Photos above: Maqlūba and Hummus (Clifford A. Wright), Muhammara (Duane Winfield)
Upside-down Rice and Eggplant Casserole
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 4:30 hours
Upside-down dishes have a long history. In the thirteenth-century Arabic cookbook known as the Baghdad cookery book, a chapter is devoted to "fried, marinated, and turned" dishes. Two of the recipes are called maqlūba, which means "upside down." Although they don't bear any resemblance to this famous preparation of the same name popularly made in Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, being made mostly with meat, eggs, and spices, the method of inverting the cooked dish is the same.
This Palestinian recipe for maqlūba is a rice and eggplant casserole made with richly succulent braised lamb and tomatoes. When the casserole is inverted, the top is bright red from the tomatoes that cover golden eggplant.
2 medium eggplant (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and slice 1/2-inch thick
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of as much fat as possible and cut into pieces
1 tablespoon bahārāt (see Note)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice berries
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 cups water
Olive oil for frying
3 large ripe but firm, tomatoes (about 1 3/4 pounds), sliced
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice, rinsed well or soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes and drained
1 cup boiling water
- In a large sauté pan, heat 5 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring occasionally, the onion until yellow, 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the lamb, bahārāt, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and cook, turning the lamb, until browned, 10 minutes. Add the water to barely cover the lamb and cook until the lamb is very tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding a little water to keep the pan from drying out if necessary. Remove the lamb from the pan with a slotted spoon or skimmer, getting as much of the onion as you can and leaving behind the fat.
- Preheat the frying oil to 375 degrees F in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert.
- Deep-fry the eggplant slices in batches until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes, turning once. Drain and reserve on paper towels. Let the frying oil cool completely, strain, and save for a future use if desired.
- Lightly oil the bottom of a round, heavy-bottomed 4- to 6-quart casserole, 10 inches in diameter, with a tight fitting lid with the remaining teaspoon extra virgin olive oil and arrange the tomatoes slices on the bottom, overlapping or double layering if necessary. Sprinkle a handful of rice on top of the tomatoes. Layer the lamb on top, then layer the sliced eggplants on top of the meat. Press down with a spatula or the back of your hand. Pour the rice on top and spread it evenly, pressing down again with a spatula or the back of your hand, add 1 teaspoon salt, the remaining ½ teaspoon pepper, and the boiling water. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat, using simmer-control setting or a heat diffuser, until the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed, about 4 hours. Don’t check too often, maybe twice during the whole cooking time. The liquid in the casserole should not be boiling vigorously. If you do not have a simmer-control setting the dish will be done in 1 hour, but it may unmold with difficulty.
- When the rice is done, take off the lid, place a large round serving platter over the top of the casserole, and carefully invert in one very quick motion, holding both sides very tightly. Slowly and carefully lift the casserole. Serve hot.
Note: to make ½ cup bahārāt spice mix, grind together ¼ cup black peppercorns, ¼ cup allspice berries, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg. Store in a dark place.
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 30 minutes or 3:30 hours
In the twelfth century, the poverty and lack of good health of Egyptians was noted by 'Abd al- Latif al-Baghdadi, a physician from Baghdad, who tells us that children in Egypt were thin, deformed, and stunted and that putrid and phlegmatic diseases affected the population of the Nile. The Florentine Lionardo Frescobaldi observed in 1384 that the Egyptians were very feeble (and their bread was very white, meaning it was missing the nutritious bran). Chickpeas were part of the staple Egyptian diet, and the most famous of chickpea preparations from the Levant and Egypt are now firmly ensconced on the American table.
Hummus, this world-famous purée, obligatory on every Arab mazza (or meze) table (see Food History, “What is a meze?” under “Arab Levant”), is loved throughout the Arab world and is now found ubiquitously in the United States, somewhat corrupted from its original state. The word ḥummuṣ means “chickpea” in Arabic. The oldest recipe we know of is a thirteenth century Egyptian recipe from the anonymous cookbook Kanz al-fawī’id fī tanwīc al-mawā’id called “chickpea puree with cinnamon and ginger.” That recipe is not too far removed from the hummus of today as it instructs you to cook the chickpeas in water, then pound in a mortar until reduced to a purée. Then the purée is mixed with wine vinegar, preserved lemon pulp, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, parsley, mint, and rue and dressed with a good amount of good-quality olive oil poured over it at the table.
