Kibbeh bi Saneah: Minced Meat And Burghul Pie
The first time that I brought Mike to my parent’s house for dinner my Dad made Lebanese food. I was nervous for so many reasons. I was bringing a guy over to meet my parents, which is something that in 10 years of dating I had only done a handful of times. What if they didn’t like each other? What if it was really awkward? (ha! Of COURSE it was going to be awkward!!) What if my parents told embarrassing stories about what an ‘eccentric’ I was in high school and how I didn’t shave my legs for almost a year when I was going through my hippie phase? What if they probably should have told him that so that he would know what to expect in the wintertime? What if Mike didn’t like Lebanese food?
Ah, yes. The liking of Lebanese food, of course, was key. If he didn’t eat my Dad’s food, he wouldn’t be very popular. Oh, and I don’t just mean ‘eat’ the food, I mean ‘polish off with relish and then ask for more tabouli.’ Food is a centripetal force in the average Lebanese household. The success of any given event is in direct proportion to the quality and mass of food on the table, and every Lebanese cook has their own way of making their specialty dish, which they take great pride in. Poor Mike didn’t know how charged the situation was. He expected a bit of uncomfortable small talk, some rather pointed questions, and the general First Time Meeting The Parents interview. What he didn’t know is that watching him eat dinner is where the critical judgement would happen, and where he would either enter the land of Possible Son-in-law or start rapidly swirling the drain.
Thankfully, Mike likes Lebanese food. A lot. All of my fussing and worry was for nothing as he slurped up his minted yoghurt soup with shish barak, ravaged a platter of stuffed vine leaf rolls, and dug a canyon through the bowl of tabouli on the table….and then asked for seconds. WHEW, those five little words, “May I have some more?” and I knew that we were in the clear. Afterwards, on the way back to his house, I grudgingly confessed about how nervous I had been that he wouldn’t like the food. He looked confused, and said, “Why wouldn’t I like it? I mean, that stuff’s GOOD.” Then he looked pensive as he thought about it, and came up with one of the best explanations that I’ve heard about why some people may be afraid of Lebanese food.
You look at the table and everything is brown, green, or brown and green. There’s some grayish brown meat, and some green…stuff. And some more green stuff. And some brown meat, maybe (?) with green stuff in it, and then the brown stuff which isn’t meat but you don’t know what it is. And then there’s some gray stuff over there beside the beige stuff, and the other beige stuff, and the white stuff that you’re pretty sure is yoghurt but it sure as hell doesn’t taste like Yoplait. I will openly admit: there is a lot of Lebanese food which just isn’t pretty. BUT: it’s so dangnably good.
So we take kibbeh, for example. Kibbeh is ubiquitous in Lebanon, to the point where Kibbeh Nayyi (a mixture of raw minced meat with burghul, comparative to steak tartare but more…ethnic) is considered by some to be the national dish. Baked kibbeh is deliciously simple and subtly spiced, easy to prepare, and perfect for serving a crowd when you need to stretch your meat-dollar. But the thing is, you take everything that makes people suspicious (“I don’t know what it is, but is that GRAIN in there? Seriously? WTF IS that?!”) and give it the charming appearance of your average meatloaf. It’s hard to make kibbeh pretty. Really, really hard. Impossibly hard. Give-up-before-you-try kind of hard.
I’ve been waffling over whether or not to post this recipe, because try as I might, there wasn’t a single picture of the kibbeh I made which would make it look appealing to a vaguely suspicious audience. I figured that this was okay, I should have SOME culinary privacy, and it doesn’t matter if people don’t want to read about my kibbeh because at least *we* (and our dinner guests who happily took some tupperware to go) enjoyed eating the leftovers for days afterward.
