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Do you watch Milk Street? Christopher Kimball had Reem Kassis on as a guest to discuss her book, The Palestinian Table. She was talking about a 9-spice blend that she loves and uses in everything. I tend to really enjoy food with a strong spice focus, and Christopher Kimball gushed about the book, so I had to get my hands on a copy. I’m so glad that I did! Every dish we’ve tried has been lovely, and the dishes are pretty relaxing to prepare. Her flavors are wonderful, and it’s mostly at the nice and healthy end of the spectrum. We haven’t tried any desserts yet, but if you have a sweet tooth, she’ll tempt you for sure.
I’ll tell you all about the other dishes we tried, but first I’d like to share with you her recipe for Beef Patties in Grape Leaves. It’s a fabulous comfort food bake that will fill your home with glorious fragrance. And that fabulous 9-spice blend is part of the recipe, so you can taste that, too! Thanks to Phaidon for letting me share it with you!
BEEF PATTIES IN GRAPE LEAVES
Adapted from THE PALESTINIAN TABLE by Reem Kassis
(Phaidon, $39.95 US/54.95 CAN, October 2017)
Long before wrapping meat and fish in grape leaves became popularized in the West, it was a technique used across Palestine and the Levant to add flavor and preserve the moisture of meat during cooking. This particular variation, which wraps minced meat patties in the leaves, is considered one of the signature dishes of Jerusalem. It is often reserved for special gatherings or dinner parties because it looks so impressive.
2¼ lb/1 kg coarsely ground (minced) beef, lamb, veal, or a combination)
3½ oz/100 g pita bread or white bread with crust removed, roughly torn
1 onion, quartered
1 tomato, quartered
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Nine Spice Mix (page 24)
2 teaspoons salt
45–50 fresh grape leaves, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute (if using jarred, soak in cold water for 15 minutes then rinse thoroughly to remove any brine flavor)
3–4 potatoes, sliced into ¾-inch/2-cm rounds
3–4 tomatoes, sliced into ¾-inch/2-cm rounds
For the sauce:
2½ cups (1 pint/600 ml) broth (stock) or water
2–3 tablespoons tomato paste (purée)
1 teaspoon Nine Spice Mix (page 24)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
salt and black pepper
Vermicelli Rice (page 32), to serve
Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/Gas Mark 5. Put about a quarter of the meat into a large mixing bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, cover the bread in water and leave to soak for a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, put the onion, tomato, parsley, olive oil, Nine Spice Mix, and salt into a food processor and process to a coarse consistency. Drain the bread, squeezing any excess moisture out with your hands, and add to the food processor, pulsing to evenly combine. Alternatively, very finely chop or grate everything by hand and mix together with the bread, mashing with a spoon as you mix.
Pour the mixture over the set-aside meat in the bowl and mix very well with your hands until fully combined. Add in the remaining meat and mix very gently with your hands, just until evenly distributed. Once you’ve added in the remaining meat, avoid overmixing in order to retain the coarse texture that will give the patties their fluffy texture.
Divide the mixture into about 15 portions. On a clean work surface, overlap 2–3 of the grape leaves, vein side up, (if the leaves are very large then use only 1) and place one portion of meat in the center. Gently shape into a round patty and fold in the sides of the leaves around it. Repeat with the remaining meat and leaves. Set aside.
In a small mixing pitcher (jug), combine the broth (stock) with the tomato paste (purée), Nine Spice Mix, 1 teaspoon of salt, and the olive oil and set aside. In a round oven dish, arrange the grape leave parcels upright at a slight angle with potato and tomato slices between them. Pour the sauce mixture over, drizzle with some more olive oil and sprinkle with salt and black pepper.
Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes, or until the potatoes have started to brown. Remove from the oven and serve with vermicelli rice.
NINE SPICE MIX
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Makes: about 3½ oz/100 g
I can still remember walking through Jerusalem’s old city as a child with my mother, going from vendor to vendor and buying different whole spices in bulk. My mother would roast the spices when we got home and the house would be drunken on the fresh, earthy aromas. For years after I left home, she continued doing this, always sending me a jar of freshly roasted and ground spices. Today I roast my own, but when I do, the smell always transports me back to that time.
6 tablespoons allspice berries
6 cassia bark or cinnamon sticks
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 blades of mace
½ nutmeg, crushed
Place all the ingredients in a large skillet (frying pan) over medium-low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon periodically to ensure the spices do not burn, until you begin to smell the aroma of the spices, about 10 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat and set aside to cool completely, about 1 hour. This step is crucial because if the spices are not cooled properly, they will form a paste when ground rather than a powder.
Place all the roasted spices into a heavy-duty spice grinder and grind until you achieve a fine powder consistency. Store the spice mix in an airtight container. It will keep for several months although the aroma will fade with time.
Note: This spice mix is featured in many of the dishes in this book, lending them a uniquely Palestinian flavor. It is my mother’s own blend but feel free to adjust to suit your taste, or you can substitute with store-bought baharat or Lebanese seven spice mix for an equally tasty, albeit slightly different, flavor profile.
