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When it comes to Arabic food, there’s one main ingredient that’s pretty consistent in most dishes — rice. In the old days, it was probably (don’t quote me on this) used as a way to make a small amount of food go farther — just like pasta for Italians — but today it’s just an essential part of any Arabic dish. It’s a perfect vehicle to soak up all the delicious juices that the food cooks in, especially when it comes to ruz-al-loubi.

This dish of green beans and lamb is braised in a light tomato sauce and then served over rice. It’s packed full of flavor, and without the rice, you’d loose a huge amount of that flavor.

Here’s what you’ll need:
Serves: 4 to 6
– 2 tbsp butter
– 1 onion, chopped
– 1 to 2 lbs lamb, cut/chopped into small pieces
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1/2 tsp cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp nutmeg
– salt and pepper to taste
– 1 small can tomato paste
– about 5 cups water
– 2 lbs frozen green beans (Billy’s grandma always insisted on using frozen, so we’ve never tried using fresh)

In a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent and soft, about five minutes. Add the chopped lamb to the pan and brown, stirring to insure all of the meat gets color. Next, add the garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir to combine, then add the tomato paste and water, scraping the bottom of the pot to get any brown bits. Bring to a boil and add the green beans to the pot, stirring to combine. Finally, cover the pot, reduce to simmer and let cook for one hour.

While the lamb and green beans are cooking, cook one to two cups of rice and set aside. You will serve the lamb, green beans and plenty of sauce over the rice.

Ruz al-Loubi

I love the tomato sauce that the ruz al-loubi cooks in. It’s full of flavor and the rice soaks up every drop of it. The green beans always cook perfectly, as does the lamb. Everything in this dish is really juicy and flavorful, and I love the hint of cinnamon you get in every bite.

This makes a great side dish, but can easily be a full meal if there’s a lot of meat in it. Another great way to eat the green beans and lamb (can you say leftovers?) is to make a sandwich using Arabic (or Greek, because it’s way easier to find in the regular grocery store) pita bread.

While we were in Colorado over Christmas, Billy’s grandma invited everyone over for an Arabic feast. It was one of the highlights of our trip, but for me the best part was getting to taste the real version of all the things we’ve cooked at home. As much as I love Billy’s cooking, nothing will ever be as good as when his grandma makes it.

During our feast, I got to try some new things. From that day forward, I had a new favorite Arabic dish — chicken and rice (and cauliflower, but for some reason everyone always leaves that out…I haven’t quite figured out why yet). It’s the perfect blend of rice, fried cauliflower, chicken and spices. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Here’s what you’ll need:
– 4 cups water
– 3 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
– 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets and dried
– 1 onion, cut into strips and 1/2 onion, cubed
– 2 cups uncooked rice, rinsed and drained
– oil (enough to fry the cauliflower)
– cinnamon and nutmeg, to taste
– salt and pepper

Bring the water, the cubed 1/2 onion, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper to a boil in a large pot. Once the water starts to boil, add the chicken and boil until completely cooked through, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a high-sided frying pan, heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat. Fry the cauliflower (in batches, if necessary) until golden brown. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and allow to cool on a paper towel. In the same oil, fry the strips of onion until they just begin to turn brown. Remove from the pan and drain on a separate paper towel.

Once the chicken has cooked through, drain the water into a bowl and remove from the pot. Layer the ingredients, starting with the onion, then cauliflower and finally chicken, in the same pot. You should use all of the ingredients in one set of layers. Cover the chicken with the rice, then pour the water that was used to boil the chicken over everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and let cook for 20 to 30 minutes.

Chicken and Rice

While we were eating this, I told Billy that I’m always shocked at the way Arabic food is prepared. The meat is almost always boiled (sometimes twice, as is with this dish), but it never gets overcooked or dried out and it’s definitely never short on flavor. I think the flavor combination created with the different spices used in most dishes infuses each bite with the distinct flavors of Arabic food.

