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Rice & Vegetable – Part 3


Spices in the Middle Eastern Kitchen

The best way to understand the variety of spices available to the Middle Eastern cook is to visit one of the region’s souks or bazaars. Imagine yourself in the souk, surrounded by baskets of piled spices. Many will be known to you—star anise, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, nutmeg, dried chiles and peppercorns, or caraway, coriander, cumin, fennel, and fenugreek seeds— all piled up in glorious, headily aromatic abundance. It’s a far cry from the tiny, uniform glass jars you find in the spice aisle of your local supermarket. When you buy these spices at home, it’s always best to choose the whole spice, as you would at the souk, and grind them in small quantities as needed; that way, they’ll stay fresh and aromatic. Save time by using an electric coffee grinder for this, although a mortar and pestle is, of course, the traditional method.

More unusual spices at the souk include baskets of whole turmeric, which looks like fresh ginger, but smaller and bright yellow, as well as piles of fenugreek leaves, sumac, cassia bark, and dried chamomile. Prettiest of all are the piles of pink, jewel-like rosebuds, which are used in pilafs, chicken dishes, and sweet treats. Behind the counter, you’ll find highly prized and expensive Iranian saffron, used throughout the region for special occasions and festival cooking. Make saffron go a little further at home by pounding a small pinch with sea salt flakes in a mortar and pestle and storing the delicately colored salt in a salt shaker to finish off dishes with a burst of saffron flavor.

You’ll also find many speciality regional ingredients at the spice souk, including piles of musty gray-green dried limes, piled in mounds like hollow, misshapen golf balls. In hot countries, you can dry your own limes in the sun. Both dried limes and tamarind are used to give a distinctive and delicious sour flavor to Iranian and Iraqi cooking. In Moroccan cooking, preserved lemons are used for a similar purpose; try the recipe on Preserved Lemons, because they’re easy to make.

All the spice shops in the souk sell similar whole spices, but what really sets them apart are the house blends offered. The best blend will be ras el hanout—anything between 12 and 100 of the finest spices in the shop, made to a closely guarded secret recipe. Other popular blends, which you can find in Middle Eastern grocery stores or on the Internet, include za’atar (dried thyme, salt, and toasted sesame seeds) and dukkah (pounded cumin seeds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, and coriander seeds), both of which are popular mixed with olive oil as a dip for pita breads. More speciality blends include Egyptian quatre-épice (pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon), Lebanese seven-spice mix (nutmeg, ginger, allspice, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper), or the pungent baharat (which may include coriander seeds, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin seeds, cinnamon, sweet paprika, nutmeg, sumac, saffron, turmeric, and chiles).


Mushroom & Eggplant Moussaka

This comforting Turkish dish is a perfect centerpiece to a vegetarian feast, with rich layers of silky eggplants, creamy white sauce, and herbed mushroom sauce. Fresh sage, thyme, and oregano, used to flavor the mushrooms, are all popular in the Middle East. Traditionally, the eggplant slices are fried in hot oil, but this recipe saves time, effort, and calories by roasting them instead.

PREP : 40 minutes
COOK : 1½ hours

  • 3 large eggplants, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes, plus 3 pinches
  • Mushroom sauce
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1¼ pounds mixed cremini and portobello mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 5 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
  • 2 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 large pinches of pepper
  • White sauce
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 pinches of white pepper
  • ½ cup finely grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lay the eggplant slices on the prepared sheets, brush them on both sides with the oil, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Roast for 20 minutes, or until softened. Repeat, if necessary, until all the slices are cooked.
  2. Meanwhile, for the mushroom sauce, heat the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 10 minutes, or until softened, stirring often. Stir in the mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, thyme, oregano, and cinnamon and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, water, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium–low and simmer, partly covered, for 20 minutes.
  3. For the white sauce, heat the milk in a milk pan until just below boiling point. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium–low heat until it starts to foam. Add the flour to the butter and stir constantly for 2 minutes, until you have a smooth mixture that comes away cleanly from the sides of the pan. Pour in the hot milk, a little at a time, stirring well between each addition to prevent lumps from forming, until you have a thick, smooth sauce.
  4. Increase the heat to medium–high and bring the white sauce to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook for 3 minutes, then stir in the nutmeg and white pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese and a pinch of salt and black pepper. Let cool, then whisk in the egg.
  5. To assemble the moussaka, put a layer of eggplant in the bottom of a lasagne dish, spread one-third of the mushroom sauce on top, then add another layer of eggplant and an additional third of the mushroom sauce. Repeat with a final layer of both. Spread the white sauce evenly over the top, then season with the remaining salt and black pepper.
  6. Bake for 30–35 minutes, or until golden and puffed up. Let cool for 10–15 minutes before serving.


