About Middle Eastern Cooking and Recipes
Middle Eastern cuisine is a refined art. It is influenced by dozens of cultures, and its spicy dishes reflect the fact that the Middle East was either the source or the way station for spices that came to Europe from all over Asia. Lamb, rice and various legumes (especially lentils and chickpeas) are staples of main course dishes. Many dishes use burghul (cracked wheat or smead) in salads and chopped meat combinations. Middle East foods include lots of salads made from both fresh vegetables in season, and cooked or pickled vegetables, and fruit in quantities.
Middle Eastern food is healthy - the famous Mediterranean diet seems to promote healthy hearts and digestive systems.
Olive oil is the healthy and tasty "universal solvent" of Middle Eastern cuisine. Small green olives, hot green peppers and pickled or fried eggplant are served as side dishes along with dips such as tahini (made from sesame seed oil) and Humus (chickpeas and tahineh). Za'atar is a spice that grows wild in Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. It is similar to oregano - but it is not oregano. Za'atar is the basis of a spice mix that is also called za'atar and contains za'atar, salt, tanning spices and other ingredients. Za'atar may be sprinkled on dishes such as humus or labani (labaneh).
Middle Eastern cuisine was spread through parts of Europe that were ruled by the Ottoman Empire, including Greece, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Rumania, where lamb pilaf, okrah, kebab, eggplant and other dishes are popular in their local variants.
Middle Eastern foods are usually eaten with (or in) pita bread. A pita is a flatish bread (it is the origin of the Italian word "Pizza") originally baked in a simple oven. It comes in all sizes and shapes. Iraqi pita is often the size of a very large plate, It is often used to wrap meat for "fast food." and flat. "Regular" pita is slightly risen and the size of a small platter. That kind of pita can be opened inside to form a pocket for salad or meat or falafel. Pita can also be baked in long flat sheets (Iraqi Pita). Salads and dips can be rolled up inside. Pita can also be baked with onions, Za'atar etc. on top. Ijjeh is a kind of fast food made by baking an egg mix on top of a pita.
The small sampler below is meant to give you an introduction to Middle Eastern cooking. Like all features at MidEastWeb, this is a work in progress. If you have good recipes or serving suggestions - please send them to us!
Thanks are due to Melissa Fayyed and Rami Neudorfer who contributed recipes.
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Syrian Rice Recipes - Rice and Rice-Pasta dishes, including Shireeah.
Salads and Side Dishes
Mejadra - Lentils and rice or cracked
Kibbeh - (Meatballs with cracked wheat and pine nuts)
Kibbeh is a dish made with lamb or beef, burghul (cracked wheat) and pine nuts. Very popular in Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. It can be eaten fried, baked or raw (raw meat is not recommended for health reasons).
For the kibbeh:
2 cups fine burghul
(cracked wheat, #1 smead)
For the filling:
200g (half a pound) ground lamb
Kibbeh (Crust) - Put the burghul in the bowl, cover with cold water and let stand for 15 mins. Drain burghul and squeeze in hands to soften. Place the lamb or beef in food processor and mince to fine paste. Add the remainder of the ingredients (adding water a little at a time) to the blender and mix. Remove and keep aside.
Filling - Heat oil in pan, add onions and cook till soft. Add nuts, cook until lightly browned. Add lamb and spices, cook, stirring until lamb is browned.
Shape 1/4 cups of kibbeh into balls using damp hands. Hollow out the centers. Using your thumb, press a rounded teaspoon (or more) of filling inside. Shape into ovals. Now deep-fry the kibbeh in hot oil (in batches) until browned all over and cooked through. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve with appetizers (mezze) and salads.
Divide the kibbeh into 2 equal portions. Flatten one portion on an oiled medium sized oven tray. Spread all the filling over it. Flatten the other portion of kibbeh using wet hands and layer on top of the filling. Shape into diamond shapes using sharp knife. Drizzle 1/4 cup of olive oil with some small lumps of butter (equivalent in total to 1 tbs) over the top. Place in the middle shelf of oven and bake on moderate heat for 40 - 50 minutes or until the top browns. Drain excess oil. Serve hot with salad.
Samboosak (ground beef patties)
3 cups flour
Pour flour into a deep bowl, add the mixed spices and salt. Add the oil and rub with fingertips. Add water and a pinch of salt a little at a time, mixing thoroughly until batter clings. Divide into small pieces, place on a tray and put in a warm place for one hour. Put ground meat, onion, salt, pepper and cumin in a frying pan and cook over low heat. Cool. Roll each piece of dough into a round, about 1/16 inch thick. Place a tablespoon of meat in the center of each round and seal then twist the edges. Heat the oil and deep fry the samboosak on both sides. Serve hot. Serves 8-10 persons.
Americans call this dish "Shish Kebab" and are often surprised to find that Kebab is ground meat in the Middle East.
