Phew, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s the end of the quarter here, and I’ve been holding extra office hours and grading piles of linear algebra exams. But, last you heard from me, I was wining and dining my way around DC, courtesy of my mom and her fabulous taste in restaurants. After Palena and Komi, we visited Obelisk, and then two local Woodley Park eateries: the Afghan Grill and Lebanese Taverna.
While Obelisk was good, it paled in comparison to Komi the night before. The style is similar to Komi, though it’s Italian inspired rather than Greek. The appetizers were again the highlight, with the best of those being a gorgeously oozy burrata swimming in a puddle of the most wonderful olive oil. The Afghan Grill was, as usual, outstanding, and a certain bewitching baklava eaten there has been following me around for nearly two weeks, begging me to attempt to recreate it (see below). The mezze meal we ate at Lebanese Taverna was also delicious, though not as nuanced as the meal we had at the Afghan Grill. Anyway, onward and upward. I’m back in San Diego now.
Tonight Henning is leaving for a conference in New Hampshire. He’ll be gone for over a week, so last night we had a little “last supper” of sorts. The theme of this month’s Monthly Mingle is Arabian Nights, so I flipped through Claudia Roden‘s New Book of Middle Eastern Food looking for inspiration. Henning and I are both big fans of middle eastern food, and it rivals Indian food for ethnic-food-most-commonly-cooked-at-home. Henning loves dishes with lots of sauce, soaked up with rice, bread, or pasta, so when I read Claudia Roden’s recipe for Kofta Yogurtlu Kebab, I knew it would fit the bill. This dish is not traditional, in the sense that it was invented in a restaurant in Turkey in the 1920’s, rather than having a long history of being made fireside and eaten from cloths on the floor. Still, it is a wonderful marriage of classic Turkish components: lamb, tomato, yogurt, and parsley. Lamb meat is ground with spices and onion, then wrapped around skewers. The skewers are grilled and served with a fresh tomato sauce and yogurt, all atop a bed of toasted pita, which takes on a wonderfully soggy texture when soaked with the sauce. The dish came out beautifully. The kofta was aromatic with spices and full of that wonderful lamb flavor. The subtle sweetness of the tomato sauce and the creamy, tangy yogurt were the perfect complement. Did I mention the soaked pita? Oozing with tomato and lamb juices, it is heavenly. I served it with a Shirazi salad alongside, which is getting better each time I make it.
For dessert, I gave in to the little voices in the back of my head (or the back of my tongue?), which had been begging me to recreate the Afghan Grill’s baklava. Theirs is heavily scented with cardamom, and is unlike any I’ve had before. It had me shamelessly licking the plate to get every last drop of that honey-cardamom syrup. Mmm. I found what seemed like a reliable baklava recipe on Epicurious, and noticed that they had alternative versions, one of which sounded quite like the one the Afghan Grill serves. There are many, many different versions of baklava, with nuts and spices varying by region. Choices for nuts include pistachios, walnuts, and almonds, while spices can be cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom. The syrup can be sweetened with sugar or honey or both, and perfumed with orange blossom water or rose water. The recipe I used as a guide said that cardamom is a Persian choice of flavoring, and Claudia Roden agrees. Both also recommend to make the Persian style with almonds, which I was lucky to have a huge bag of sitting in the freezer, leftover from making some almond cookies.
Making the baklava was not nearly as complicated as I thought it would be. I had never made baklava before, always being scared off by so many layers of phyllo. This is really a silly fear, though, since it’s genuinely simple to put together. There are only three components: phyllo, nut filling, and syrup. The phyllo is premade, the nut filling is easy peasy, and so is the syrup. The most important things are having your mise en place before unwrapping the phyllo and making sure that the phyllo is thoroughly thawed before you work with it.
A few months ago, my mom had a visit from an old friend from graduate school, who is known for making amazing middle eastern food. I asked her for tips on making baklava and she said there are two key secrets she’d discovered through the years. The first is to use the finest phyllo you can find—the one with the highest number of sheets per pound. This ensures a wonderfully flaky pastry. The second tip is to pour cold syrup over the hot pastry, rather than hot syrup over cold pastry or any other permutation. The syrup will bubble and sizzle as it makes its way into the tiny crevices between the flaky layers of pastry.