Preparation time: 10 minutes + soaking
Cooking time: 15-20 minutes
Most stews and casseroles in the Palestinian kitchen are served alongside vermicelli rice. Rumor has it that if a woman used vermicelli it was because she was not a good cook as it was a surefire way to ensure the rice grains did not clump together. Truth is, it simply tastes better and richer this way. The proportion of rice to vermicelli noodles is discretionary; I normally do one part vermicelli to four parts rice, but you could easily double or halve that. As for the way I cook the rice, it is a trick I learned while living in France—it requires less work and allows the rice to steam, creating perfectly cooked and fluffy rice every time.
2 cups (14 oz/400 g) rice (jasmine or short grain)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter or ghee
3½ oz/100 g vermicelli noodles, broken into 1-2-inch/3-5-cm lengths
1 teaspoon salt
Rinse the rice under running water until the water runs clear. Soak for 15—30 minutes, then drain and set aside.
Melt the oil and butter or ghee in a pan over medium heat, add the vermicelli noodles, and stir continuously until the noodles are a golden brown color, about 5 minutes.
Add the drained rice and toss to fully coat in the oil.
Pour 2½ cups (18 fl oz/550 ml) water into the pan, add the salt and bring to a boil. Boil for 2—3 minutes, give it one more stir, and then place a dish towel over the pan, close the lid tightly, and remove from the heat. Let it sit for 10—15 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and serve.
Variation: In the old days, rice was not as abundant in Palestine so most people would cook bulgur to be served alongside stews. It’s an equally delicious alternative and even easier to make. Simply use the same amount of coarse grain bulgur in place of the rice (no need to soak or rinse) and add to the fried vermicelli noodles. The bulgur, however, will take more water than the rice so instead of doing the steaming method, add 4 cups (1¾ pints/1 liter) water and salt and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer. Check on the bulgur after 3—5 minutes; if the water has completely evaporated but the grains are still hard to the bite, add more water and continue to cook until done, checking and adding more water as necessary while cooking. The amount of water will vary based on the grain itself and the strength of heat; mine normally needs 5—6 cups (2—2½ pints/1.25—1.5 liters). Once the grains are fluffy and no longer hard to bite, they are done. This will take 15—20 minutes.
My thoughts and pics of the dishes we tried:
1) Tomato, Garlic, and Sumac Salad – p 99. Beautiful, simple, earthy and yummy. I loved the chiles in it.
2) Cauliflower Fritters – p 66. These are fantastic! The recipe only used 1/3 of my cauliflower, and thank goodness for that, because I was able to make a double batch the next day. To my delight, they were total kid magnets. I added a little za’atar and a drizzle of olive oil to the labaneh.
3) My dinner. I’m a BBQ enthusiast and find that the salads in this book go perfectly with the meats I smoke.
4) Beef Patties in Grape Leaves – p 150. Absolutely love these! They are filled with meat and vegetables, so you really don’t need to make any side dishes. She lists a few meats to choose from. I did these with ½ lamb and ½ beef and they were fabulous. Our store was out of grape leaves, so I used fresh ones from my husband’s vines out back. Amazon sells them if your store or yard don’t carry them.
5) Eggplant, Yogurt, and Nut Salad – p 96. She has you use the broiler to prepare the eggplant, which makes this super quick and easy to pull together. It’s so pretty and yummy that I’ll add this to my short-on-time entertaining list.
6) My dinner. The second time I made the cauliflower fritters, they got a much more casual plating. LOL! And they were fried in chile oil. Total omgosh!
7) Za’atar Salad – p 98. Yum! I only think of the spice mix when I see za’atar. She’s referring to a fresh herb here, but lists fresh oregano as a substitute if you can’t find it. I’ve always used fresh oregano with in modest amounts so it wouldn’t overpower dishes. She uses a lot of it as a full salad component rather than just a background flavor and it’s wonderful! This is so fresh and summery!
8) Shrimp in Tomato and Chilli Sauce – p 140. Such and easy, healthy, light, and delicious dish. I just made a nice green salad to go with it.
Some others I have flagged to try: Jerusalem Sesame Bagels – p 40 * Za’atar Filled Flatbreads – p 46 * Fried Eggs with Za’atar and Sumac – p 58 * Falafel – p 68 * Palestinian Salad – p 104 * Lentil, Garlic, and Pasta Soup – p 118 * Eggplant, Lentil, and Pomegranate Stew – p 130 * Sweet Pea and Meatball Stew – 132 * Fish with Tahini and Onion Sauce and Pine Nuts – p 136 * Fish in Olive Oil, Lemon, and Cilantro Sauce – p 138 * Shawarma with Onions and Sumac – p 146 * Meatballs in Lemon Garlic Sauce – p 147 * Kafta and Tahini Bake – p 148 * Kafta and Tomato Bake – p 152 * Lamb and Nut Stuffed Aubergine Bake – p 154 * Lentil and Bulgar Pilaf – 164 * Freekeh, Beef, and Vegetable Pies – p 168 * Baked Kubbeh Pie – p 170 * Rice-Stuffed Chicken – p 190 * Maftool with Butternut, Chickpea, and Chicken Stew – p 196 * Toasted Bread Pudding with Cream and Pistachios – p 210 * Baklawa – p 216 * Fenugreek Semolina Cake – p 220 * Cardamom Coffee – p 235 * Dried Fig and Walnut Preserve – p 242