middle eastern cuisine

I really love middle eastern cuisine. There is such a terrific diversity and complexity of flavors that come from the region. Recently I had the good fortune to acquire a copy of Middle Eastern Cooking by Suzy Benghiat which was published in 1984 and gives a terrific overview of the varieties of foods and techniques which commonly fall into the Middle Eastern category. The Middle East generally is considered to include Southwestern Asia (parts of Afghanistan and all of Iran), the Caucasus (Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan), the Fertile Crescent (Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus), the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman in the South and Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait), and much of Northern Africa (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and sometimes even farther east). Sorry if I missed anyone on that list. It is a massive area. It is also one of the most ancient places on Earth, a place where civilizations have flourished and died leaving behind imprints of themselves on the cultures to follow. The cuisine reflects the climate as well. A lot of the area is very arid and dry and food preservation techniques had to be taken into consideration. The flavors and textures of preserved lemon, pickles of all varieties, dried fruits, and stewed meats delight the palate. If you have not had the opportunity to experience Middle Eastern Cuisine I strongly suggest to delve into it headlong. It is a joy to cook at home and an interesting experience when served at an authentic restaurant. The following recipe is taken from Suzy Benghiat’s book. I hope she doesn’t mind. This is one recipe which I think Canadian cooks will find fairly accessible. It’s an excellent book and I definitely recommend picking up a copy of it if you happen to see one kicking around.

Lamb Stew for Couscous

taken from Middle Eastern Cooking by Suzy Benghiat

This lamb stew is one of an infinite variety that go with couscous. It is advisable to start by preparing Couscous as described [later in the book], and giving it the second steaming over this stew.

Preparation Time 8 hours soaking

2 hours 10 minutes, including 1 hour 50 minutes cooking

2 Tbsp dried garbanzo beans (chick peas)

2 Tbsp oil

1 medium onion

1 1/2 lb stewing lamb

4 medium tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp crushed fennel seed

1 rounded tsp Harissa or other red pepper [chili] sauce

1 rounded tsp turmeric

1 1/4 cup water

1 medium carrot

1 large zucchini

4 small potatoes

1 recipe pre-cooked Couscous

1. Wash the garbanzo beans and leave to soak at least 8 hours in plenty of water. Drain and, if necessary, peel the garbanzo beans by rubbing them between your hands.
2. Pour the oil into the bottom part of a couscous steamer or into a large, heavy-based saucepan. Chop the onion very finely. Trim the meat and cut it into 2″ cubes. Cook the meat and onion gently in the oil for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally.          
3. Skin, de-seed and chop the tomatoes. Crush the garlic and pound to a paste with the ginger, fennel seeds, and turmeric. Mix with the tomatoes and Harrissa. (A food processor is ideal for this).
4. Turn up the heat to brown the meat, then add the tomato and spice mixture, garbanzo beans and water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, half cover and simmer for about 1 hour.
5. Peel or scrape the carrot and zucchini and cut into large chunks. Leave the potatoes whole, peeled or unpeeled as you prefer. Add the vegetables to the mixture and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes.
6. Put the pre-cooked Couscous in the top of the steamer and fit the two halves snugly together. Steam the couscous uncovered for 20 minutes, fluffing it up occasionally with a fork.
 7. Warm a large serving dish in a warm oven. When the vegetables are tender, add salt to taste. Spoon the couscous into the serving dish, making a pile with a hollow in the center. Trickle some of the sauce over the couscous. SPoon some of the meat and sauce into the hollow in the center, and scatter a few pieces of the vegetables onto the mound. Serve the rest of the stew in a separate bowl.

For a different flavor, add a bouquet of parsley and cilantro to the stew with the tomato and spice mixture, and remove just before serving.  

my notes:

So for those of us who don’t own a couscous steamer just use a large heavy bottomed pot (I used my cocotte, which is enamel coated cast iron. I definately recommend picking up a cocotte, although the are a little bit pricey. Staub is the original and the best brand as far as I am concerned, but many other knock offs are now in production. I recently saw some President’s Choice brand ones at superstore. Crazy, I know. A well looked after cocotte will not only last your lifetime, but possibly your children’s and your children’s children. You can sometimes find them on Ebay also if you search ‘enamel coated cast iron’.) I also have a bamboo steamer which conveniently fits over the top of my cocotte. I lined it with cheesecloth and put the couscous on top of that. It was a little sketchy, but it worked.

As far as the recipe goes, I would recommend seasoning the lamb first and then searing it separately over high heat in a non-stick frying pan. After it is seared (well browned) on all sides remove it to the cocotte. Pour off any excess oil from the frying pan and add the onions. Cook the onions gently until mostly translucent, then add a little water to the pan and scrape off any browned bits of lamby goodness. Dump that into the cocotte and proceed with the rest of the recipe as stated above.

This is a great way to enjoy lamb if you aren’t too familiar with it. You can pick up little frozen lamb cubes for stewing at Superstore or ask for lamb stew meat at your local butcher. The spices help cut through the gamey flavor of the lamb that sometimes people aren’t fond of. It’s a great dish and makes for a hearty meal.