Kofta Yogurtlu Kebab
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 lb lamb meat from the leg or shoulder
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 large or 2 small yellow or brown onions, peeled and grated or finely chopped
For tomato sauce:
3 lbs tomatoes (do not sub canned!)
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs sugar
salt and black pepper to taste
1 tbs olive oil
2 pita breads
1 1/2 cups greek yogurt, at room temperature
3 tbs pine nuts, toasted
a large fistful of parsley, finely chopped
Grind the coriander and cumin seeds with a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle. Trim the lamb of obvious excess fat and sinew and cut it into 1 1/2 inch cubes. Put the lamb in the bowl of a food processor, along with the cumin, coriander, parsley, salt, and pepper. Whizz until finely pureed to a paste.
Drain the onions of excess juice and combine with the lamb mixture in a large bowl. Knead with your hands until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Divide the meat into eight balls and wrap each ball around a skewer, pressing firmly to make a fat sausage shape. Set aside until 10 minutes before serving. If more than half an hour, refridgerate, but bring out of the fridge for about 15 minutes before grilling.
Prepare tomato sauce:
Cut crosses in the blossom ends of the tomatoes, and drop them in a pot of boiling water for 45 seconds. Remove and allow to cool, then slip the skins off. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them and all their delicious juices to a medium saucepan with the sugar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes are soft and the sauce takes on that orangey-red color that cooked tomatoes have. Taste and adjust seasonings. The sauce should be slightly sweet and bursting with tomato flavor.
Toast the pita:
Rub 1 tbs olive oil over the two pita breads and toast in a 350 oven (or toaster oven), until lightly browned and crisp. Allow to cool and break into 1 inch pieces.
Finish the dish:
Grill or broil the skewers until browned and just cooked through, about 8 minutes. I seared mine in a grill pan and then finished in a 400 degree oven for 4 minutes.
Divide the toasted pita among four wide, shallow bowls. Spoon the tomato sauce over the pita, dividing it equally among the bowls. Now divide the yogurt among the bowls. Top each bowl with two skewers of meat and garnish with pine nuts and parsley. Serve immediately. In order for the dish to be hot when served, it is important that the yogurt is at room temperature and that the kofta and tomato sauce are very hot.
2 cups sugar
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 cup rose water
1 lb blanched almonds, coarsely ground
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 lb frozen phyllo pastry, thawed according to package
2 sticks butter, melted
Combine sugar, honey, water, and cardamom in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring. Once the sugar has dissolved, stop stirring and raise the heat to medium, to bring the syrup to a boil. Continue to boil, without stirring, until syrupy, about five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool, stir in the rose water.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine almonds and cardamom in a bowl and set aside. Grease a baking dish the same size as, or very slightly larger than, your phyllo sheets.
Unwrap and unroll phyllo pastry. Lay it on a half sheet pan on the plastic it comes with. Cover with a damp towel until you’re ready to use it. The instructions below are for a box with 40 sheets. Check the box to count the number of sheets and adjust the following recipe as necessary.
Lay one piece of phyllo in the bottom of the prepared pan. Brush with melted butter. Repeat with four more sheets. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the almond mixture. Lay another piece of phyllo over and brush with butter. Sprinkle with a very small amount of the almond mixture. Repeat six times. You should use about 1/8 of the almond mixture for these seven layers. Now make another layer of five phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter before laying on the next, and finishing with 1/4 of the almond mixture. Make another layer of seven sheets, as you did with almonds in between the layers, using 1/8 of the almond mixture. Make another layer with five phyllo sheets, brushing with butter all the time, and finishing with the remaining 1/4 of the almond mixture. You should now have eleven sheets remaining. Layer these on top, brushing with butter between each layer.
Using a very sharp knife, cut through the pastry nearly to the bottom, to create diamonds or triangles in any size you like. Keep in mind that this is a very rich dessert, and small portions are appropriate.
Just before putting the pastry in the oven, sprinkle the top layer with a small amount of cold water. Bake the pastry for 35 minutes, until it is puffed and golden. If it seems to be browning too quickly, turn the heat down to 300 degrees.
When the pastry is golden, remove it from the oven and immediately, but carefully and slowly, pour the cool syrup over the hot pastry. Be sure to distribute the syrup evenly around the pan. Allow the pastry to cool for at least four hours (it’s hard, I know!). Cover and store at room temperature for up to a week.