I know I’ve said this just about every time we’ve made Arabic food, but chicken and rice is by far my favorite dish (so far, of course). I had never had fried cauliflower before, but after eating this I might have to try it in other applications. The flavor of the cauliflower totally changes when it’s fried, and it’s delicious. It adds a great flavor and texture to this dish. Since I’ve already had the real version of this, I know what it’s supposed to taste like and I can actually say that Billy’s version is pretty dead on. The biggest different we noticed was that his grandma’s was much darker. I think she fries her cauliflower and onions until they are pretty dark and we stopped ours before they turned completely brown, so that may have been part of the reason.

You can serve the chicken and rice with yogurt, but this is actually one application where I don’t think it’s necessary. Using yogurt will make everything really creamy (which is delicious), but everything stands perfectly well on it’s own, too.

It’s been a while since I posed about Arabic food (actually, it’s been a while since we made Arabic food), so I thought I’d share something before we get rolling on all the Christmas goodies (yay!). Mugrabidi is a sort of soupy dish with tiny pasta, garbanzo beans and chicken. This is a perfect dish for a cold winter night — I promise it will hit the spot and warm you up instantly!

Here’s what you’ll need:
– 8 cups water
– 4 chicken breasts, cut into bite size pieces
– 1 onion, chopped
– 1 can garbanzo beans, drained
– 1/2 to 1 pound acini de pepe pasta (amount depends on what kind of pasta to bean/chicken/liquid ratio you want)
– salt and pepper to taste

This is a really simple recipe, but the end result is nothing but! First, add the cut chicken pieces to a pot of boiling water. Let the chicken begin to cook and when the water returns to a rolling boil, add the garbanzo beans. Meanwhile, saute the onion until it begins to turn brown then add it to the boiling water. Continue to boil for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is almost cooked through. Finally, add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 15 more minutes. At this point the chicken and pasta should be done. Season with salt and pepper and you’re ready to serve! (There will be quite a bit of liquid left, the consistency of the dish is supposed to be soupy.)

Mugrabidi

Of all the Arabic dishes I’ve had, I would say this is the least Arabic tasting…if that makes sense. It doesn’t have any of the flavorings and spices found in most Arabic dishes. Nevertheless, this is a great dish and it’s one of my favorites. I love the soupy consistency and the flavor the beans give to the liquid. I think the best way to eat mugrabidi is to get a little of everything in each bite — you really get a great flavor and texture combination that way.

There are certain family traditions and meals that were a staple in our families as kids that we simply will never be able to duplicate in exactly the same way. While my parents and I found Saturday’s cooking experiment both fun and delicious, Billy just didn’t get the results he wanted. I guess nothing is as good as Grandma’s, right? We can all attest to that….

Regardless of whether the rolls were “perfect,” we had a chance to carry on a family tradition. And, whether Billy will agree or not, they were tasty! I think Grandma Alice would be proud. (Anyway, this won’t be the last time we attempt the “long, tight” rolls his grandma is famous for.)

Here’s what you’ll need
– large, whole cabbage leaves (as many as you can get from one head of cabbage)
– 1 cup long grain white rice
– 1/2 lb lamb, cut into small cubes
– salt and pepper
– 1 pinch each, cinnamon and nutmeg
– 1 tbsp butter, melted
– lemon juice

First, make the filling for the rolls by rinsing the rice with water and then combining it with the lamb, seasonings and butter. Meanwhile, blanch the cabbage leaves for about 30 seconds before soaking in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Finally, drain the leaves and create two rolls out of each leaf by cutting out the hard middle part of each cabbage leaf (you can carefully tear each side off the middle vein). Once all the leaves have been blanched and cut, you’re ready to roll!

Spoon one to two teaspoons of the filling at the bottom of each leaf. Very tightly, but carefully, roll the leaf and the filling, tucking in the sides if necessary. Make sure the roll is tight so the filling doesn’t sneak out during cooking, and place it directly into the pot. (The rolls should look like mini burritos made of cabbage.) Continue rolling until all the leaves or filling have been used, whichever comes first. Once all the leaves have been rolled and placed in the pot, cover them with a flat plate and fill the pot with water about an inch above the rolls. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the rice and lamb are cooked through. In the last few minutes of cooking, add a few drops of lemon juice.

