Today I am thrilled to share my very first guest post with my wonderful readers. Our guest’s name is Heba and she’s passionate about sharing wholesome, natural recipes (see her blog My Life in a Pyramid), as well as healthy Middle Eastern food and culture (check out MidEATS, a lovely blog she co-authors with another talented blogger, Brenda). Her recipes are as delicious as they are healthy, her pictures are enticing, and I always leave her blog longing for another visit to the Middle East.
Baked Kibbeh (Cardamom-Scented Meat and Bulgur Pie with Toasted Pine Nuts): A Guest Post from MidEATS
I have many fond memories of my grandparents’ traditional cooking. You see, I grew up in Bahrain, the little island in the Arabian Gulf, but both my parents are Egyptian. Egypt was only a short three hour plane ride away from Manama, so we’d go every summer when I was growing up. Many of our days in Egypt revolved around cooking. To give you an idea of how spoiled we were by our grandparents: As we were eating a wonderfully prepared dish every afternoon, my grandma would ask us “what would you like to eat tomorrow?” Almost every day, we’d have a debate on the dinner table about what we’d like to eat for the following day’s dinner; will it be freekeh-stuffed pigeons (Egyptian quail stuffed with roasted green wheat), meat-and-rice stuffed grape leaves or white eggplants, or a big bowl of delicious molokhia (Jute Mallow soup) with some fresh-from-the-butcher chicken, boiled and then pan-fried in ghee? As you can imagine, these were difficult choices to make.
And then we’d visit my other grandma on the weekends. She would have dishes upon dishes prepared for us ahead of time. My dad’s mom had a degree in the culinary arts, and so she was particularly skilled in the kitchen. Her homemade fig jam and strawberry marmalade, served with thick cream or butter were to die for. Her famous béchamel sauce was a popular request – it just seemed to make all vegetables taste better! Oh, and I can’t forget about dessert – her anise-scented biscotti were seriously addictive with a warm cup of black tea with milk. But by far, one of the best dishes my paternal grandma made was the baked kibbeh, a bulgur-and-ground-beef pie that would fill the house with a delicious meaty scent every time she made it.
What is Baked Kibbeh?
Kibbeh is to the Levantine and Middle Eastern cultures what traditional meatloaf is to Americans – a hearty meal that evokes memories of a warm home. It’s a meat pie made with meat, bulgur (a cracked wheat), onions, pine nuts and a variety of other spices or herbs. In Egypt, baked kibbeh is referred to as kobeibah shami, translated literally as kibbeh of the Levant. Kibbeh is so popular there that it actually receives the title of “national dish” of both Lebanon and Syria!
Since I’m going to be throwing around the word kibbeh throughout this post, I thought you might want to know what the word means! The word kibbeh (also kibbe or kubbah) means “ball” in Arabic, and this is because typically these meat pies are made into football-shaped balls and deep-fried. You’ve seen these delicacies before, right?
A lot of people around the world are familiar with fried kibbeh if they regularly eat at Middle Eastern restaurants. Traditionally, kibbeh-making in Lebanon involved stuffing the raw meat-and-bulgur mixture with cooked ground meat, onions and toasted pine nuts, and frying them in samna (ghee, or clarified butter), or the rendered fat from the Lebanese fat-tailed sheep. These stable and natural cooking fats have been now replaced with cheaper vegetable oils, used by most restaurants to deep fry kibbeh and other foods; these oils oxidize under high heat and release free radicals. When I called my grandma to get the recipe, she insisted that kobeibah is never made with any oils – only clarified butter produces the delicious traditional taste. Regular butter (not clarified) is an acceptable substitute, but doesn’t have the same flavor as the ghee.
But kibbeh comes in many forms – it can even be eaten raw! Yes, raw meat isn’t just a paleo fad, my friends – kibbeh nayyeh is a traditional Levantine dish made with fresh meat (I’m actually looking forward to trying kibbeh raw with meat that I get from the local farmer who practices sustainable, pasture-grazing for farm animals. However, I don’t advocate eating raw meat at restaurants, simply because it’s likely from CAFO animals that increase the possibilities of illness from meat contaminated with pathogens).
Anyway, so where were we? Yes, kibbeh. One of the most popular forms of kibbeh is baked kibbeh. In the Levant, it’s known as kibbeh bi saniyeh, which literally translates to “kibbeh in a pan”. Egyptians call it kobeibah shami. Ground lamb meat is typically used, but many people also make it with ground beef. A layer of cooked meat, sautéed onions, and toasted pine nuts is sandwiched between two layers of uncooked meat-and-bulgur, and baked to a golden perfection. The meat is traditionally pounded with soaked bulgur (also known as burghul), and mixed with spices. Nowadays, most people don’t pound; they simply use the food processor to mix the meat and wheat together. It’s important to soak the wheat overnight in filtered water with a tablespoon of something acidic like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in order to neutralize some of the antinutrients present in the grain. This makes the wheat more suitable to digest and reduces its interference with the absorption of other nutrients in food.
The Many Ways to Make Kibbeh
Now that you know a little background of how kibbeh is made traditionally, I thought I’d share a few variations! To all the vegetarians out there: do not despair, there’s a vegetarian version of this meat-centric dish; it’s made with either pumpkin or a variety of squashes and baked until crispy and delightful. A guest blogger, Hiba Ghalib Jabri, shared her version of kibbeh laqteen on midEATS last fall, made with pumpkin puree, chickpeas, greens and bulgur and a whole bunch of delicious spices.
