This post is about beans. Really, it is. Just not about cooking beans, or eating them. Instead it’s about the dream aspect. Except, as an aside, I did eat some beans last night, at Ed’s Potsticker House, where they’re served in small bowls, waiting on the table when you first arrive, a snack. Unfortunately, though, I can’t tell you what those beans, which were glazed with some deliciousness, tasted like. Starving, talking to the people around me, I reached for what I thought was a piece of lotus root. I should have looked more carefully. What I saw was not lotus root. It was star anise. The spice. Which I realized only when I actually bit into and chewed it. My first bite therefore kind’ve overpowered the subtle flavors of, well, everything else. Not smart. But funny. And awesome.

The fact that I actually bit into the star anise in a mistaken belief that it was food is awesome because it was so completely ridiculous. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is to celebrate my recognition and appreciation of the ridiculousness in the moment.

What does all of this have to do with beans, you ask? Or saying “Yes”? Everything.

Six months ago, had I mistaken the star anise for food and therefore temporarily destroyed my sense of taste just before what was expected to be a marvelous feast with friends, an event that I’d been looking forward to for days, I would have beaten myself up, embarrassed and angry and sad. I would also have recognized the humor, of course, but it would have been tainted. Last night, however, I didn’t have to sort through any complicated barriers to get to enjoyment.

The difference, I believe, is that six months ago a dear friend and I started taking improv classes. Everyone who knew me well was shocked, as I was universally considered to be, as one person put it, the very last person on earth one could imagine taking–or doing–improv. I’m a planner. An analyzer. An over thinker. I make lists and ponder and agonize, plotting out my life years in advance in a series of short and long term goals. Of course few if any of these plans have ever worked out exactly as anticipated, but that does not stop me from trying.

My original plan for improv was to take a single class, both as a diversion from grief over my failed marriage and also as a tool to overcome my terror of oral argument. I had no interest in performing. In fact, the thought was absolutely horrifying. But at the time I was in the process of drafting a cert petition that actually had a chance of being granted, and figured that I needed to do whatever I could to prepare myself for a possible appearance in front of Justice Scalia.

To some extent, the plan worked. I discovered a whole new world within Chicago, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with the life I led with my then-husband. Diversion. And, while my cert petition was denied and therefore I don’t have to worry about arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court anytime soon (or, probably, ever), I have grown more comfortable with oral argument. I’m no longer so afraid.

The part of the plan that didn’t work, or, rather, worked out much differently than what I expected, was that improv changed my life.

When I started Level A, I had been practicing yoga for about 15 years. The entire point of yoga as I understand it is to stop thinking, to be in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “Flow.” (http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html) In all my years of yoga I’ve rarely experienced Flow. Yet I found it in my first night of improv. And since then I’ve found myself connecting more deeply in my yoga practice.

This past week was the first class of Level D, my fourth term of improv. I don’t know whether I’ll keep going after this, whether I have any desire to perform. The idea still terrifies me. Yet this past week also reminded me of how short life is. Two people I know, one a colleague, one a very close friend of several of my close friends, died. Neither reached the age of 50. Life is short. It must be lived, fear and all. Which is why I signed up for a free workshop tonight,  with Sirens, an all-female improv group. (http://www.sirensimprov.com/upcoming.html) After the workshop, we, the students, will open for Sirens. Eeeeeek! I’m petrified. But I’m saying yes.

I can’t claim to have found flow in every improv class. In fact, much of the time I’ve been actively miserable. It’s terrifying to be so exposed, doing and saying things without time to think. Yet I keep going. Because I feel myself growing and stretching, learning that the more I risk failure, the greater the reward. Which brings me to my point. I decided to write about this today after reading an article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/12/tina-fey-30-rock-star-success_n_2458102.html) about Tina Fey’s secret to success: say “Yes.”

“There are limits of reason to this idea of saying yes to everything, but when I meet someone whose first instinct is ‘No, how can we do that? That doesn’t seem possible,’ I’m always kind of taken aback. Almost anyone would say, ‘It’s Friday at two in the morning. We don’t have an opening political sketch. We can’t do it.’ Yeah, of course you can. There’s no choice. And even if you abandon one idea for another one, saying yes allows you to move forward.”

The article resonated with me because, like Tina Fey, learning to say “yes” has changed my life, has made me less afraid to move forward even when I have absolutely no idea of where I’m going. I still plan, because that’s what I do. But I now do so without rigidity, knowing (or at least trying to remember) that I can’t control the outcome, that things may not turn out as anticipated.

As I wrote in my very first post, on January 1, “[t]his is the year I’m embracing the possibility of failure, trying new things, overcoming my fear of change.” So I started this blog. Which is pretty cool. I don’t know whether it will actually result in a cookbook, as per my plan. But regardless of what happens, I’m enjoying the process. Because, really, that’s what it’s all about.