Kibbeh/קובה מטוגנת/كبة مقلية/Kibeh/Kibbe/Kubbeh
Le Cordon Jew (GET IT???!!!!1!!) is my new cooking series. I’ve been cooking regularly since I was about ten or eleven, and along with music and not leaving the house, it’s one of my favorite hobbies. When I lived in Israel, I had neither the money nor the equipment in my one-burner, no-oven apartment to do much of it, so when I descended into Exile, I threw myself back into the world of sauté and shallots with the kind of intensity and dedication I usually reserve only for scorn. My culinary passion, fostered by all that time in Zion, is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, but I get a kick out of cooking just about everything. Le Cordon Jew, as its name implies, will focus on my epicurean fascination with all the facets of Jewish cuisine, from the old-fashioned Yiddishe Iron Curtain poverty food I grew up eating to the heady culinary fusion I encountered in Israel, where hummus, shakshuka and mesir wat shared city blocks. I plan to break down proven recipes step-by-step and augment them with plenty of images for you visual learners. And we’re starting out with kibbeh.
Kibbeh are ubiquitous in the Middle East, appearing in dozens of different forms, the most popular of which is the deep-fried torpedo. The Lebanese consider this version, sometimes called kibbeh nabulsiyeh (Nablus kibbeh), their national dish. The Syrians do too, but given that they also consider Lebanon their national property, that’s not entirely surprising.
Making kibbeh is not for beginners. It’s one of those dishes, like couscous or risotto, that serves as a test of skill within a particular cuisine (in this case, that of the Levantine Arabs), requiring several uninterrupted hours of delicate, tedious work. It’s worth it, of course, especially since you can freeze kibbeh essentially indefinitely – but it ain’t everyday food.
My recipe is derived from the one in the Sephardi cookbook A Fistful of Lentils. I’ve made some modifications and omissions based on my own experimentation, and judging by reactions, I’ve hit on a fairly successful formula. So read on…
- 3 cups bulgur, fine or No. 1
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 1/4 tablespoons cumin, whole
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 4 – 6 tablespoons cold water
- 16 oz ground beef
- Olive oil for frying
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon allspice, whole
- 1 inch-long piece of cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon cumin, whole
- 1-2 teaspoons peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon salt
- A lot of vegetable oil for deep frying
- Lemon wedges
Makes between 30 and 40 kibbeh.
A few notes on the ingredients:
BULGUR: Bulgur, parboiled and dried wheat kernels, comes in a few standard grades: fine, or No. 1, and medium, or No. 2, are common, and you may occasionally see extra-fine and coarse. No. 2 bulgur is the workhorse of the bulgur world, and thus the most widely available (they have at in the foot-wide Mediterranean section of my grocery store, and Arrowhead Mills’ bulgur, available on Amazon.com and probably your local hippiery, is basically No. 2). But kibbeh requires fine bulgur. If you don’t have a Middle Eastern market near you, I heartily recommend Tulumba, a Turkish/Middle Eastern online market. Their selection is comprehensive, their prices reasonable, and their shipping fast. I buy my chickpeas and coffee exclusively from them. They have a whole page’s worth of bulgur by the kilo (2.2 lb), and what you need is the köftelik bulgur, or if you want extra-fine, the çiğköftelik bulgur. Alternately, if you want to buy in bulk, The Indian Food Store, a reliable merchant I get my ajwain from, sells a 5-pound sack of fine bulgur through Amazon.com. It’s from California, as opposed to Turkey – I prefer to buy imported shit for Middle Eastern food usually, but hell, I don’t know, maybe you’re a Cypriot or a Kurd.
MEAT: I use 80/20 ground chuck for the beef, but only because it’s the easiest to find. To be honest, the beef in kibbeh is cooked to several inches past its life. We’re not talking about juicy, rare hamburgers here. The grade of beef is not terribly important. Traditionally, kibbeh uses lamb, which you can swap pound-for-pound with the beef in this recipe if you’re so inclined.
SPICES: You may have noticed I call for whole spices. I have this preference for buying whole spices and grinding them only as needed, so they taste like spices and not must. Bizarre, right? You don’t have to be so stringent. Use those powdered spices you’ve had kicking around since new jack swing. They’re just for color anyway. Don’t waste your money on a useful, aesthetically appealing and affordable Thai granite mortar and pestle. Wallow in mediocrity!
1) Grind the cumin for the shell mixture. I use a mortar and pestle, but the ladies of delicate constitution out there can use a spice grinder. Set the ground cumin aside.
2) Grind all the spices and the salt for the meat into a uniform mixture. Set aside.
3) Heat a few healthy glugs of olive oil in a heavy skillet. Once the oil is heated, throw in your onions. Cook them until they start to become ever-so-slightly caramelized, somewhere south of ten minutes.
