One of my favorite special-occasion wines is Chateau Musar, a hearty red from Lebanon in the Eastern Mediterranean. Musar is held for years after the vintage before it's released, so the 1997 vintage only recently arrived. This prompted plans for a feast, and an ethnic Lebanese lamb dish seemed just the thing to accompany this robust wine.
I've often enjoyed kibbeh - a ground-lamb dish that's too deliciously complex to be dismissed as mere meatloaf - at Lebanese restaurants. Combining memories of those treats with a quick survey of recipes in books and on the Web, I put together a relatively easy rendition that I think does justice to the original.
Kibbeh comes in several forms: It's sometimes served raw, like steak tartare ("Kibbeh Nyi"), and is often deep-fried in individual football-shaped portions about the size of lemons ("Kibbeh Meklieh"). Because it was easier and quicker to prepare, I went with the third option, "Kibbeh b'Sounieh," baked in a shallow pan, cut into individual diamond-shaped servings.
Whichever way you prepare it, the secret to real kibbeh lies in fashioning an outer portion and a center filling that use the lamb in slightly different ways to create an appealing contrast of flavors and textures that combine tender lamb, crunchy toasted pine nuts and a symphony of exotic herbs and spice.
This isn't a quick dinner, but it's not terribly complicated. Even on the first try it required only about a half-hour for preparation and 45 minutes for baking. A few slightly unusual ingredients are needed (bulgur wheat and, optionally, some rather exotic spices), but there's nothing on the list that can't be found at many ethnic and specialty grocers. Here's how it went:INGREDIENTS: (Serves two with leftovers)
1 cup bulgur wheat
1. Put the bulgur in a bowl and pour in enough water to cover it an inch deep over the grains. Leave for 15 or 20 minutes or until the wheat absorbs most of the water. Drain through a strainer.
2. While the bulgur is soaking, make a spice mix, using approximately equal portions of any or all of these traditional spices to make about 1 tablespoon in all: allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, ground cloves, fenugreek, ground ginger, nutmeg and sumac. The result should have a distinct but not dominating cinnamon aroma. Finely chop enough mint to make about 1 tablespoon.
3. To make the outer portion of the kibbeh: Blend the bulgur with about two-thirds of the lamb, mixing with a fork and your hands until the meat and grains form a smooth paste, adding a little water (maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup) if necessary. Stir in the mint, cumin, cayenne, half of the spice mixture, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. To make the kibbeh filling: Chop the onion fine. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or saute pan and cook the onions until soft. Add the pine nuts and continue cooking until they start turning golden; then add the remaining lamb and cook until it's just browned. Add the remaining spice mix and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Preheat oven to 350F (175C). Grease a 10-by-7-inch baking pan (or rough equivalent - the exact size isn't critical). Divide the kibbeh-bulgur mix into two equal halves, and spread one portion in the pan, patting it into a fairly even layer. Spread the browned lamb and pine-nut mix evenly over this, then cover with the other half of the lamb-bulgur mix as a final layer. Slice it diagonally into about six diamond shapes. Again, precision is not a big deal, you simply want attractive shapes for serving. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top, and dot with small bits of the butter. (If you're watching fat, you can skip this step, but it adds flavor and a good brown color.) Bake for 45 minutes or until nicely browned, and serve, taking care to work a thin spatula carefully under the relatively fragile slices in case they've slightly stuck to the pan.
MATCHING WINE: As I mentioned, this wine was specifically chosen to go with a great Lebanese red, Chateau Musar 1997 Bekaa Valley Red Wine, and the earthy, fruity and complex wine made a spectacular pairing with the lightly gamey lamb and aromatic Near Eastern spice. Kibbeh would go well, too, with just about any hearty Mediterranean red, from Italy to the Rhone, Provence or Languedoc to Spain.
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Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
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