But then last night I got a phone call from my Dad. He called to tell me that there was a sale on at a local grocery store. Oh, and that he was looking at our website the other day and I should know that the food didn’t look very appealing. “You know,” he says, “People eat with the eyes.” Yeah, gotcha. “They won’t want food that doesn’t look appealing.” Huh. You don’t say. “Yes,” he continues, “maybe if your food looked better more people would want to read about it…………”
AND WITH THAT THE KIBBEH GETS POSTED. Being the stubborn wench that I am, nothing else could have provoked me into posting a dish as…ehrrr….’aesthetically challenged’ as kibbeh if he hadn’t said that. I KNOW that it’s not something you’d drool over on Tastespotting. I KNOW that most people will look at the picture and quickly skip over to the next post. But at the end of the day, kibbeh is one of our favorite dishes because it’s just good. It’s comforting, nourishing, and about as flavorful as minced meat with onions, allspice and seasonings can be! And really, at the end of the day, what matters is that your dinner tastes savory and delicious – even if she’s not the prettiest girl at the party, it’s what’s inside that counts.
(PS: What’s inside is seasoned meat and walnuts. That’s way better than a cheerful demeanor.)
Kibbeh bi Saneah: Minced Meat And Burghul Pie
Serves 10-12, depending on what you have for sides
Kibbeh Nayii (base and top) *
- 3 lb extra lean ground beef, lamb, or a combination of the two**
- 2.5 cups fine burghul
- 5 cups ice water
- 1 medium yellow onion, grated
- 3/4 tsp allspice
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1.5 tsp salt, or to taste
- 1 tsp black pepper, or to taste
- 1/4 cup salted butter, melted before use
Hashwat Kibbeh (filling)
- 1.5 lb medium ground beef or lamb**
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp salted butter
- 3/4 cup walnut pieces
- 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
* If you trust your butcher (ie., you don’t shop for meat at No Frills) to have really fresh meat, this is a recipe for Kibbeh Nayii. Leftover Kibbeh Nayii often gets repurposed into cooked kibbeh or turned into a stuffing.
** Why two different types of beef? A very lean beef will not shrink as much when it cooks, and it also won’t release as much molten fat into the pan. However, fat is totally where the flavor is at, and the filling can be too dry if there isn’t a bit of extra fat in there.
Start by making the kibbeh filling. Finely chop the onion and mince the cloves of garlic.
Just in preparation, you should also mince the parsley and chop the walnuts up a bit finer than they came in the package.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet, making sure that it doesn’t brown. If your range tends to run hot, you may want to do this over a lower heat setting. When the butter is melted, add the onion and garlic. Sweat the onion out until it’s translucent, and then add the ground beef or lamb, allspice, salt and pepper. I like to use beef for the kibbeh layers and lamb for the filling, but this time I used all beef….because the only ground lamb at the grocery store was some incredibly overpriced “Grain Fed New Zealand Spring Lamb” (is there a small town called ‘New Zealand’ in Ontario? Because this mince looked like it was from somewhere outside of Hamilton…*shudder*) and at $9.50 per lb (!!) I’ll just use my beef, thanks.
Break the meat up with your spoon as it cooks down to make sure that there are no big chunks. Meat balls doth not a good kibbeh filling make. Continue cooking the meat over your relatively low heat until it’s browned through. At this point, add the walnuts and let them cook with the meat for a minute or two before adding the parsley and taking it off the heat to cool down. As it cools some of the fat will separate out from the meat and pool, but be sure to stir this back in before you use it in the kibbeh.
And now! On to the kibbeh! Measure the dry burghul into a medium size bowl and cover it with the 5 cups of ice cold water. Let this sit for just 5 minutes – don’t forget about it.
After 5 minutes, drain off the water and press the burghul to get rid of as much liquid as possible. I find that the easiest way to do this is to pour off the excess water and then scoop up a handful of burghul, squeeze and pack it between my hands like I was making a particularly dangerous snowball, and then toss it into a larger mixing bowl when I’m satisfied that I can’t squeeze any more liquid out.
If you had a stand mixer then you could throw it into the bowl of that, as your mixer with a paddle attachment would be perfect for incorporating the meat. The thing is though, for some reason I really like to mix raw meat by hand…..is that creepy? No, really, is it?