Brenda, co-author of MidEATS, makes a traditional meat-and-bulgur kibbeh, but adds mashed potatoes, parsley and poblano peppers to the mixture. She also makes the more basic version, without the extra veggies, but with pomegranate molasses mixed in with the caramelized onions in the filling. Both sound incredible, but I have yet to try them!
For the traditional meat version, many recipes call for the addition of cinnamon or allspice. My dear grandma would add just a pinch of cumin and cinnamon to hers, but she did add a generous amount of freshly ground cardamom seeds to the meat-and-bulgur mixture. There really is nothing quite like cardamom: its distinct aroma and flavor seems to ‘strengthen’ the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish, while giving it a nice smoky background flavor. The cardamom powder was integral to the taste of this dish, in my opinion. Oh, and the toasted pine nuts – they add a much-needed crunch in an otherwise predictably mushy texture.
Baked Kibbeh (Cardamom-Scented Meat and Bulgur Pie with Toasted Pine Nuts)
Prep Time: 1 hour + soaking the bulgur wheat overnight
Cook Time: 1 hour
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons grass-fed ghee (clarified butter), or pasture butter
- 1/2 lb grass-fed, organic ground lamb or beef (not lean)
- 1/2 teaspoon unrefined salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon organic ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon organic ground cumin
- 1/2 cup raw pine nuts plus 2 tablespoons for garnish, soaked overnight in salted filtered water, then dehydrated in the oven until toasted
For the Meat-Bulgur Mixture:
- 1 cup (6 1/2 oz) fine bulgur, soaked overnight in filtered warm water with a tablespoon of lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or liquid whey
- 1 lb grass-fed, organic ground lamb or beef (not lean)
- 2 teaspoons organic ground cardamom (you can buy cardamom powder or grind the seeds yourself in a coffee grinder; to make two teaspoons of powder, you need about 13-14 cardamom pods)
- 1 teaspoon unrefined salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2-3 tablespoons grass-fed ghee (clarified butter), or melted pasture butter
(1) Soak bulgur and pine nuts: The night before, rinse the bulgur and soak in warm filtered water with a tablespoon of lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or liquid whey. Rinse the pine nuts as well, and soak in a separate dish with salted filtered water. Cover both, and leave to soak overnight.
(2) Toast the pine nuts: Preheat oven to 350 F. Drain the pine nuts from the soaking water, spread on a baking sheet, and place in the oven for pine nuts to dehydrate and start to toast, stirring a couple of times throughout, 5 to 10 minutes.
(3) Prepare the cooked filling: Dice the onion and sauté in 2 tablespoons of ghee or butter until fragrant and a translucent golden color. Add the 1/2 pound of ground beef or lamb, break up the lumps into small pieces with a wooden spoon, and stir on medium heat until cooked, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and stir well. Turn off heat, add toasted pine nuts to the meat mixture (reserving about two tablespoons of toasted pine nuts for adding to the top of the kibbeh), and mix. Set cooked filling aside while you prepare the raw meat-and-bulgur mixture.
(4) Prepare the meat-and-bulgur mixture: Drain bulgur from soaking water in a fine-mesh sieve, making sure to squeeze well to remove any excess water. Put the bulgur in a bowl, and add to it 1 pound of ground beef or ground lamb (make sure you use the same type of meat you used in the filling). Add 2 heaping teaspoons ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon unrefined salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and mix really well, either by hand, with a wooden meat tenderizer, or in a food processor (easiest). Make sure all the ingredients in this step are so well integrated that you cannot tell one apart from the rest. Half the mixture and set aside.
(5) Assemble kibbeh: Grease a 10-inch square baking pan or skillet with a little bit of ghee or butter, and evenly press half of the raw meat-and-bulgur mixture to the pan, with the sides curving up just a little bit. Add cooked filling evenly on top. Finally, with wet hands, scoop the second half of the raw meat-and-bulgur mixture, and bit by bit, add the mixture on top of the cooked filling, patting down each piece, connecting them and smoothing it over.
(6) Cut and bake kibbeh: Once the kibbeh is assembled evenly, use a sharp knife to cut the pie in a cross-hatch pattern. Melt 2 to 3 tablespoons of ghee or butter and evenly drizzle on the top of the kibbeh. In each diamond-shaped kibbeh piece, add a toasted pine nut or two for garnish. Bake at 375 F in a preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until fully cooked. You may wish to broil the top for a couple of minutes at the end for added golden color and crispy texture.
MidEATS: Preserving Traditional Middle Eastern Recipes
I had been blogging about healthy living for a while on my own blog, My Life in a Pyramid, until I ran into another Egyptian blogger, Brenda who was also sharing traditional Arabic recipes. We were incredibly excited to share with the world our love of these Middle Eastern specialties we’ve been enjoying since childhood, and so we decided to put our heads together and start a site dedicated to preserving traditional Middle Eastern recipes.
In August 2011, we launched MidEATS, and since then we’ve featured many food bloggers and home cooks (including Faith!) who love not just the taste of traditionally-prepared Middle Eastern foods, but also the festive culture that comes along with it. We are excited to continue building an extensive collection of traditional specialties from all over the Middle East – if you have a recipe to share, or a Middle Eastern-focused blog, shoot us an email at mideats at gmail dot com. Brenda and I would love to feature you!