2 lb. (I kg) leg of lamb
Trim the fat off the meat. cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Mix olive oil and lemon juice and rub into meat. Place in dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover with slices of onion and tomatoes and a few bay leaves. Place in refrigerator for 4 or 5 hours or overnight. The marinade can also be made with liquid saffron and yoghurt.
Arrange meat on skewers with alternating tomatoes and onions (green peppers too if you use them. Broil over charcoal, or open wood fire if possible - or in preheated broiler. Serve with boiled rice.
Al-Motubug - Stuffed Pastry Squares
6 cups flour
Sift flour, add the water and salt a little at a time, mixing dough until it becomes soft but pliable. Divide the dough into ten pieces, knead each piece well. Place on a tray sprinkled with a little water and let rise for at least one hour. Put ground beef in a saucepan with chopped onion, black pepper and salt. Stir over medium heat until cooked. Set aside until cool. Chop leeks and wash several times through a strainer; drain and put on a paper towel until excess water is absorbed. Add to ground beef. Take a piece of dough and cover in flour, roll out, place over back of hands and stretch until dough becomes quite thin. Place dough on worktop and trim uneven edges. Brush two tablespoons of egg and oil mixture over dough surface. Fold to form smaller squares. Place in frying pan or griddle over medium heat with one tablespoon of oil. Place pastry squares in pan and fry on both sides until golden brown. Repeat above method using five of the remaining pieces. With piece number six repeat as above to the folding stage. Place one fried pastry square in the center of the unfolded piece, cover generously with ground beef and three tablespoons of beaten egg. Fold into a square. Sprinkle oil and egg mixture between layers. Fry in 3 tablespoons of oil over medium heat until both sides are golden brown. Repeat using remaining four pieces of dough. Serve hot.
Lentils (in Arabic "Adas," in Hebrew "Adashim") in various forms are a most typical Middle Eastern food. According to the Bible, Jacob sold his birth right for a "Nezid Adashim" - lentil stew. Mejadrah (also spelled Mejadra, Megedra and many other ways) is made from lentils and... The "and" is usually rice or cracked wheat. Once recipe uses Russian buckwheat!.
1/2 cup rice.
Wash lentils. Preferably soak over night. Put in pot, cover with water. Cover the pot and simmer 1/2- 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Add rice and add water as needed. Brown the sliced onion in olive oil, put in pot. crush one clove of garlic and add as well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until lentils are rice is done and lentils are soft (about 20 minutes) adding water sparingly as needed. When done, the Mejadra should be thick and hold shape fairly well. Place on dinner plates and squeeze lemon juice on before eating.
1 cup #2 burghul (medium cracked wheat or smead).
Wash lentils. Preferably soak over night. Put in pot with burghul and cover with water and simmer 1/2- 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Brown the sliced onion in olive oil, put in pot. crush one clove of garlic and add as well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft, adding water as needed. . When done, the Mejadra should be thick and hold shape fairly well. Place on dinner plates and squeeze lemon juice on before eating.
Tomato Salad (also known as "Salad")
Tomato salad in different variants is served throughout the Mediterranean area and in regions of the former Ottoman Empire. The Greeks add Feta cheese and black olives for example, and use large slices of onion.
The tomato/cucumber salad depends on having fresh vegetables - especially tasty (not hot-house) tomatoes and good olive oil. Ingredients and quantities vary according to taste. When I was a kid in the US I thought this was the only kind of salad there is. It is a staple of Israeli and Palestinian diet. It is simple and can be prepared by anyone!.
Mash the garlic. Dice tomatoes, cucumber and onion or scallion into small pieces. Place in a bowl. Add lemon juice, olive oil and salt to taste and toss so that the salad is thoroughly mixed. Let stand for about 15 minutes to draw out the juices. Eat the salad with plenty of pita or other bread to soak up the juices.
Tabouleh - (Cracked Wheet and Parsley Dish)
A favorite Lebanese dish, also popular in Israel.
Soak burghul in water for about 2 hours, then wash and drain. Wash and chop the parsley, mint and onions very fine. Dice the tomato. Combine all ingredients including burghul. Add salt to taste, lemon juice, olive oil and mix well. Serve in a bowl lined with lettuce leaves. This salad can be eaten with a fork, but the traditional way is to scoop up a bite of the mixture in a lettuce leaf.
Falafel (Middle Eastern Fast Food)
1 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked in water to
cover overnight and drained
Run the drained garbanzo beans and fava beans through the fine blade on your meat grinder or in your food processor. Blend in all the remaining ingredients and let the mixture stand for 1 hour. Form into balls the size of walnuts. Deep-fry in 375° oil until toasty brown and crunchy on the outside, about 4 minutes.
Fill pita bread with Falafel and various salad ingredients such as: sliced tomatoes, Turkish salad, sliced onion, tahini, sliced cucumber, hot green peppers, lettuce.
Makes about 24 patties, enough for 6 sandwiches.
Falafel balls can also be served separately as appetizers with dips.