Grate the yellow onion on a box grater and add this to the burghul, along with the spices, salt and pepper.
Add the beef/lamb and start working everything together with your hands. Really, really work it. Get right in there, fully immersing your open fist into the mince as you twist, stir, mix and knead that meat into submission. Squeeze the meat and let it push out between your fingers. Keep going, it only feels weird at first and then it just starts to feel natural – like you were born to make kibbeh and this is how you do it (baby).
What you are basically doing is emulsifying the fat with the meat, which will yield a much more tender kibbeh at the end of the day.
When the meat is pretty much uniform in color (with the exception of the burghul) and it almost starts to look ‘hairy’, you’re done. That’s not meat hair (what a vile thought!) it’s just protein strands from the meat which have separated out. This is good. Oh, and because of my ridiculously lacking photography skills, this picture looks really light – it’s not. It’s the colour of….ground meat with burghul.
Butter a large casserole pan (9×13 or larger) and press half of the kibbeh mixture into the bottom.
Spread the cooled filling mixture evenly on top of the kibbeh base.
Gently press the stuffing into the base layer. Pinch off a small ball of the remaining kibbeh and flatten this into a disk which will be placed on top of the stuffing. Make another kibbeh disk and place it so that it just slightly overlaps the first one. Continue the process until the whole top of your casserole is covered.
Moisten your hands with cold water and press the top layer down, smoothing it out as you go so that the surface is even. Having hands that are cold and wet will help you enormously in this process. Put the kibbeh into the fridge to chill for a half hour, or up to a day.
When you’re ready to cook the kibbeh, start by preheating the oven to 350F with your rack in the center.
Press the tip of a sharp knife (NOT serrated) into the kibbeh, just deep enough to feel the texture change. You just want to cut through the top layer and stop when you reach the stuffing. Gently cut the top layer into angled strips, each about 2 inches apart.
Cut again in the opposite direction to form a diamond pattern. The Lebanese like things cut to diamonds as much as the Irish like triangular wedges and the Brits like squares.
Brush the top of the casserole with the 1/4 cup of melted butter.
Bake the kibbeh on the center rack of your preheated oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it’s done. How long it takes to be done will depend on how big your casserole dish is. If you used a 9×13 dish, then your kibbeh is really thick – meaning that it will take an hour to cook through. If it is thinner, in a large lasagne pan for example, it may only take 45 minutes. Either way, you want to cook it until it’s done. If you must, use a thermometer to ensure that it has reached 160°. Otherwise, you can usually tell whether or not it is done by the appearance – the top will be browned, it will have started to pull away slightly where you cut it, and it will smell fragrant.
Be sure not to overcook the kibbeh, because the meat is so lean that overcooking it will lead to a dried out greyish mass that falls apart when you cut it.
Re-cut the kibbeh along the path you had drawn, but this time cut it all the way through.
I warned you, didn’t I? It’s not pretty. I get that. Hey, we’re talking about minced meat with burghul. It won’t be beautiful no matter what you do to it. However, if you decide to make this at home and you want somebody to come and do a taste test? Grab the closest Arab you can find – they’ll be happy to help. Oh, or Mike. Or myself. Or our friends.
If you’re the kind of person who shakes their fist at the sky yelling, “MEATLOAF FOR THE MASSES!!!!!” this may be just the dish for you. The mince is tender and flavorful but honest tasting. The burghul adds body, texture, and a bit of a toothsome appeal. The butter does what butter does. Really, for a cheap-ass ground beef dinner, this is comfort food elevated to the levels of sublime.
I firmly believe that relations in the Middle East would be in much better shape if the political powers just skipped over the small talk and pleasantries, and shared a home-cooked meal instead.
“That’s our land.”
“No, that’s OUR land.”
“Hey, this hummus is really good.”
“Oh, thanks. Hey, your kibbeh tastes like my Tata Badia’s!”
“Maybe we can share the land?”
“DEAL. Pass the olives, please.”