4) Set the heat somewhere around medium. Add the ground beef. Stir, squish and break it apart constantly with a spoon. You don’t want any large clumps of beef. When all the beef has turned from pink to brown…
…add in your spice mixture…
…stir, and cook until much of the moisture is gone. How long this takes depends on the fat content of the beef. Maybe twenty minutes, maybe more, maybe less. Eyeball it. It will turn a darker shade of brown.
5) Pine nut time. You need to cook the pine nuts in a little bit of oil. You can do this in a fresh skillet, or you can just do what I did: move the ground beef over to one side, skip the oil, and cook the pine nuts in the grease left behind by the meat. If you do, make sure to occasionally stir the beef some so it doesn’t cook unevenly. Cook the pine nuts until they brown, a few minutes.
Turn off the heat and remove the pine nuts to a cutting board. Chop ’em up into nice little chunks…
…and return them to the skillet and mix well. Or move the beef to a bowl and mix in the pine nuts there. Don’t matter. Congratulations. Your kibbeh filling is complete. Reward yourself with a spoonful.
6) Pour the bulgur into a strainer with fine mesh. Run it under cold water for a few seconds, making sure that it all gets wet. Squeeze the excess moisture out with your free hand. It’ll look like this:
7) Transfer the bulgur to a large mixing bowl. Add in the remainder of the shell ingredients (flour, cumin, paprika, salt and water). Mix everything by hand until it forms a dough. I should note, the amount of water is an estimate. You want a dough that won’t crumble, but also isn’t too waterlogged. When you sculpt it, it should retain its shape. This is how it should look:
8) Here’s where the fun begins! You’re gonna be standing in one place, doing extremely repetitive work, for a couple of hours. Spin up some soothing music. I was rocking some Stan Getz, Luiz Bonfá and Maria Toledo last time I made kibbeh. Here’s “Saudade Vem Correndo.” Hip-hop heads may hear something they recognize…051108(1).mp3
Alright. Onto making the kibbeh. I’ve tried to illustrate the process as best I can, but you’ll have to figure out the way that works best for you through trial and error.
First, fill a bowl with water and keep it close at hand. You need to keep your hands moist at all times when you’re working with the dough. It dries out quickly, and without the extra water, it’ll crumble on you.
Take a piece of dough. You’re shooting for a ball of dough a bit smaller than a golf ball. Squeeze it a few times, so the moisture from your hands mixes with the dough, then roll it into a ball.
Next, create a depression in the ball with your thumb and then pinch the sides into a deep bowl shape, smoothing out with a moist fingertip any fissures.
Fill that bowl with a tablespoonful of the meat mixture.
Pinch the kibbeh shut and smooth over the newly-closed area. You’ll have a ball again (but this time, it is full of delicious meat).
Now is the time to demonstrate your skills. Squeeze the ball to elongate it, making sure none of the filling ruptures the crust, and then carefully form it into the classic kibbeh shape, tapering to a point at both ends. Again, smooth out any fissures.
Okay. Got it? Now do it thirty more times.
Set aside however many kibbeh you want to prepare immediately, and put the rest in a tightly-sealed container and freeze ’em. Their shelf life when frozen is longer than your ability to resist eating them, so don’t worry.
If you have any leftover meat, mix it up with some rice and spices. Good for an easy meal the next day.
9) Pour several inches of oil into a pot. Make sure you leave a few inches between the surface of the oil and the lip of the pot, because the oil bubbles aggressively when the kibbeh are added and you don’t want it to go all Kuwait 1991 all over your stove. Also keep in mind that you can filter the oil through cheesecloth after it’s cooled, pour it into a container, and use it again. Turn the heat on full blast.
Kibbeh often suffer from a certain dryness. The trick to retaining moisture in the meaty interior, I find, is to fry them in oil hotter than the standard 375° – I heat my oil up to around 390°. The longer they fry, the drier they’ll get.
Once your oil hits the right temperature – use a cooking thermometer, don’t just guess – lower the kibbeh in. Each one should have some room to breathe. I use a six quart dutch oven, and that’s good for six or so kibbeh at a time, which is plenty. They only need a couple minutes, even if you’re using frozen. Once the crust has turned a deep brown, they’re done. Transfer them to a plate covered with a paper towel to drain and cool down from “thermonuclear” to just “hot.”
Meanwhile, slice a lemon into wedges. The best way to eat kibbeh is with a lemon wedge in hand, squeezing lemon juice onto each bite. You can also mix up some tehina sauce (tehina, lemon juice, minced garlic, salt and water) and dip away. They’ll be gone before you can say “alhamdulillah.”