We are just back from a weekend back in Amman visiting my lovely husband’s parents and our many friends. Monday marked the beginning of Eid al Adha or the Sacrifice Feast, a somewhat haunting (yet fitting) translation of what actually happens -the slaughter of sheep used as a reminder of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son. Tradition has each slaughtered animal divided into thirds with one third kept by the family, one third given to relatives, and the final portion given to the poor and needy. If you can get past the many roadside pens of doomed sheep, baking in the sun under their unkempt thick coats, awaiting their inevitable ends, the idea is nice.
Anyway, we didn’t slaughter a sheep (thank goodness), although you can donate money to charities that will do so on your behalf and give the meat to those in need (this seemed a more sensible approach for us). We did, however, eat lots and lots of delicious food prepared by my ever-energetic Circassian mother-in-law. It made me very homesick for the lunches we had at their home at least once a week during the time we lived in Amman, her singing to herself in the kitchen as she prepared a variety of stews and rice and vegetables. Upon arrival she pulled out a stockpot full of molokhia and poached chicken with rice (I’ve written about the recipe before here) and before we left made us the labor-intensive , kousa mashi bil laban – or lamb stuffed zucchini in yoghurt sauce. It’s one of my favorites…and drinking hot, garlicky yoghurt is a revelation (and surely must add years to your life).
For those of you not from this part of the world, and even if you’ve visited, your idea of Middle Eastern cuisine probably consists mostly of traditional mezze (or small plates, like tapas), falafel sandwiches, and skewers of meat. This was most certainly my impression of the region’s food…and not one I minded having – it’s delicious! However, once I visited people’s homes, I realized I had a very limited concept of what this cuisine was, because the delicious home cooked meal has not really made its way into restaurants much…yet.
All that said, Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb (I’ve written about their outstanding farmers’ market before here) is changing this practice of keeping home cooking at home. With their various Tawlet restaurants (there’s one in Beirut and then several at different countryside locations all over Lebanon) you too can experience this tabliyit style food. The buffet lunch restaurant evolved from the market and various food festivals, opening its doors in 2009, and is committed to using food and traditions to unite people. Every day a different cook comes from her part of the country to prepare the food of her region using seasonal, local produce from the market – and if you think about the small size of this country, the variety of cusines that it holds within its borders is staggering! Then, the profits from restaurant are used to help farmers, producers, and cooks. What a perfect example of sustainability at its best.
I’ve now eaten at Tawlet Beirut twice and in their mountainside location at Beit el Qamar just a 40 minute drive south of the capital. Each time it’s been one of my favorite dining experiences ever, and satisfies the gaping hole my dear husband and I have now that his mother isn’t here to cook for us. The buffets are beautiful to behold, but my absolute favorite part is the chefs themselves, who stand behind the buffet proudly explaining what each dish is and, if pushed, how they made it. They are lovely women, for whom it seems sharing food is the ultimate expression of true hospitality, and from whom we (especially those of us in the hospitality industry) could all learn so much. Seeing their pride has encouraged me to rethink my own approach to cooking for clients, to find joy once again.
Highlights from my most recent visit to Tawlet included a green freekeh salad with local thyme and pomegranate seeds prepared by a Palestinian woman named Wafa and a homemade beef mortadella full of pistachios by an Armenian woman named Soona. But there was also garlicky mushrooms, a basterma (dried beef) to die for, kefta with chickpeas and tahini, roasted lamb with a spiced pilaf, little cheese burek, and a display of traditional Lebanese sweets – there was this little pistachio and clotted cream sandwich sweet – oh my!
So instead of sitting around missing my mother-in-law’s lunches and always saying I’d leave the cooking of Arabic food to the experts here…which is surely not me…I’ve finally taken notes on her kousa mishi bil leban and will share it with you here. Now, she uses the short, fat little zucchini which are what you commonly find here and has a special metal tool which is used to scoop out the flesh of the zucchini before stuffing. Don’t be daunted! Use whatever zucchini you find and a knife to do the job. She also uses sheep’s milk yoghurt but I think cow would do the job and be a little less pungent. Finally, garlic, use a full head of it and enjoy it. Without it, this dish wouldn’t be the same.
Kousa Mashi Bil Laban (Lamb Stuffed Zucchini with Yoghurt Sauce)
inspired by Suzanne Cardan
24 small, fat zucchini
1/2 pound ground lamb
2 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon dried mint, plus more to serve
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
I head garlic, finely minced, divided
2 pounds yoghurt, preferably sheep’s milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
First, cut off the stem end of each zucchini and scoop out the core. Set the flesh aside (you will chop this roughly and sautee it later). Now, in a frying pan cook the ground lamb with the spices and about 4 cloves of garlic, until no longer pink and then stir in the toasted pine nuts with a little salt and pepper. Once this mixture has cooled stuff it into the hollowed-out zucchinis. My mother-in-law fries the zucchinis in a hot pan of oil until they are soft, but I’ve also read that you can steam them over water for 20-25 minutes or even just cook them in the yoghurt mixture. Since the stuffing is already cooked, you’re mainly trying to soften up the vegetable itself.
Now, to make the yoghurt sauce, place it in a large saucepan with the cornstarch slurry and stir constantly in one direction over medium heat until it gets thick – but don’t allow it to come to a boil. This takes about 5 minutes. If need be, add a little water to thin it out before serving.
Sautee the chopped zucchini flesh in the slightest bit of olive oil and cook over medium-low heat until soft but not at all browned, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve on the side – this part of the meal is a real treat with dried mint and scooped up with Arabic style bread.
Finally, in a small frying pan, sautee the remaining garlic in one tablespoon of olive oil until it’s just brown and crispy. Immediately pour this over the yoghurt and it will splutter and splash – this is called the tasheh – because of the sound it makes. Add the cooked zucchini to the yoghurt garlic soup and serve with lots of dried mint. Just a note here – my mother-in-law serves the stuffed zucchinis on their own and the yoghurt in a separate small bowl which you can sip or spoon.