Contemporary kubbeh

For winter parties, few treats are as tempting as crunchy kubbeh, the celebrated croquette.

kubbeh 88 (photo credit: )
kubbeh 88
(photo credit: )
For winter parties, few treats are as tempting as crunchy kubbeh, the celebrated Middle Eastern croquette. Also spelled kubah, kibbeh or kibbee, this popular preparation comes in numerous variations, from poached meat-filled semolina dumplings to rice-coated meat patties. The Middle Eastern meat of choice is lamb but the filling might be made of beef, veal or chicken. Fish kubbeh, which I discovered at an Iraqi delicatessen in Ramat Gan, can be very good too. For those who prefer a vegetarian filling, Israeli caterers have come up with mushroom-filled kubbeh. The best-loved version of kubbeh, which is considered to be a Syrian specialty, is oval and pointed at both ends, and is composed of a crisp bulgur-wheat shell enclosing a filling of ground meat, sauteed onions and pine nuts. A Lebanese-born friend from Jerusalem, Suzanne Elmaleh, patiently showed me how to form the classic kubbeh by cupping the dough in one hand, gradually making a hollow for the filling, then stuffing it and sealing it. But gaining the required skill takes practice. If you make the shell too thin, the filling escapes when you fry the kubbeh; if the shell is too thick, the result is doughy and heavy. Luckily, Middle Eastern cooks have come up with an easier solution. You mix the meat filling together with the soaked bulgur wheat dough, add sauteed onions and shape the mixture in patties. Not only are these cakes simpler and faster to shape than the old-fashioned kubbeh; cooking them is also much easier and less intimidating. Because they are not as thick as traditional kubbeh, you don't need to deep-fry them. Instead you can saute or shallow-fry them like latkes. You can make these easy kubbeh from ground lamb or beef or, for a lighter result, use chicken or turkey. In addition to salt and black pepper, you can flavor the meat with cinnamon and allspice in the Lebanese fashion, or with a mixture of paprika, hot red pepper and a touch of cinnamon. Some cooks add a pinch of the aromatic Middle Eastern sweet spice blend called baharat, which you can find at spice shops. Chopped pecans or walnuts make a tasty alternative to pricey pine nuts and they too contribute a pleasing texture. Serve these appetizer kubbeh the time-honored way, with tehina sauce, or for a nutty, pale green herb dip, try a cilantro pecan pesto made of fresh coriander leaves blended with garlic and pecans. CHICKEN PECAN KUBBEH Serve these savory patties as a hearty starter to a dinner or as party hors d'oeuvre. The crunchy chicken cakes are tempting on their own but are even more fun to eat with a dip, such as the cilantro (fresh coriander) garlic pecan pesto in the next recipe. 11⁄2 onions 3 to 5 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil 2⁄3 cup bulgur wheat, preferably finest grind 1⁄3 cup parsley sprigs (leafy part) 350 gr. ground chicken (about 11⁄2 cups) 1 tsp. salt 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground pepper 1 tsp. paprika 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1⁄4 tsp. cayenne 3 Tbsp. cold water 1⁄3 cup pecans, chopped Cilantro Garlic Pecan Pesto (optional, see next recipe) Chop 1 onion. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion and saute for 5 minutes or until beginning to turn golden. Transfer to a plate and cool. Pour 3 cups cold water over bulgur wheat. Refrigerate and let soak for 10 minutes; if using medium bulgur, soak it for 15 or 20 minutes. Drain in a strainer and squeeze out excess liquid. Put in a large bowl. Cut remaining 1⁄2 onion in large dice, put in food processor with parsley sprigs and chop them fine. Add chicken, salt, pepper, paprika, cinnamon and cayenne and process until well blended. Add 3 tablespoons cold water and process briefly. Transfer to bowl of bulgur wheat and mix well with your hands. Add pecans and cooled sauteed onion and mix again. Broil or microwave a teaspoon of mixture and taste it for seasoning. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Shape mixture in small round cakes, using 1⁄4 cup mixture for each, and flatten them. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet. Add enough cakes to make one layer without crowding. Saute over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes per side or until golden brown and cooked through; use 2 slotted spatulas to turn them carefully. Cut one to check that chicken's color is no longer pink. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Keep finished cakes warm on a baking sheet in a 120º oven. Saute remaining mixture, adding oil to skillet if necessary and heating it before adding more cakes. Serve hot or warm. Top each with a spoonful of cilantro pesto or serve it as a dipping sauce on the side. Makes 6 to 8 servings. CILANTRO GARLIC PECAN PESTO This savory dip is a pleasing complement for chicken kubbeh and for grilled meats and fish. It also livens up cooked vegetables, noodles and rice. 6 to 8 medium garlic cloves 4 to 6 Tbsp. pecans 2 cups small fresh coriander sprigs, loosely packed 1 cup small parsley sprigs, loosely packed 2⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 tsp. paprika Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional) Finely chop garlic in food processor. Add half the nuts, half the coriander and half the parsley and process until herbs are chopped. Remove mixture and chop remaining nuts, cilantro and parsley. Return first mixture to processor. With blade turning, add olive oil. Scrape down sides and process until mixture is well blended. Transfer to a bowl. Add paprika, salt, pepper and cayenne to taste; mix well. Makes 3⁄4 cup, about 8 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.