Prepare a Syrian Kibbe Casserole When You’re on a Budget
Whenever I meet someone who, like me, is from the Middle East, I guarantee that within five minutes of knowing this fact, I will translate the conversation into kibba. From there, we will inevitably plunge into hazy memories. We’re also likely to argue about the “correct” way to cook this staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, which is usually minced meat torpedoes (usually lamb or beef) tied together with wheat bulgur and spices.
Roughly translated as “ball,” kibbeh has as many variations as Arabic transliterations (which include, but are not limited to, kibbe, kubbeh, kubbi, cubba, and cubbeh). You can wrap the meatpaste with more meatpaste, or you can wrap the meatpaste with a bulgur dough layer.
Like its American meatloaf cousin, kibbe recipes are not limited to regional specifics. They depend on their mother. I look forward to the day Samine Nosrat breaks down the various spices used, many of which are family secrets that are kept in the same way as Fort Knox. But ultimately this dish serves as the great unifying principle of the Middle East and North Africa, equally beloved in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. The food options served in Greece speak of the traveling nature of the culture in this region around the Mediterranean.
The kibbe can be an intense process, but my Syrian grandmother, who came to live in the working-class town of Potucket, Rhode Island after being born in Saidnaya (20 minutes north of Damascus), brought with her a recipe for the perfect weekday dinner. Its ingredients are simple (even easier when bulgur wheat is available in most grocery stores) and – if you use beef instead of lamb – inexpensive.
Adapting the dish as a casserole (as many Middle Eastern chefs have done) also cool the cooking time for a maximum of 30 minutes. The real work is done in an oven at a low, slow temperature that allows the hazelnut bulgur and the earthiness of allspice, like a multigenerational family of Syrian refugees, to eventually reclaim their new home. If you manage to last longer than one meal, it will not taste deeper until it is placed in the refrigerator overnight.
My grandmother’s memory has since been erased due to dementia. She is happy but cannot remember most of her family. Thus, cooking kibbe for me is not only the food itself, it is also an opportunity for me to communicate with my grandmother in time and space, which takes comfortable food to a new level.
- ½ cup wheat bulgur
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 ½ lb. lamb or beef (at least 85% lean)
- 1 teaspoon allspice powder
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- Ice cold water as needed
- ¼ cups of pine nuts
- ½ teaspoon butter
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Combine bulgur with ½ cup water in a small bowl. Stir gently to make sure all the wheat is covered and let sit for 15 minutes. Squeeze out excess water with cheesecloth or an extra fine sieve.
Mix onion and bulgur. Add minced meat, allspice, salt and pepper. Knead the mixture by hand, adding one or two tablespoons of ice water if necessary, to obtain a homogeneous paste with an even distribution of onions and bulgur. Add pine nuts and stir gently to distribute evenly.
Spoon the mixture into a lightly buttered 9 “x 13” baking dish. Smooth the top with your hands or a spatula until smooth. Using a small knife (best for steak or vegetables), cut the raw mixture into diamond shapes using straight diagonal notches. (For ease of use, slice the mixture into even squares, then cut each square in half diagonally.) Take your oil and apply a small stroke to the top of each diamond or triangle.
Cook for about 60 minutes, or until the center of the meat reaches 150 ° F. Cover with foil if needed longer, but begins to brown too quickly. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving (or longer – kibbe, like pizza, has its magic when served cold).
Traditionally, kibbe can be eaten with plain salad, pita bread and / or labnech (which can be faked by mixing plain Greek yogurt with a teaspoon of olive oil and a little lemon juice). If you are an Arab mother, you will probably serve it with a dozen other dishes and then insist that the food is not enough for two people. If you are my husband from Southern California, you can also spread hummus on a corn tortilla, add a slice of kibbe and some cholula.