Many months ago, I used my mama’s recipe to make one of my favorite meals – kifta wa batata in tahini sauce. Kifta is a kabob/meatball-like dish that’s made with either ground lamb, ground beef or a combo of the two. It’s mixed with onions and parsley and baked with potatoes and sauce (either tomato or tahini) and served over rice. I’m sure there are hundreds of variations of this dish, but that’s how I grew up eating it and how I enjoy it most.
Well, over the last several weeks, I’ve been a little burnt out on cooking Arabic food. I was still cooking, but I opted to cook food I’d been craving instead. I needed a little culinary inspiration to get back into the kitchen and back to my mama’s recipes. I tried out a few salad ideas and discovered I need some serious help with dressings. I have an unhealthy addiction to vinegars – particularly the balsamic variety – so I tend to overdo it with the acid. I had no idea making salad dressing from scratch could be so difficult. Any pointers on a full-proof vinaigrette?
Thankfully, all of the impromptu cooking I did over the last few weeks was exactly what I needed to jump start my desire to get back to basics. One of the things I hoped to learn from this project is the confidence to take my mama’s recipes and add my own flavor to the classics. I am a timid chef and tend to try to follow the letter of the law when it comes to measurements and ingredients.
This time around, I decided to spice things up and give kifta and batata (potatoes) a makeover. I opted for grilled kifta vs. baked. I roasted up the potatoes separately and opted to make a cold couscous salad instead of plain white rice. I also made a refreshing cucumber-yogurt dipping sauce to accompany the kifta kabobs. I didn’t have recipes for anything but the kifta and just took a chance on creating dishes based on flavors I thought might work well together. Feel free to ignore the less-than-mouthwatering names I came up with for these side dishes. : )
See this post: Kifta
2 cups of baby yellow potatoes
couple of tablespoons of semneh (clarified butter)
cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
Coat the potatoes (leave skin on for texture) with the semneh and the spices to taste. I think I went with a tsp. of everything but the salt. I added a bit more salt. Spread out onto a cookie sheet and bake in the oven on 450 for roughly 20 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
Cold Couscous Salad
1 package of plain couscous cooked according to the directions given. I used chicken stock vs. water to give some extra flavor.
Let cool and add:
1 tomato, chopped
variety of olives, chopped (kalmata, green, etc.)
marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
couple handfuls of feta cheese
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
juice from half a lemon
tsp or so of fresh black pepper
Mix it all up and there you have it!
Cucumber-Yogurt Dipping Sauce
1 english cucumber, chopped
3 cups plain yogurt
half a lemon
tbsp. olive oil
7-10 fresh mint leaves, chiffonade
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
salt and pepper to taste
Chop cucumber into small bites and mix into the yogurt. Add lemon juice, olive oil and pepper. Chop garlic and chiffonade fresh mint leaves and add to the mixture.
I tried to keep the flavors consistent to the ingredients you see throughout the meals I’ve cooked. I just tried to use them in different ways. It was fun being a culinary “rebel”!
This week’s culinary adventure was a bit more complex than weeks past. I went all out, people. That’s right – I cooked an actual meal. Granted, it wasn’t the most nutritionally balanced of meals, but it was surprisingly easy to make and a meal nonetheless.
I chose my mom’s recipe for Kifta wa batata in tahineh. This dish roughly translates to meat and potatoes. Kifta, as mentioned previously, is an oblong meatball seasoned with finely chopped parsley, onion and spices. You throw it, figuratively not literally, into a big pan with chopped potatoes and the sauce variation of your choice. I opted for a tahineh-based sauce this time around. You can eat this alone or make it a true carb-festival and serve over rice.
Guess which version I chose?
I mentioned in my last post that I was looking for a recipe for the rice that included sh‘arieh. Sh’arieh is vermicelli noodles browned in either butter or oil before adding the rice. Not everyone loves rice this way, but I think the added texture makes it a lot less bland. I didn’t find one (please share if you have your own), but my dad walked me through his take on it – fairly simple and probably a lot healthier than what I had in mind.
