Shish Barak: Yogurt Soup with Meat and Parsley Stuffed Dumplings
Let’s just say that you deliberately crafted about three liters of home made yogurt the other day, and then peered into your fridge full of dairy wondering what on earth you had just got yourself into. I mean, what would you, or rather, what could ANYONE possibly do with that much yogurt, right? Three liters means smoothies coming out the yin yang and breakfast granola three meals a day for the indeterminate future.
Except when it doesn’t mean that at all.
Except for the times when three liters of yogurt means all sorts of delicious things, and not all of them are sweet. For example, you can use up some of said yogurt to make a lightened up version of Saag with tofu (aka “Vegetarian Tofu With Creamed Spinach But In The Best Way Possible”). We’re almost on the crest of grilling season, and some of that yogurt can go into marinades for delicious skewers like Chicken Tikka Kebabs or a zesty sauce for Tunisian lamb burgers. We have quick midweek dinners like lazybones Tandoori Salmon, and mixed with cucumber and mint it can be refreshing salad. Yogurt can add heft to a strata, moisture to a bundt cake, or lend a cool creaminess dolloped on top of vegetarian (brown rice and lentil) or rice and meat filled vine leaf rolls. But that’s all old hat to you, right? We know all about yogurt in sauces, marinades, and toppings, so let’s try something new. Let’s try yogurt soup.
When you think of comfort food, maybe you’re remembering Mom’s tuna casserole and Mac’n'cheese. For other people comfort food might be shrimp fried rice, a steaming hot bowl of Pho, or five spice braised pork belly. The comfort food that I grew up with was a mixture of Lebanese, Scandinavian and Canadian classics, including yogurt soup. My father used to make yogurt every few weeks, and yogurt soup was one of our favorite meals in all of it’s iterations. Sometimes the yogurt soup would be vegetarian with a single egg for each one of us poached in the creamy simmering broth. Other times the soup would be hearty with small chunks of stewing beef (some people use tongue, and it is delicious)…and maybe an egg or two, just for giggles. My favorite version of yogurt soup, however, would be the Sunday afternoon soup when we had spent the day carefully crafting dozens of mini meat and parsley filled tortellini-like dumplings which would be bobbing merrily in the yogurt soup just hours later.
The Lebanese version of yogurt soup with meat filled dumplings is called Shish Barak (the name also sometimes refers to just the dumplings). However, variations on yogurt soup are common throughout the Middle East. In Turkey it is sometimes known as Yayla Corbasi, in Iran it is often served cold as Dhoog (or Ab Dhoog Khyar) and the Armenians have Spass or Tarkhannan. But however you spell it, and bearing in mind that the ingredients and cooking techniques may be quite diverse, at the very root of each we have a soup made from yogurt. ‘Nuff said.
The yogurt soup itself is quick and easy to make, but for Shish Barak the wee little tortellini like dumplings can take a bit of time, what with the rolling, shaping, crimping and baking….in mass amounts. But before that intimidates you, remember that the actual PROCESS of making these bready balls of goodness is easy enough, and the dumplings are versatile and delicious. You can serve them at hot, room temperature, or even chilled. They can be plain, brightened up with a quick squeeze of lemon, or bathed in a garlicky yogurt sauce. Whatever you choose to do with the rest of the dumplings when the bowls of yogurt soup are all licked clean is up to you, but they are quite convenient to have on hand for midweek dinners when the thought of pillaging your freezer for a quick fix is overwhelmingly appealing.
