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Syria’s cuisine rich with many variations of kibbeh

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TORONTO — Anissa Helou is on a mission to record traditional Syrian recipes and culinary lore that are centuries old and passed down orally.

The chef and food writer, who was born and raised between Beirut, Lebanon, and Mashta al-Helou, Syria, wants to make sure the recipes are available for the younger generation, many of whom have been displaced from their homeland and may become integrated into another culture.

Syrian food is a very rich cuisine with regional variations, she says.

One of the most famous dishes in Syria is kibbeh, a mixture of lamb and bulgur wheat seasoned with spices.

“You can have it raw, you can have it shaped into balls and fried, or shaped into balls and cooked in yogurt, or made into disks and charcoal grilled, or made into pie and baked. The balls can also be cooked in a sumac sauce, lots of different variations. It’s one of the grandest dishes,” she says.

“And then you have the cuisine that is specific to Aleppo, which is the culinary capital of the Middle East. One of the quintessential Aleppo dishes is tiny meatballs cooked in a sour cherry sauce or cooked with quince and fresh pomegranate juice and these are called kebab.

“You have a lot of main dishes that are intriguing, that combine sweet and savoury flavours and where the meat is cooked with fruit. It’s very sophisticated and very refined.”

Mezze are small dishes served as starters that can include salads, savoury pastries, vegetables, vegetarian dishes and small meat dishes like chicken wings and sausages.

Syria is fertile, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and known for its wonderful breads and sweets.

Syrian food is not spicy but seasoning is important and always evident, says Helou. A seven-spice mixture used in many dishes can contain black and white pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and coriander.

Yogurt is an essential ingredient, as are nuts like pistachios, walnuts, pine nuts and almonds.

Colours are vibrant and textures varied.

“You go from crisp with the savoury pastries to the grilled meat to soft when you’re getting into the kebab dishes with the meatballs cooked with fruits or the kibbeh cooked in yogurt,” says Helou.

“If you sit down to a proper Syrian meal you would have a lot of dishes on the table. Like if I’m inviting somebody I’m not going to have one starter and one main course. I’d probably have three or four starters and maybe two or three main courses and I’d have maybe stuffed vegetables that would be very smooth velvety texture and maybe I’d have kibbeh, fried kibbeh balls and that would be crisp and sort of slightly crunchy with the stuffing with the nuts inside.

“The meal would have apart from the vibrancy of the colours and the wonderful spread that you would see on the table, you would have tart flavours, sweet and savoury flavours, you would go through a range of flavours, range of textures. It will be quite a wonderful sensory experience and sensual as well because the food is so delicious.”

Here are some recipes from Helou’s collection to try:LENA ANTAKI’S CHERRY KEBABS

This is a quintessential dish from Aleppo, regarded as the culinary capital of Syria, says Helou.

500 g (1 lb) lean minced lamb

2 ml (1/2 tsp) seven-spice mixture (or allspice)

7 ml (1/2 tbsp) sea salt (or to taste)

Handful of pine nuts, plus extra toasted for garnish

15 ml (1 tbsp) unsalted butter

5 ml (1 tsp) plain flour

1 kg (2 lb) fresh sour cherries, pitted (or 500 g/1 lb dried sour cherries soaked overnight in 500 ml/2 cups water)

2 to 3 pita breads, opened at the seams and cut into medium-sized triangles

Few sprigs parsley, leaves only, coarsely chopped

Mix meat with spices and salt. Make small meatballs, pressing one pine nut inside each.

Saute meatballs in the butter and transfer to a sieve to drain off the excess fat.

Add flour to butter and stir for a minute or so. Add cherries. Season with a little salt and stir for a few minutes. Let cherries simmer on low heat until cooked.

Just before serving, add meatballs to cherry sauce to heat through and serve over torn pieces of pita bread, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: Anissa Helou, chef and food writer.

KIBBEH QRASS (Kibbeh Balls)

Kibbeh balls are probably one of the most intricate and time-consuming mezze, or starter, dishes. However, they are an essential part of any mezze in Lebanon and you will soon get the hang of making the balls successfully, says Helou.

She suggests purchasing meat already ground from a butcher. Be sure to ask for the best part of the leg for both the kibbeh and stuffing.

Use very fine bulgur; otherwise, the meat mixture will be too coarse and not easy to shape.

Stuffing

90 g (3 oz) unsalted butter

60 g (2 oz) pine nuts

500 g (1 lb) large onions, finely chopped

200 g (7 oz) lean minced lamb

10 ml (2 tsp) ground cinnamon

10 ml (2 tsp) ground allspice

2 ml (1/2 tsp) finely ground black pepper

Salt, to taste

Kibbeh

1 medium onion, peeled and quartered

500 g (1 lb) finely minced lean lamb from the leg

200 g (7 oz) fine bulgur

10 ml (2 tsp) ground cinnamon

10 ml (2 tsp) ground allspice

2 ml (1/2 tsp) finely ground black pepper

Salt, to taste

Basil leaves, for garnish (optional)

Melt butter in a deep frying pan over medium heat and saute pine nuts, stirring constantly, until golden brown. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

In the same butter, fry chopped onions until soft and transparent. Add minced meat and cook — mash and stir it with a spoon or fork so that it separates well and does not form lumps — until it loses all traces of pink. Remove from heat. Season with cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt. Stir in pine nuts. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

In a food processor, finely chop quartered onion, then add meat and process until mixed well. Wash bulgur in two or three changes of cold water, drain well and add to meat. Pulse a few times. Transfer meat mixture to a bowl.