Iraqi Kitchree

Kitchree is the original dish behind the popular British “kedgeree.” It exists under various names and forms throughout the Middle East and India. It’s made of things that households in the region usually have handy: rice, lentils, and onions. While every region has its own variation, this Iraqi version is topped with a fried egg, which complements the soft-cooked rice and lentils perfectly.

PREP : 25 minutes
COOK : 50 minutes

  • 1 cup basmati or other long-grain rice
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 large pinches of sea salt flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2½ cups water
  • 1 cup fresh shelled or frozen peas (optional)
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 large pinches of pepper
  • To serve
  • 1½ teaspoons olive oil
  • 6 eggs
  • 1¼ cups Greek-style plain yogurt (optional)
  1. Rinse the rice and red lentils in several changes of cold water.
  2. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook for 1 minute, or until aromatic. Add the onions, increase the heat to medium–high, and sauté for 10 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy. Transfer half the spiced onions to a plate and season with a large pinch of salt.
  3. Add the turmeric, ground cumin, coriander, ginger, and a large pinch of salt to the remaining onions in the skillet and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the rice and lentils and cook for 2–3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan.
  4. Pour the water into the saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir, reduce the heat to medium–low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Blanch the peas, if using, in boiling water, then stir them and most of the cilantro into the kitchree. Season with the remaining salt and a pinch of pepper, adding extra water to loosen the texture, if required.
  6. To serve, heat the olive oil in a skillet. Fry the eggs for 3 minutes, or until cooked to your liking (see Cook’s tip). Pile the kitchree into six shallow bowls, then top with the yogurt, if using, a portion of the reserved fried onions, a fried egg, and the remaining cilantro. Season with a large pinch of pepper.

Cook’s tip : Fry eggs for 3 minutes for a runny yolk. If you prefer a firmer yolk, add another minute or two to the cooking time.


Lamb Biryani with Dried Apricots

This luxurious Persian festival dish is perfect for a party. It takes a while to prepare, but you can cook the lamb a day ahead and finish with the rice the next day, if you prefer. It goes well with Greek-style plain yogurt and Pomegranate Salad with Herbs & Pistachios.

PREP : 45 minutes
COOK : 3 hours

  • ⅓ cup clarified butter
  • 3 onions, half thinly sliced and half finely chopped
  • 3 pinches of sea salt
  • 1 pound shoulder of lamb, cut into cubes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 cloves
  • 3 black cardamom pods
  • 10 green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1¼ cups halved dried apricots
  • 1¾ cups water
  • large pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2¼ cups basmati or other long-grain rice
  • about 8½ cups boiling water
  • ⅔ cup Greek-style plain yogurt
  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Heat 2 tablespoons of the clarified butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt and sauté for 10 minutes, or until golden and crispy, stirring occasionally. Transfer the onions to a plate, using a slotted spoon. Using the same pan and working in batches, brown the lamb for 2 minutes per side, then transfer to a plate, using a slotted spoon. Add oil between batches, if needed.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the clarified butter in a large casserole over low heat. Add the cinnamon, bay, cloves, and black and green cardamom and cook for 1–2 minutes, or until aromatic. Add the finely chopped onions and a pinch of salt, then cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally. Stir in the ginger, cumin, coriander, and turmeric and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the lamb and dried apricots, then remove from the heat.
  3. Return the skillet to the heat until hot. Pour in ½ cup of the water and let it simmer for a few minutes, scraping up all the flavor using a wooden spoon. Pour this into the spiced lamb. Add the remaining water to the lamb and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover with aluminum foil and a lid, then transfer to the oven to bake for 1½ hours. Let cool.
  4. Grind the saffron in a mortar and pestle. Warm the milk in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the saffron, and let steep.
  5. Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water (see Cook’s tip). Add it to a large saucepan and pour in the boiling water. Parboil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain well.
  6. Stir the yogurt into the cooled lamb. Cover the bottom of a large casserole dish with a few tablespoons of the sauce. Add a layer of the parboiled rice, sprinkle with a few teaspoons of the saffron milk and a pinch of salt, and top with some crispy onions and a layer of lamb. Repeat these layers until you’ve used all the rice, lamb, and onions, finishing with a layer of rice and saffron milk. Sprinkle with the remaining clarified butter, cover with foil, and put the lid on. Cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes, then transfer to the oven and bake for 40 minutes. Serve.