Shish Barak: Yogurt Soup with Meat and Parsley Stuffed Dumplings
- 1 medium yellow cooking onion
- 2 fat cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 tsp red chili flakes, optional
- 3/4 cup long grain white rice
- 5 cups water
- 4 cups natural yogurt
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 recipe Meat and Parsley Stuffed Dumplings (follows)
- dried mint for garnish *
Meat and Parsley Stuffed Dumplings (double batch)
- 1 tbsp active yeast
- 2 cups warm water
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 egg **
- 5.5 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 700 g (1.5 lb) extra lean ground beef
- 1/2 large sweet onion (or 1 medium yellow cooking onion)
- 2 fat cloves garlic
- small bunch fresh parsley (1/2 cup finely chopped)
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp red chili flakes
- salt and pepper to taste
* Dried mint just keeps popping up around here, doesn’t it? A lovely alternative to using dried mint, which is the traditional garnish, is to finely chop fresh mint and fry it lightly in hot olive oil until it is dark and just starting to crisp. The minty oil can be drizzled in a little swirl on top of the yogurt soup for an elegant and, perhaps, more approachable garnish.
** Some cooks whisk an egg into the yogurt for a thicker soup, and you are welcome to do the same. If you go this route, whisk the egg into the yogurt and then slowly pour half a ladle of hot soup into the yogurt and stir vigorously before adding the yogurt to the rest of the broth.
Start with the dumplings, because they are the time consuming portion of this meal. Pour the warm (not hot) water over the yeast and sugar. Leave this to sit for about 5 minutes, or until you see that the mixture is frothy and foamy. If you trust that your yeast is active and fresh you can omit this step and just forge ahead, but sometimes I get nervous and cranky. That visual assurance always lets me know that I’m not about to waste my time.
Add the egg, oil and salt to the yeast mixture and give it a good whisk to make sure everything is well combined.
Scoop five (5) cups of flour into the bowl and start working it into the wet ingredients until it starts to form a scrappy dough.
Start to work the dough until it comes together. You can knead it directly in the bowl, because the oil in the mix will help to prevent it from sticking to anything other than itself…and your hands. Speaking of, how does the dough feel to you? After a few minutes of kneading it should feel tough, dense and almost dry to the touch. You don’t want a sticky dough that will make your life miserable when you’re rolling it out. Add the additional half cup of flour (or slightly more – use your judgment) if the dough does not feel heavy and dry, and work this in until it is absorbed into the greater mass.
Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and let it sit in a warm draft free spot for an hour, or until it has roughly doubled in size.
Turn the ground beef into a mixing bowl. Grate the onions and add the flesh and any accumulated juices to the meat. Grate in the garlic (I use a rasp) or use a garlic press to pulp it out and add to the meat along with the dried spices.
Discard the stems of your parsley and chop the leaves as finely as if you were making tabouli. Add the parsley to the mix and season with salt and pepper and mix it well until everything is incorporated. I would use about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, but add according to your own taste. You want the meat to be well seasoned and flavorful. It would be a real shame to roll all that dough and fold all those dumplings only to find out that your filling is lackluster, so you might want to consider frying up a small “test ball” to taste and adjust as necessary.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF with your racks in the center or upper third.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Gently flour your work area and partially roll out one piece of dough (keeping the rest under your tea towel so that they don’t dry out) until it is flat and about 8″ in diameter but still thick. Let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, which will make it easier to finish rolling out, and then continue until it is a large oval with even thickness of 1/8″.
Use a stamp or cookie cutter to separate the dough into small rounds.
Dollop about a teaspoon of filling into the center of each round. Fold the dough over into a half moon shape and press firmly on the edge to seal. Pull both corners into the center and press them tightly so that they stick together in a tortellini shape. If your dough is not sticking together, wet a fingertip in cold water and trace lightly along the edge of the dough before pressing the bundle closed or crimping in the center to seal.
The key to dumplings, of course, is to enlist your friends and family with nimble little fingers to aid in the construction. You can market it as a bonding experience, waxing poetic about shared time in the kitchen and the joys of cooking with your best mates, but really, *you* know it’s all about free labor and getting the dumplings made in half the time. It’s a win-win, really. My girl here did a most excellent job and kindly jumped in to help, and was rewarded with a freezer bag full of doughy goodness at the end of the night. Now THAT’S teamwork.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or grease the sheet before using) and fill it up with formed dumplings, making sure that there is adequate space around each one to allow for doughy expansion in the oven.