Baba Ghannouche - Eggplant Dip
1 large round eggplant (aubergine)
Cook the eggplant in a hot oven or on a fork over the flame of a gas stove. When it is well cooked through and the skin is blackened, douse with cold water, peel and chop into small pieces. Mash two or three cloves of garlic to a paste with about the same volume of salt. Add eggplant, mash to a smooth consistency and blend the tahina and lemon juice to make the Arab version of this dish; omit the tahina for the Turkish version. Serve in a bowl with little olive oil on top and garnish chopped parsley, red pepper slices and a dusting of red pepper. Serves five.
Hummus bi Tahina - Chickpea and Sesame Dip
125 g (4 oz) chickpeas, soaked for a few hours
1 tbsp. olive oil
Drain the chickpeas and simmer in fresh water for about an hour or until tender. Reserve the cooking water.
Process the chickpeas in a blender (or food processor) with the lemon juice, tahina, garlic, salt and enough of the cooking liquid to obtain a soft creamy consistency. Serve on a flat plate, garnished with a dribble of olive oil, a dusting of paprika (this is usually done in the shape of a cross) and a little parsley. Sauteed pine nuts are options.
Serve with warm pita bread for dipping and with hot green peppers as a side dish. Serves 4-6.
Hot Pepper Dip
3 medium onions, finely chopped
Sauté the onions gently in the oil until soft and golden. Add the walnuts, the breadcrumb purée, the pepper (chili or purée), the cumin and salt to taste. Continue to sauté gently on a low heat until the ingredients are well blended - about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat, place in a bowl and garnish with pine nuts.
Muhammara is eaten as a dip with pita. It can also be used as a spicy dip with kebabs, grilled meats and fish. The Lebanese also eat it as a spread on toast. Serves about 6.
Tahinat el Beid - Dip for bread
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Put the oil in a salad bowl and add lemon juice drop by drop – to taste. Thin with a little water. Chop the egg very fine. Add the garlic, parsley and salt and the egg very finely chopped. Sprinkle on cayenne pepper.
Eat as a dip with pita.
Turkish Salad ( Hot Sauce for Falafel)-
About 2 cups canned tomatoes
Put all the ingredients into a small, heavy pan.
Bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered until the tomatoes break up (about half an hour).
Allow to cool and adjust seasoning to taste.
Makes 2 cups. Use for falafel, humus etc.
Adas Bil Hamod Mezze - Lentils with Potatoes
1 1/2 lbs (750gr) black lentils (about 3
Soak lentils over night preferably. Boil lentils in water for 15 minutes. Add the potatoes and continue cooking till lentils are tender. Fry garlic and coriander with a tablespoon olive oil till slightly tender.
Mix the flour with a little water. Add to lentils with the garlic mixture.
Cook 30 minutes on medium heat. Before serving add lemon juice.
Serve hot or cold with pita bread as an appetizer.
Salatat Bathinjan - Eggplant Salad
1 large eggplant (aubergine), peeled and
Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the eggplant slices and fry on both sides until they are golden brown. Remove the eggplant slices, dice them, and place in a bowl. Mash the garlic cloves with salt. Add to the diced eggplant along with the hot pepper and lemon juice. Chill slightly and serve.
Labani (Labaneh)- Fresh Cheese made from Yoghurt
2 liters sheep's milk or regular cow's milk
Prepare a cotton cloth, cheese cloth or diaper. Heat the milk in a large pot, over a low fire, until it boils. Remove immediately from the fire and cool until you can put a finger in the milk and count to ten. Place 4 spoons of the milk in a bowl, add the yoghurt, stir, and add to the pot of milk. Transfer to an earthenware or glass bowl, cover well, and wrap in a thick, heavy blanket. Leave for 6-8 hours in a warm place. Keep the prepared yoghurt refrigerated. Place the cloth in a large strainer. Mix the yoghurt with the salt and pour over the cloth. Tie and hang above the sink, or above a bowl. The labaneh will be ready in 10-12 hours.
Transfer the labaneh to a container, press with a plate to flatten it and cover with olive oil. It's worth making the effort to get sheep's milk for preparing the labaneh. You may have to milk a sheep though :-). We made it with cow milk and it was satisfactory. If you get something awful, throw it out and buy labaneh.
Often eaten sprinkled with Za'atar. Za'atar can be added to the olive oil.
2 cups yogurt
Prepare a muslin sack or several layers of cheesecloth or diaper made into a bag, and a large bowl. Combine yogurt and salt. Pour into a muslin sack, tie up, and suspend over a large bowl. Let drain over night. The bowl will catch the dripping liquid. In the morning, discard the water.
Unwrap the cheese. Makes 1/2 cup.
Use as a spread on pita or form into small balls and serve with olive oil and chopped fresh mint or with black olives. Labani can be spread on pita with Za'atar as well. To store - cover labani or labani balls with olive oil.
The Virtual Middle Eastern Cookbook by Sabrina Toma includes both great recipes and pictures of the author's original oil paintings.
Food from the Arab World by MARIE KARAM KHAYAT and MARGARET CLARK KEATING is a complete cookbook of Lebanese (mostly) recipes.
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