Cook’s tip : To rinse basmati rice well, put it in a deep bowl and cover it with plenty of cold water. Swirl the rice, then pour out the water before repeating three or four times. You’ve washed most of the starch off when the water runs clear as you swirl.


Double Golden Roasted Saffron Rice

The crisp, crunchy golden base or tahdig of Persian rice is delicious. Here, it is complemented by the sunshine yellow color of the saffron rice—hence “double golden.” You will need a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.

PREP : 10 minutes
COOK : 50 minutes

  • l⅔ cups basmati rice
  • large pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 teaspoons boiling water
  • 3½ tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • large pinch of sea salt
  1. Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water. Put it into a saucepan and cover with five to six times its volume of boiling water. Parboil at a rolling boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain well.
  2. Meanwhile, grind the saffron in a mortar and pestle. Add the boiling water, swirl, and pour into a small bowl. Let steep.
  3. Put the rice into a large bowl. Mix in the saffron water until the rice is evenly golden.
  4. Heat the butter, oil, and salt in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat until the butter stops sizzling. Spread a layer of rice over the bottom of the pan, then pile up the rest of the rice in a cone shape on top—this will help it to steam. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, then a lid, and clamp the foil down well over the sides. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the bottom becomes crispy, then reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook for 40 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and let the rice sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove the foil and lid and spoon the rice onto plates. Use a spatula to carefully lift the crispy rice from the bottom of the pan, and serve it on top of the rest of the rice.

Cook’s tips : When mixing the saffron into the rice, add a little rice to both the mortar and the small bowl the saffron has steeped in to get every last drop of saffron water. To let as little steam as possible escape from the rice, carefully wrap a folded, clean dish towel over the foil and lid around the rim of the pan, but keep it well away from the stove, particularly if using a gas flame.


Persian Jeweled Rice

This traditional Persian rice is a festival dish-something to cook for a special occasion or when you’ve got friends around. It is known as “jeweled” because the almonds represent pearls, the pistachios emeralds, the saffron and orange gold, and the barberries rubies.

PREP : 20 minutes
SOAK : 1 hour
COOK : 35 minutes

  • 2 cups basmati or other long-grain rice
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • large pinch of saffron threads
  • ¼ cup clarified butter (see Cook’s tip)
  • 1 black cardamom pod
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ⅔ cup whole blanched almonds
  • ¾ cup unsalted pistachio nuts
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 large pinches of sea salt
  • rind of 1 orange, finely pared and cut into thin strips
  • ½ cup barberries or dried cranberries
  • 3 cups water
  1. Rinse the rice in several changes of water, then soak it for 1 hour (if time permits).
  2. Meanwhile, warm the milk in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the saffron, and let steep while you prepare the onions and nuts.
  3. Heat 3 tablespoons of the clarified butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and bay leaf and sauté for 1 minute, or until aromatic. Add the almonds and pistachio nuts and sauté for 3–4 minutes, or until golden, tossing halfway through.
  4. Transfer the spiced nuts to a plate, using a slotted spoon. Increase the heat to medium, then add the onion and a large pinch of salt to the pan and sauté for 10 minutes, or until golden and crisp, stirring occasionally. Add the final tablespoon of butter if the pan looks dry.
  5. Drain the rice well, then stir it into the onion mixture. Add most of the orange strips and all the barberries and return the nut mixture to the pan. Cook for 3–4 minutes, stirring constantly.
  6. Using the back of a teaspoon, press the saffron into the hot milk to release more color, then pour it into the rice-and-onion mixture. Add a large pinch of salt and the water. Bring to a boil, stir well, then place a tight-fitting lid on the rice and turn the heat down to minimum. Cook for 15 minutes without lifting the lid.
  7. Remove the lid, fluff up the rice using a fork, then pour it out onto a couple of large plates to steam dry. Serve hot, garnished with the remaining orange strips.

Cook’s tip : To make ¼ cup of clarified butter, melt 6 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small saucepan over medium–low heat until it starts to crackle and foam. Line a strainer with cheesecloth or a clean dish cloth and set it over a bowl. Pour the butter through the lined strainer. The bright yellow melted butter in the bowl is now clarified and can be heated to a high temperature without burning, because the milk solids that usually burn remained in the strainer.

Authentic dishes from the Middle East

Rukmini Lyer