A delicious dish of maglooba - lamb shanks baked with spiced rice, tiny cauliflower florets and toasted almonds - that we savored at Olive Tree restaurant in Anaheim, California, made us ponder about the spices behind its savory flavor. Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, author of Classic Palestinian Cookery, uses allspice as the main seasoning for this dish.
Although allspice is used throughout the Mideast, it is most popular in the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Egypt, especially for flavoring dishes made with ground meat and rice, such as stuffings for vegetables. In Levana Zamir's book, Cooking from the Nile's Land (in Hebrew), allspice appears in a great many meat and chicken dishes, often instead of black pepper.
The Mideast is where we first got to know the spice, which is called pilpel angli or English pepper in Hebrew. Its French name, poivre de Jamaique or Jamaica pepper, is more accurate, as Jamaica is where most allspice is grown. There its most famous use is for spicy grilled jerk chicken and meat, which are marinated in a highly pungent paste of crushed allspice berries, chili peppers, garlic, red wine and oil.
Julie Sahni, author of Savoring Spices and Herbs, notes that part of the rationale behind the spicing of this Jamaican specialty and other allspice-marinated meats is that people in allspice's native land knew of its antibacterial qualities. Sahni finds that the spice matches well with fruits and earthy winter vegetables such as carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes and winter squashes, and "is particularly good with grains; in addition to lending them a rich flavor, it makes them digestible."
The name allspice came about "because its flavor was considered a convincing amalgam of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg," wrote my friend Robert Wemischner in The Vivid Flavors Cookbook. Wemischner rubs ground allspice on the skin of a chicken before roasting it, which gives a more subtle flavor than the jerk chicken-style marinade.
Europeans and Americans use allspice in pÃ¢tÃ©s, sausages and pickles, but it also has sweet uses, for example in spice cakes and pumpkin pie.
Whole allspice berries keep indefinitely if stored in a tightly covered container in a cool dark place. Like cloves, allspice should be used carefully. Sahni warns: "Allspice is an extremely potent spice and must be used sparingly, in small pinches. An excess may overwhelm a dish."
ALLSPICE-SCENTED BEEF STEW WITH ZUCCHINI AND GREEN BEANS
A good accompaniment for this savory stew, flavored in the Egyptian style with ground allspice, plenty of garlic and fresh lemon juice, is steamed rice or rice pilaf.
3 or 4 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
700 gr. beef chuck, excess fat removed, cut in 2.5-cm. cubes
a 400-gr. diced tomatoes with their juice
11â„2 cups water
350 gr. green beans
225 gr. zucchini or white squash (kishuim), cut in strips
1 sweet red or green pepper, cut in thin strips (optional)
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
6 large garlic cloves, chopped
1â„2 tsp. ground allspice, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
juice of 1â„2 lemon, or more to taste
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large casserole. Add beef in batches and saute over medium heat to brown, removing each batch with a slotted spoon to a plate as it browns; add more oil if necessary between batches and heat it before adding more meat.
Pour off any oil remaining in pan. Return beef to pan with any juices on plate. Add tomatoes and 1 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 11â„2 hours, adding a few tablespoons boiling water from time to time if pan becomes dry.
Meanwhile, cook green beans in a saucepan of boiling salted water for 5 minutes or until crisp tender. Remove with a slotted spoon.
In a large, deep saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil. Add pepper strips and saute over medium heat, stirring often, 5 minutes. Remove peppers. Add zucchini strips to pan and saute 2 minutes. Add cooked green beans, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and heat for 1 or 2 minutes, stirring.
Add tomato paste and remaining 1â„2 cup stock to stew. Bring to a simmer. Add sauteed peppers, garlic, allspice, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer without stirring about 15 minutes or until beef is tender. Add zucchini-green bean mixture and simmer for 2 minutes or until heated through. Add lemon juice and heat through. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Makes 4 servings.
SPICED TURKEY MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SAUCE
With ground turkey readily available, many people are opting for this lighter meat for making meatballs. You can also make these meatballs with ground chicken, beef or lamb. Steamed white rice or orzo is a good accompaniment.
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 800-gr. cans tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1â„2 tsp. dried oregano
1â„2 tsp. salt (for the meat balls), plus extra for the sauce
1â„2 tsp. ground pepper (for the meat balls), plus extra for the sauce
1â„2 tsp. ground allspice (for the meatballs) plus a pinch (for the sauce)
1 to 11â„2 tsp. ground cumin
pinch of sugar (optional)
a few drops of lemon juice (optional)
550 gr. ground turkey
3 Tbsp. bread crumbs or matza meal
2 Tbsp. minced parsley
1â„4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan, add onion and saute 5 minutes over medium heat until softened. Add half the garlic, the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring to boil. Add oregano, pinch of salt, pepper and allspice and, if you like, 1â„2 teaspoon ground cumin. Cook uncovered over low heat for 15 minutes or until thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning; add sugar or lemon juice if needed.
Put turkey in a bowl. In a small bowl mix bread crumbs with remaining garlic, parsley, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1â„2 teaspoon allspice, 1â„2 teaspoon salt and 1â„2 teaspoon pepper. Add to turkey and mix well. Make small meatballs, using 2 tablespoons of mixture for each, and roll them between your palms until smooth. Transfer to a plate. Refrigerate 5 minutes.
Heat remaining oil in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs in 2 batches and brown them lightly on all sides. With slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels.
Heat sauce in a saute pan or shallow saucepan just to a simmer. Add turkey balls. Cover and cook over low heat 20 to 25 minutes or until cooked through. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.