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I had fully intended to catch up on the blog this weekend. We didn’t have many plans, it was supposed to be windy and rainy on Sunday — everything was looking good for a nice day on the couch full of relaxing and blogging. That is, until disaster struck in the kitchen on Saturday night.

We were cooking what looked and smelled like a delicious rack of lamb with an apricot glaze and panko crust. I had just finished sauteing some veggies and Billy had just pulled the lamb out of the oven. I got out a few plates and started taking pictures. Then it happened. I grabbed the handle of the pan. I threw the camera down on the counter, spun around and rushed to the sink. I turned on the cold water and let it run over my burned fingers and thumb. They were burning. They were throbbing. OUCH!

Within minutes I had five nice white spots on every finger (and thumb) on my left hand. Billy did some research and called the 24 hour nurse line. All signs pointed to a trip to the emergency room. So, we were off — little did we know we’d be waiting for five hours. Five hours. When we finally saw the doctor, they put cream all over the burns then bandaged me up. I was to go back in 24 hours to get them re-checked and to get further instructions. When we got home at 1:30 in the morning, I crawled into bed and slept with my hand resting on a bag of ice to keep it from throbbing. (Needless to say, we never got to eat the delicious looking lamb as it had been sitting out on the counter for over five hours and at 1:30 in the morning we wanted nothing to do with food.)

Fast forward to Sunday, late afternoon. We were back in the ER to get my burns checked out (thankfully there was zero wait this time). The doctor seemed surprised that I was back so quickly, but said that my burns looked good and I should be back to fairly normal after five days of medicating, bandaging and keeping the wounds dry. (I have to wear a glove any time I am dealing with water, which is a total pain. On the plus side, no dishes for me for five days!) Then, the next bombshell. I had to get a tetanus shot. So now, not only do I have four close to useless fingers, but also a half-dead arm. Lucky me!

My Monster Hand

The Lamb, Pre-Burns

The moral of the story? DON’T TOUCH PANS THAT HAVE BEEN IN THE OVEN! Pretty obvious, right? Apparently not for me…. Here’s your sign.

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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.

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!