In the modern version, the tahini is the sesame seed paste that one stirs into the mashed chickpeas. The convenience of prepared hummus is perfect for our harried lifestyles, but unfortunately most prepared hummus is sub-standard. In the Arab world, every family has their own recipe for hummus, so that the prepared dish does not have such a standardized reputation as it does in this country. For example, in Syria some families make hummus with olive oil, cumin, and allspice instead of tahini and lemon juice. This recipe will give you a more flavorful and personal rendition, that I think you will enjoy, but feel free to experiment. For instance, you may want to make a smoother hummus, in which case push the cooked chickpeas through a food mill. No matter how you make hummus, it is important to peel and discard as much of the thin white skins of the chickpeas as you can. I don’t recommend using canned chickpeas, but in case you do use 6 cups canned cooked chickpeas, saving 1 1/ 2 cup of water from the cans. Sumac can be found in Middle Eastern markets.
3 cups dried chickpeas (about 1 ½ pounds), picked over and soaked overnight in cold water to cover mixed with 1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves
½ cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
½ cup fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup pine nuts
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves and fresh mint leaves for garnish
½ teaspoon sumac for garnish
- Drain the chickpeas and place in a pot of lightly salted water to cover by 2-inches. Bring the water to a boil over a high heat until it foams, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the foam with a skimmer and continue boiling, partially covered, until tender, about 3 hours, so keep checking. Add boiling water to the pot to keep the chickpeas continuously covered. Drain and save 1 ½ cups of the cooking water. Return the cooked chickpeas to the same pot filled with some cold water so you can rub the skins off the chickpeas with your fingers (many of them will rise to the surface).
- Process the chickpeas with ½ cup of the olive oil and 1 cup of the reserved chickpea cooking water in a food processor until creamy.
- In a mortar, pound the garlic with 1 tablespoon salt until it is a creamy mush. In a small bowl, beat the tahini and lemon juice together slowly. If it is too thick, add water--never more lemon juice. Stir the tahini-and-lemon juice mixture into the garlic and salt. Stir this mixture into the chickpea purée, adjust the salt, and season with pepper. Check the consistency; if it is too thick, like an oatmeal, then add some of the remaining reserved chickpea cooking water until it is smoother, like a Cream of Wheat. Check the taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If you do need to adjust the taste, the process must be repeated--in other words, mash some more garlic with salt or mix a tablespoon of tahini with a tablespoon of lemon juice.
- In a small skillet, cook the pine nuts in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until light brown, stirring, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.
- Spoon the hummus onto a large round serving platter, not a bowl. Warm the remaining 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Make spiral or fan-shaped furrows in the hummus and fill with warm olive oil. Sprinkle the reserved pine nuts around. Garnish the edges with mint leaves and sprinkle the chopped mint on top. Sprinkle the sumac over and serve. Serve with warm khubz cArabī (Arabic flatbread or pita bread).
Variation: Canned cooked chickpeas can be used instead of dried.
Note: Other garnishes used are whole cooked chickpeas, black olives, pomegranate seeds, cayenne pepper, red Aleppo pepper, paprika, or ground cumin.
Makes 6 servings
Yield: Makes 2 cups
Preparation Time: 1 hour
Arabs will reflexively tell you that the famous muhammara comes from Aleppo in Syria. This blend of walnuts, red bell peppers, pomegranate molasses, and bread used as a dip or a spread is indeed from Aleppo, but one can find it toward the north and east too, especially in southeastern Turkey and toward the Caucasus. It is an invitingly red color and its name derives, in fact, from the Arabic root word for red. Some cooks add onions to theirs. I collected this recipe the last time I was in Aleppo in the early 1990s and I like to serve it with warm Arabic bread or as an accompaniment to grilled steaks, grilled fish, grilled kebabs, or just dipped into with Arabic bread. The red Aleppo pepper called for can usually be found in Middle Eastern markets. In Turkey, they call it kırmızı biber. Aleppo pepper can be ordered via http://www.penzeys.com/ and other purveyors.
1/4 pound walnuts
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from about 1 thick slice French or Italian bread, crust removed)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon coarsely ground red Aleppo pepper
2 red bell peppers, roasted (see Note) peeled, seeded, cut into strips, and set in a colander to drain for 15 minutes
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
1 teaspoon sugar
Place all the ingredients in a blender and process into a paste, stopping the blender and scraping it down when necessary. Refrigerate, but serve at room temperature. It will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
Note: Roast the bell peppers over a grill or stovetop burner until charred and blistered black all over. Remove the peel and seeds. Cut into strips and let rest in a strainer for 15 minutes.