Arabian Nights

Bad bad blogger (slap on the wrist)! It’s been quite a while since my last post. Work has been crazier than ever. But no fear, new recipes are here!

For the past week or so I’ve been planning a special dinner for my boyfriend. While in the Marine Corps he did two tours in Iraq and fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s his absolute favorite food, and just so happens to be the food I cook the least of. In fact I’ve never attempted it. Earlier this month we went to Marhaba, a Middle Eastern restaurant in his hometown of Lambertville, NJ and it was delicious! The combination of creamy tzatziki, a yogurt dipping sauce, over spicy grilled meat, all wrapped up in a warm, soft pita was absolutely scrumptious. The tabbouleh appetizer was also very tasty and no Middle Eastern meal is complete without deep amber, sweet mint tea.

I did a good amount of research on Middle Eastern cuisine and read through several recipes to put together this night’s menu. Although it shed some light on this otherwise foreign cuisine, I still don’t have a complete understanding of it. I think this is because the term “Middle Eastern” is so broad. Each individual region has its own way of doing things. So although in a general sense they are all quite similar, there are slight differences that distinguish one from the other. For example I wanted to make some sort of ground meat kebab using a combination of lamb and beef. My search turned up kefta, kufta, kofta, kubideh, koobideh. What’s the difference? How do I know which is the best? Which is most similar to Iraqi cuisine?

Here is what I know for sure. Kebab is the term used to describe meat cooked on or near an open flame. Shish Kebab means it’s skewered. Kefta, kufta, and kofta are different spellings, depending on the region, for pretty much the same thing: ground meat, usually lamb or beef, mixed with spices, parsley and onion, shaped into a round meatball or a more cylindrical, cigar shape and grilled. Kubideh, also spelled koobideh is similar to kefta but comes from the Persian/Iranian region. Still confused? Join the club 🙂 My menu consists of homemade pita, tabbouleh for the starter, kefta kebab with tzatziki, roasted veggies and rice pilaf (click the links for the full recipes).

I’m going to be honest here and say that my pita didn’t turn out. I’ve never made it before and I’m not quite sure what went wrong. I used whole wheat and unbleached all-purpose flour, dry yeast, water, salt and olive oil. I gave it about 2 hours to rise. The first sign of trouble was that it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should have. I rolled them out and baked them on a pizza stone. At this point they are supposed to balloon  as the center fills with air and forms a pocket. That didn’t really happen either. It’s possible I rolled them out too thick because it also took triple the time to cook. They tasted fine, they just didn’t have that light, hollow quality. Learn from my mistake and get store bought pita as backup. I’ll try again soon and post the recipe once I get it right!

Tabbouleh is a middle eastern salad of sorts composed of parsley, mint, tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, onion, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and bulgar wheat. What is bulgar wheat you ask? It’s a grain commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. I had never seen it before and had trouble finding it in a regular grocery store. I’m positive Whole Foods would have it but I decided to go to a Middle Eastern grocery store instead. My tabbouleh also includes the Middle Eastern spice sumac, so I knew I could find it there as well. I went to Nouri Brothers in Paterson, NJ. They have an excellent selection of products and an adjoining store with housewares, clothing, books, and an extensive collection of hookahs. No hookahs for me, but I did pick up an adorable set of tea cups. Serve the tabbouleh with warm pita.

My kefta recipe is based on the flavors I associate most with Middle Eastern food. I can’t tell you which region it represents most, but I can guarantee it’s delicious. I choose a combination of ground lamb and beef and mixed them with onion, garlic, parsley, coriander, cumin, cayenne, sumac, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon and an egg to bind it all together. I decided to skewer them and shape them into cylinders. I recommend metal skewers, but if you’re using wood skewers soak them in water for at least half hour. Otherwise they’ll burn. I would have preferred to grill them because you just can’t beat that cooked over a fire taste. Once again, 12 floor, so I broiled them on a rack over a sheet tray, turning them every couple of minutes.

Tzatziki is a relatively well known yogurt dipping sauce. It’s exact origin is unknown but it is most commonly associated with Greek cuisine. I recommend using Greek yogurt for this because its thicker and creamier, but regular yogurt works too. It typically includes fresh dill, lemon juice, garlic, and cucumbers. Some people like to blend all ingredients to form a smooth dip. I like a little texture in mine, so I add the cucumbers in a small dice for a chunkier dip. I also add honey. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the spicy kefta.

As a side dish I made rice pilaf and broiled vegetables. If you’re not familiar with pilaf it’s just rice that is sautéed in oil, usually with vegetables, before adding the cooking liquid, be it stock or water. Here I sweat minced garlic and onions in olive oil, added the rice and let it cook in the oil for several minutes, then added water. This method gives the rice more flavor and it keeps the grains separate so you have fluffy rice. Easy rule of thumb for rice: 1 part rice to 2 parts liquid. As for what type of rice to use, basmati is a good option. I just used the jasmine rice I had and it turned out great. For the vegetables I cut a green and red bell pepper and a red onion into large cubes, coated them with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and cooked them on a tray in the broiler. But again, you can also skewer them and cook them on the grill.

Last but not least, the tea. All I knew about Middle Eastern “chai” is that they like it dark and super sweet. But what tea leaves do they use? The tea at Marhaba tasted like mint. An employee at Nouri Brothers also explained that they infuse their teas with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. So I bought a Ceylon cardamom tea which promised a deep amber color, added some mint tea I had at home, and infused it with cinnamon and cloves. Pretty good if I say so myself! Add a couple spoonfuls of sugar and you’ve got “chai”.

Add the final touches with pretty gold-rimmed plates, candles, and decorative table cloth (I used a shawl he brought back for me from Iraq) and you’ve got yourself a Middle Eastern feast.

P.S. sorry for the missized photos. Something’s up with my wordpress formatting.


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