It's very rare for my husband to ask me to cook something and he's always very appreciative of whatever I put in front of him. And even more appreciative if he didn't have to do anything to bring it to fruition. If I ask him for a farmaaish, it's almost always khichadi, not to be confused with kichadi, and potatoes in a sweet and tangy tomato sauce. Needless to say, I've stopped asking him.
So when he came up with Bedouin Mensaf Lebeneh as one of the dishes he would like to eat in this lifetime, I was really taken aback. Not only had he asked for something other than khichadi, but this was a dish that had meat in it. Given a choice, he prefers to be a vegetarian but has learned to eat fish and meat because of me. He had first heard of Mensaf Lebeneh when I had read him excerpts from Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava. The violent story of the botched-up killing of the lamb, followed by the recipe for a Peaceful Vegetarian Lentil Soup got him hooked. He read the book from cover to cover. He even approached my Bosnian neighbor who, from time to time, has goat carcasses hanging in his garage. According to Medha, the dead goats keep looking at them while they play.
Bedouin Mensaf Lebeneh is best when made with goat meat or mutton, as it is called in India. I made it with lamb, the more readily available meat in these parts of Colorado.
Bedouin Mensaf Lebeneh
From Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava
- 2 lbs boneless lamb
- 1 egg, lightly whisked (I used just the egg-white. You'll realize why as you read through the rest of the ingredients!)
- 1 quart buttermilk
- Salt to taste
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup rice
- 1 large onion, chopped (I forgot and sliced mine!)
- 1/4 to 1/2 pound butter (!)
- 3 pitas, torn into pieces
- 1/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds (I had neither so I used walnuts)
- In a large pot, place the lamb and add water until the lamb is covered. Bring to a boil.
- Turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or so.
- Skim off any fat that drifts to the surface, leaving behind a lamb broth.
- In another large pot, stir the egg into the buttermilk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly or else the buttermilk will curdle.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue stirring, for about 20 minutes.
- Add just the lamb pieces to the buttermilk mixture. Do not discard the broth.
- Add 1 cup of the lamb broth to the buttermilk mixture and stir thoroughly.
- Simmer this lamb mixture for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
- Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- In the meantime, cook the rice in 2 cups of the lamb broth, adding salt to taste.
- In a saucepan, sauté the onions in 1 tbsp of butter until they are lightly browned.
- Add these onions to the buttermilk mixture toward the end of the cooking.
- Layer the pieces of pita on the bottom of each plate and pour enough of the buttermilk mixture to soak the bread.
- Spread the rice over the bread in a low dome.
- Place the lamb pieces over the rice and pour more buttermilk over the meat. Don't let it become soupy or runny.
- Keep the extra buttermilk sauce to serve on the side for those - like me - who would like more.
- In another (yes, 4th!) small pan, sauté the pine nuts or almonds in 2 tbsp butter until the nuts are lightly browned and sprinkle them over the meat.
- Dot the whole dish with slices of the remaining butter before serving.
- Needless to say this is a very rich dish! I used as little butter as possible and also eliminated the egg yolk in an attempt to make this more appropriate for non-Bedouins like us, whose sedentary lives could do without so much fat and cholesterol!
- This dish has a very gamey flavor. The next time I make this, I will cook the rice in water or vegetable stock instead of lamb broth.
- Medha did not like this dish. She complained that it had no flavor. What she meant was that she could not taste any of the spices that she is used to in my cooking. No ginger or garlic either. How true! So the next day, I added some powdered cinnamon to the buttermilk sauce and she ate it with less reluctance.
- My husband was surprised by the gaminess or heavy meaty flavor. But he enjoyed every bite of it!
To go with this one-dish Jordanian meal, I made some delectable melt-in-your-mouth cookies. Forget-me-not Sambusik Cookies are what Diana Abu-Jaber calls these Jordanian delights in an ode to her childhood friend Hisham, who she met during the short period that her family returned to live in Jordan.
I, too, have a forget-me-not experience associated with these cookies. Several, actually. It started with the preparation of these cookies. The ingredients call for 1 and half cups of ground walnuts. No brainer, right? Wrong. Think hours of grinding walnuts in the food processor. Walnuts release their oils when ground and so it had to be done in small batches and simply took forever! But I was so committed to these cookies that I didn't give up. Such is the power of The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber!
The camping trip I took them on was also another unforgettable and cold experience. Maybe it's got something to do with the cookies? Try it out, take them somewhere and let me know if you, too, had a forget-me-not experience!
From Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava
- For the covering:
- 1 cup clarified butter or ghee
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup milk, at room temperature
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup confectioner's sugar
- For the filling:
- 1 and 1/2 cups ground walnuts
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon rosewater
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Stir the sugar into the clarified butter.
- Stir in the milk.
- Add the flour in small batches and knead
by hand until smooth. 4 cups of flour is a lot of flour! I had to enlist larger hands to assist with the kneading.
- Roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and cut with a 2inch round cookie cutter.
- Combine all the filling ingredients and place a good mounded teaspoon of the filling on each cut-out cookie, fold it over, and pinch the edges closed.
- Traditional sambusik cookies are then curved into a half-moon shape.
- Bake at 350F for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are lightly browned.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and cool.
- Sprinkle liberally with confectioner's sugar.
- Dig your teeth into these and enjoy these walnut filled cookies with a hint of rose flavor!
- Look at the ingredient list carefully. It is 1 and 1/2 cups of ground walnuts, not 1 and 1/2 cups walnuts, ground. It took about 4 cups of walnuts, possibly more, to yield 1 and 1/2 cups of ground walnuts. This was the part that took the longest. So if you decide to make these and you have a Middle-Eastern or Arab store nearby and they stock ground walnuts, jump at that chance. It will save you a lot of time!
- It might be a good idea to halve this recipe. That way one is dealing with only 3/4 cup ground walnuts and only 2 cups of flour. You won't go nuts grinding the walnuts like I did! And 2 cups flour is manageable for medium to small size adult hands! I wasn't really sure what Diana Abu-Jaber meant by curved into a half moon shape. To me, half a moon is a semi-circle. I thought perhaps she meant a crescent and so that is what I did. If you have had the real thing when it comes to Sambusik Cookies, do drop me a note to tell me where I could have done better. Ahem! Note the positive tone!
This makes about 35-36 cookies. It was just the right number for our neighborhood potluck when we camped at Moraine Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. They were a huge hit. We didn't stay the second night but the cookies did!
I found Diana Abu-Jaber's Language of Baklava when Barbara mentioned that it was a memoir of an Arab-American girl who straddles two very different cultures while growing up, Jordanian on her father's side and American on her mother's. Diana Abu-Jaber relates her story with a lot of humor and punctuates them with well-written easy-to-follow recipes. I was hoping to learn something new from this book about raising an immigrant child in America, where values at home are sometimes radically different from that of the world I send her out into. I think I set my expectations too high in that respect because I couldn't find anything that I would do differently after reading this book. But the book itself makes for a wonderful and easy read! The recipes are an added bonus.
Arabian Nights - Monthly Mingle.