Cabbage Roll, Pre-Roll

Cabbage Roll, Pre-Roll

My 'Billy-Approved' Roll!

My 'Billy-Approved' Roll!

The best way to get the rolls out of the pot is to carefully flip the pot over (over the sink so water doesn’t go everywhere) so all the rolls fall onto the plate that was holding them down. Cabbage rolls and grape leaves are traditionally served with a dollop of yogurt. I know it sounds interesting, but believe me — it really is good. It gives the rice a great creamy texture and you can’t even taste a difference.

Cabbage Rolls and Grape Leaves with Yogurt

Cabbage Rolls and Grape Leaves with Yogurt

Before meeting Billy I couldn’t even tell you what Arabic food was. Now, I don’t know how I lived without it before. While Billy will always believe that his Grandma and Great-Grandma’s food is better than his, I will always compliment his efforts and eat all the leftovers! Our rolls didn’t turn out perfect, some of them fell apart during cooking, but I thought we did a pretty good job for our first time. I think, of all the Arabic food Billy and his family have cooked for me, that cabbage rolls are officially my favorite. Even though the filling is the same as Koussa, the taste is completely different. The filling in the cabbage rolls is more the “star” as compared to the Koussa and the texture of the cabbage really adds to the dish as a whole.

P.S. If using grape leaves, do everything the exact same except there’s no need to blanch the leaves.

For those of you who don’t already know…Billy is half Arabic. As he got older and started taking an interest in cooking, he made a point to learn how to cook his great-grandma’s and grandma’s famous Arabic dishes. Let me tell you…it’s a good thing he did! This particular recipe probably isn’t something you would think of when you think of middle eastern cooking (if you really even think of it at all), but it’s worth trying and it dos have all of the traditional flavors of middle eastern dishes.

Koussa is basically squash stuffed with rice and lamb cooked in boiling water and tomato sauce.
Here’s what you’ll need:
– 2 to 4 Mexican squash (depending on how many people you’re serving — allow for one squash per person)
– 1 12 oz. can of tomato sauce
– 1 cup rice
– 1/2 lb. lamb, cut into small cubes (you can use any cut of lamb you prefer, but we find that the meat from the chop is the most tender)
– salt and pepper to taste
– A pinch each of cinnamon and nutmeg
– 1 tbsp. butter, melted

This is a simple recipe actually, but not something you find every day. The first thing you want to do is hollow out the squash. Billy has a really old “tool” that his great-grandma used to use, but any type of zucchini corer (or even a knife or small spoon) will work fine. First, cut off the tip of the squash, but make sure to save it. Take out all the meat that’s inside, but make sure to keep enough flesh so the squash is stable and you won’t poke a hole through it, and discard. Next, rinse the rice with cold water and mix with lamb, butter, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stuff the mixture into the squash until it’s about 3/4 of the way full. Make sure not to over-stuff or the rice won’t cook all the way. “Plug” the opening with the tip you cut off using two toothpicks to hold it in place and poke several holes in the body of the squash.

Billy coring the squash

Billy coring the squash

Place the stuffed squash (aka, koussa) in a large pot and cover with tomato sauce and water until completely submerged. Using a glass plate (or something else heavy), cover the squash in order to keep them completely submerged during cooking. Bring to a boil and let simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, the squash, rice and lamb will all be cooked to perfection! That’s it! Simple, right?

Koussa, cut open, served with Arabic pita bread

Koussa, cut open, served with Arabic pita bread

Koussa, like many middle eastern dishes, is traditionally served with plain yogurt as a sort of “dressing.” It took me a long time to try this — it just sounded kind of weird to me — but I was sorry I did. Using yogurt give everything a different texture and really helps it all come together. And contrary to what you might be thinking, you can’t even taste it. So, go ahead, give it a try…I promise you’ll like it!