Bake the dumplings for 12-15 minutes or until they are golden grown on the outside and the meat is cooked through. If you are baking two sheets at a time, don’t forget to rotate inside the oven to make sure that they brown evenly.
This is my favorite part of the process, because once the dumplings are baked and brown you can do with them what you please. They freeze beautifully to be used at a later time in a second batch of yogurt soup or a cinnamon scented tomato based broth. You can serve them as is for an appetizer or nibble, either warm or at room temperature with a squeeze of lemon. You can also plate up a half dozen for lunch with a side salad and a glass of young red wine. If you love the dumplings but don’t feel too enthusiastic about making soup, you can stir pureed garlic into yogurt with a drizzle of oil and serve shish barak dumplings with this on the side as a dip or immersed in the yogurt sauce – absolutely delicious.
As a side note, some home cooks drop the raw dumplings directly into the soup and simmer them for 20-25 minutes as is, which is a perfectly adequate way to cook the dough and filling and yields an incredibly soft dumpling as a result. However, that’s also a lot of beige going into a soup which is…beige. I like to cook the dumplings in the oven to build color and also some firmness to the crust so that when they poach in the sauce they absorb it and soften but don’t fall apart or get gummy.
Abandon your friend to continue with her dumpling making escapades as you get started on the soup base.
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic. Heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed pot set over medium low heat and gently sweat out the aromatics until the onion is quite soft and a translucent golden color, about 5-7 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and stir into the onion and oil. Cook this, stirring regularly, for 2-3 minutes or until the rice is semi-translucent with a little white core. Sprinkle with the red pepper flakes.
Add the water to your pot and let it simmer gently for 20-25 minutes, uncovered, or until the rice is tender and cooked through.
Turn the heat down to medium low. Stir in the yogurt and cook the soup for another 10 minutes so that the flavors can meld. Make sure that the water is just at a simmer and not a boil when you add the yogurt. If necessary, turn down the heat or take the pot off the stove to cool for a few minutes because if you add the yogurt to boiling water it will separate. The soup will still taste fine, mind you, but the appearance of curdled yogurt can be a bit off-putting to some.
Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Another key to avoiding separation is to salt at the end rather than at the start of the process, because if you salt too soon the mixture is less likely to stay homogeneous.
Add half a batch of shish barak dumplings to the soup, or however many you would like to serve each person. I would recommend at least 6 per person, but remember that I’m a greedy little ox. Again, the rest of the shish barak dumplings can be frozen or put aside for another use.
Simmer the dumplings in the soup for five minutes, or until they are softened and warmed through.
Divide the yogurt soup among six bowls, making sure that each bowl has the same number of dumplings so as to prevent fighting. Because really, if anything can get the juices of jealousy flowing it would be seeing that Johnny over there has 8 shish barak dumplings and you only have 6. Nothing divides an otherwise happy family faster than uneven distribution of dumplings. True story.
When I see dumplings bobbing away in soup like this, I get the urge to just dive right into their warm milky bath and do a back float myself. And don’t go mocking me, because I bet Cleopatra would have been all over that too. You know, The Queens and I, we’re pretty tight.
Now isn’t this just the purtiest little yogurt soup that’ya ever done saw? The first time that Mike met my parents I was nervous enough to begin with, but was practically vibrating with anxiety when I saw that the starter was yogurt soup. Because, hey, that’s a bit of a diversion from the Canadian-Scottish palate of meat and potatoes. He tucked right in though, slurping down a big bowl before asking for seconds, which immediately cemented him into my father’s affections. When I have brought friends up to my parent’s cottage, my father also frequently makes yogurt soup…and it is always devoured with relish. I asked him one time why he would start people off with something like yogurt soup, which is strange and foreign to suspicious Canadian taste buds, but he simply shrugged and said, “It’s yogurt soup. Everyone likes yogurt soup. They just have to try it.”
I can’t help seconding that opinion, so if you find yourself with a glut of yogurt and aren’t sure where to turn, look no further than dinner because yogurt soup is where it’s at. And if you don’t have a glut of yogurt on hand, well what are you waiting for?