He coated the bottom of the pan with a little olive oil and added about 4 tbs. of the sh’arieh. Once browned, we added 4 cups of white rice and about 8 and a half cups of water. We brought the rice to a slow-rolling boil and let it bubble away for about 5 minutes before reducing to low heat and covering. According to my pops, you can tell the rice is ready when you lift the lid and hear nothing but silence. Huh. Who knew?
I also learned something many of you seasoned chefs probably know – the varying intensity of spices. Specifically, the three main spices used in this dish: allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Apparently allspice is the most pungent of the three and should be used most sparingly. Nutmeg is less potent and cinnamon follows closely behind. This was a great lesson to have learned because the spicing on the meat and potatoes was pretty dead on.
I was really surprised to learn how easy this dish was to make. I have more memories of eating kifta and batata than I have of watching my mom make it. I gotta say, it was a pretty amazing feeling to make something like this and have it come out so well. There’s much room for improvement, obviously, but it was a much-needed reminder that cooking takes time and patience more than it needs inherent skill. One added bonus I wasn’t expecting – being able to cook something for my family that they haven’t eaten in years. It was nice to have old, familiar smells wafting through our house the way they used to when we were munchkins.
I decided to be a little more adventurous this week and try to make an actual meal.
I have to admit, sadly, that the most anxiety-provoking aspect of this dish is making the rice. I don’t think I’ve ever, successfully at least, made real rice before. What do I mean by ‘real rice’? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever made rice that wasn’t instant rice. I’ve never made rice that wasn’t held hostage inside a plastic bag that required nothing more from me other than throwing it into a pot of water and watching it come to a boil. Shameful. I know.
Considering that like 95% of the food I hope to make include rice, I figured now would probably be as good a time as any to get over the anxiety of rice-making. Ooooh, this should be fun!
So, getting back to the actual dish I picked. I decided to make Kifta wa Batata with Tahineh this week. Kifta is basically an oddly-shaped meatball. It’s shaped more like a football than a meatball and is spiced with cinnamon vs. garlic or oregano. You can make kifta with either ground lamb or ground beef. My mom’s recipe calls for beef, but I haven’t decided which I’d rather use. The kifta is cooked with wedged potatoes (batata), and I’ve chosen to make this in a tahineh (sesame seed paste) sauce vs. dry or with a tomato-based sauce.
This is my favorite way to eat Kifta. It’s one of the few dishes I actually got excited about eating when I was a kid. It’s meat and carbs – how could you not love that?
Kifta wa Batata in Tahineh
To make the Kifta:
2 lbs. finely ground lamb or beef
Onion chopped finely – (to taste – she suggested 1 small onion)
1 cup parsley – finely chopped
Around 2 tsp. of salt – might need a little more depending on which meat is being used
1-1 1/2 tsp. of ground pepper
1 tsp. allspice (probably use a little more)
Cinnamon to taste
Mix all ingredients together well and mold into roughly 3-4 inch rolls. Think – half version of a kabob almost.
Once molded, put kifta into a circular, greased baking pan and bake alone for 10 minutes. (She didn’t give me a temperature to cook it at, but Sahtein says 400 degrees).
While kifta is cooking, peel and wash a handful of potatoes. (more or less depending on taste and size)
Cut potatoes into wedged slices – cut to desired thickness (just keep in mind, not too thick since it doesn’t cook super long)
For Tahineh mixture:
About a 1/2 cup of tahineh
Salt and pepper (not too much)
Lemon juice (to taste)
2 cups of water
Mix (blend if necessary) to thin out the sauce
Add potatoes and tahineh mixture to the kifta and continue to bake for another 35 minutes or until done.
You can eat this as is or over rice. I’ll opt for making it with the rice. I haven’t been able to find my mom’s recipe for rice that is cooked with vermicelli noodles. That’s how we ate rice when she made it, so I’d like to keep to that recipe. There’s one in the Sahtein cookbook, but I think I might try to get a hold of one of my aunts or a cousin and see if they have a better recipe.
I’ll post that recipe up either before Sunday’s attempt or with the weekly update.
Wish me luck!
B.S. – Sorry for the excessive use of the word rice. There really isn’t a suitable synonym to replace it with. I just ended that sentence with a preposition. These are the things you must get used to when reading this blog. : )