Prepare a bowl of lightly salted water and have it at hand.

Add cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt and mix with your hand, dipping your hand every now and then in salted water to moisten it and the kibbeh, until spices are well incorporated. Knead meat mixture for about 3 minutes until you have a smooth paste. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Divide kibbeh into 20 balls, each the size of a large plum.

Lightly moisten hands in salted water and place one meatball in the cup of one hand. With the index finger of your other hand burrow a hole into the meatball while rotating it. This makes the hollowing out easier and more even. You should produce a thin meat shell resembling a topless egg. Be careful not to pierce bottom or sides of meat.

Put 7 to 10 ml (1 1/2 to 2 tsp) of stuffing inside meat shell, gently pushing stuffing in with your finger, and pinch open edges together with your fingers. Cup your free fingers over the filled ball and gently shape it into a ball. Put finished ball on a non-stick baking sheet. Continue making balls until you have finished both meat and stuffing. If you have some stuffing left, serve it warm on the side or fry some eggs on it.

Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F). Brush kibbeh balls with melted butter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp and lightly golden. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Garnish plate with basil leaves, if desired.

Makes 20 balls.

Source: “Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East” by Anissa Helou (HarperCollins, 2013).

KIBBEH NAYEH (Lebanese Steak Tartare)

An essential of any Lebanese mezze spread, kibbeh nayeh should only be made with meat that is very fresh, lean and cleaned of all ligaments and other chewy bits. The top of the leg is the cut you want to use and you can either ask your butcher to prepare and mince it for you or you can bone, defat and clean it yourself before mincing it in a meat grinder, which is what Helou does.

1 small Spanish onion, peeled and quartered

Handful basil leaves

500 g (1 lb) lamb from the leg, skinned, most of the fat removed, finely minced

120 g (4 oz) fine bulgur

10 ml (2 tsp) ground cinnamon

10 ml (2 tsp) ground allspice

2 ml (1/2 tsp) finely ground black pepper

Salt, to taste

Sprigs of basil or mint, for garnish

In a medium bowl, place some cold water. Add a little salt and stir until salt is dissolved. You will need to dip your hand in this lightly salted water as you mix the meat.

Put quartered onion and basil in a food processor and process until very finely chopped.

In a large bowl, place minced meat. Add minced onion and basil, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt.

Wash bulgur in two or three changes of cold water, drain well and add to meat. Mix together with your hand, dipping your hand every now and then in the salted water to moisten both your hand and the kibbeh. Knead until you have a smooth mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Transfer to a serving plate and shape into a thick disk or an oval. If a disk, make a dip in the middle. Drizzle olive oil in the dip, then place a sprig of basil in the middle. If shaped into an oval, use the back of a spoon to make indents inside the edges in one, two or three rows. Drizzle olive oil in the dents and garnish with sprigs of basil or mint. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: “Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East” by Anissa Helou (HarperCollins, 2013).

SYRIAN SEMOLINA AND NUT CAKE

This delectable syrupy sponge cake is topped with mixed nuts. This irresistible dessert is very simple to prepare.

“I make mine a little less sweet than is conventional, but it still drips with sugar syrup; I love the way the sticky sweetness is tempered by the crunchy nuts,” Helou writes.

300 ml (1 1/4 cups) semolina flour (regular, not fine)

90 ml (6 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature

50 ml (1/4 cup) superfine sugar

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) whole-milk yogurt

1 ml (1/4 tsp) baking soda

5 ml (1 tsp) tahini

75 ml (1/3 cup) blanched almonds

75 ml (1/3 cup) hulled unsalted pistachios

75 ml (1/3 cup) walnut halves

75 ml (1/3 cup) unsalted cashews

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) Fragrant Sugar Syrup (recipe follows), room temperature

In a mixing bowl, place semolina, butter and superfine sugar and work together using a spatula until well blended. Add yogurt and baking soda and mix until batter is firm.

Using tahini, grease a 25-cm (10-inch) round cake pan with sides about 4.5 cm (1 3/4 inches) high. Spread batter evenly across prepared pan. Flatten it gently with the back of a spoon. Cover with plastic wrap, taking care not to let the plastic touch the top of the batter, and let rest in a cool place for 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F) for about 20 minutes.

Scatter nuts all over surface of batter and bake until cake is golden, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and pour syrup all over. Don’t worry if the cake looks as if it is swimming in the syrup; it will absorb it all. Let the cake stand for 30 minutes to soak up the syrup. It may seem like too much syrup, but the cake needs it all. Of course, if you lack the Middle Eastern sweet tooth, you can decrease the amount. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

FRAGRANT SUGAR SYRUP

500 ml (2 cups) superfine sugar

7 ml (1 1/2 tsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice

125 ml (1/2 cup) water

15 ml (1 tbsp) rose water

15 ml (1 tbsp) orange blossom water

In a saucepan, place sugar, lemon juice and water in a saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for 3 minutes, and then add rose water and orange blossom water. Mix well and remove from heat. Let cool before using unless the recipe instructs otherwise. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before using.

Makes about 375 ml (1 1/2 cups).

Source: “Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes, From Baklava to Fig Ice Cream” by Anissa Helou (Chronicle Books, 2015).

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