Eastern Mediterranean stews for Succot

During my latest vacation in Anatolia, the importance of the succa in our region’s culture was evident everywhere.

311_stew (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
During my latest vacation in Anatolia, the importance of the succa in our region’s culture was evident everywhere. So were reminders that Succot was coming soon. Many houses had a permanent “succa” with a leafy roof and clusters of grapes hanging from it. These grape arbors were used just like a succa, where people sat to relax and to eat. When we were invited to festive meals, this succa-like structure was often the setting of choice.
Garlands of colorful eggplants, squashes and even okra were hung to dry and made colorful displays at the marketplace and the spice shops. Most prominent were the peppers, green and red, mild and hot, hanging from many balconies. They played a primary role at the table too. Every grilled or roasted main course, whether meat, chicken or fish, came garnished with grilled green peppers, either mild or semi-hot, and many dishes were flavored with red pepper paste.
Peppers as well as tomatoes were the main partners for meat in a typical entree called a tava that was served in the shade of the grape arbors. This main-course casserole of lamb and Mediterranean vegetables is the type of dish that’s perfect for Succot. With richly browned meat and vegetables charred at their edges like grilled ones, the savory tava was between a roast and a stew.
We enjoyed this tasty specialty in Besni, a town near Adiyaman in south-central Turkey, known to many tourists as a place to visit on the way to the spectacular Mount Nemrut. In a friendly debate reminding me of the controversy in southern France regarding the origin of cassoulet, my friends Murat Erkan Yapici of Adiyaman and Emin Soydan Dogru of Besni each insisted that his city originated their region’s tava. Together they explained to me how it was made.
A layer of eggplant cubes was arranged in the heavy shallow pan, also called a tava, which resembled a gratin dish or a paella pan. The eggplant was topped with semi-hot green pepper dice, whole peeled garlic cloves and plenty of ripe tomato wedges. Cubes of lamb were added and seasoned with salt, and the casserole was baked uncovered in a moderate oven.
This technique is especially suited to lamb, which is both tender and rich. Yet a special ingredient was added for extra flavor and to prevent dryness – diced lamb tail fat, which melted away and enriched the dish.
We ate the traditional way, with no plates and no silverware. The tava was set in the center of the table and served with hot fresh-baked flatbread, which somewhat resembled laffa and was used to scoop up bits of the entree. Only one accompaniment was on the table – fresh green peppers, from which people broke off pieces to eat with the entree.
Like this casual way of eating, preparing the dish was typical of the lifestyle in this Eastern Mediterranean region. The dish was assembled by the butcher and baked in the community oven by the baker.
Later in the autumn, people make their tava with red and green peppers, sweet red pepper paste and peeled small onions instead of garlic.
Other cities have their own tavas. In Nigde in central Anatolia we were served Nigde tava. Zeynep Mat told me that her city’s specialty is made of lamb, tomatoes and green peppers, which can be semi-hot, and is seasoned with garlic and salt, and in some households, red and black pepper too. We sampled Nigde tava at a dinner that included a variety of dishes, and my favorite accompaniment for the entree was a pilaf of bulgur wheat, currants, carrots and pine nuts.
When preparing such dishes at home, many people use olive oil instead of adding lamb fat, and cover the dish for part of the time so it will not be dry.
Istanbul-born Esther Benbassa, author of Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole, wrote that Turkish Jews have developed casseroles using a similar selection of ingredients. For festive occasions she bakes lamb cubes with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and onions as well as green beans and okra, noting that an earthenware baking dish is the key to the entree’s success.
Lamb baked with Mediterranean vegetables is popular throughout the region. A Lebanese version calls for combining the meat with tomatoes, eggplant, onions, zucchini and potatoes. In Egypt, wrote Levana Zamir in Cooking from the Nile’s Land (in Hebrew), people bake lamb or veal with tomatoes, onions and potatoes and flavored the meat with tomato paste, garlic and pepper. With the casserole, she recommends serving bulgur pilaf or rice pilaf with fine noodles.
Because lamb is so rich and flavorful, a little goes a long way. In these traditional entrees there is a high proportion of vegetables to meat. The Lebanese dish above, for example, calls for only 400 grams of lamb combined with more than two kilos of vegetables.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.
This entree is easy to assemble as all the ingredients are combined in a baking dish and do not require separate sauteing. Many cooks do not peel the tomatoes. Use either boneless lamb shoulder or buy shoulder chops and cut off the bones and fat.
Serve the lamb with fresh flatbread, such as laffa or pita, or with Festive Bulgur Wheat Pilaf with Carrots, Currants and Pine Nuts (see next recipe).
450 g. to 700 g. boneless lamb shoulder meat or about 900 g. shoulder chops A 500-g. eggplant, peeled if desired, cut in 2.5-cm.dice 225 g. to 450 g. green peppers, mild or semi-hot, cut in large cubes 900 g. ripe tomatoes, peeled if desired, cut in wedges 2 large onions, halved and sliced (optional) 6 large garlic cloves, peeled, left whole salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1⁄2 tsp. ground hot or semi-hot red pepper, or to taste 1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 175º. Trim excess fat from lamb and remove bones if using chops. Cut meat in 2-cm. cubes. Lightly oil a large gratin dish or shallow heavy baking dish. Combine eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic in the dish. Sprinkle with salt. Top with lamb cubes. Sprinkle salt and red and black pepper evenly over lamb.
Add 1⁄3 cup water to casserole, pouring it along side of dish to avoid washing spices off lamb. Cover and bake for 40 minutes.
Drizzle with the oil. Bake uncovered, stirring from time to time, for 11⁄2 hours, or until lamb and vegetables are very tender; occasionally add a few tablespoons hot water to dish if necessary to prevent burning. When casserole is done, there should be just a little liquid left.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Bulgur is wheat that has been steamed, dried and cracked in small pieces. At the shouk you can find it in several sizes. It cooks quickly and is a popular accompaniment for lamb.
2 Tbsp. olive or vegetable oil1 small onion, chopped 11⁄2 cups medium bulgur wheat 3 cups chicken, meat or vegetable broth or water 2 carrots, sliced Salt and freshly ground pepper 1⁄3 cup currants, rinsed
1⁄3 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds, lightly toasted (see Note below)
Heat oil in a heavy saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until softened. Add bulgur wheat and saute over medium heat, stirring, for 1 minute or until bulgur grains are coated with oil. Add broth, carrot slices, salt and pepper and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add currants and cook for 5 minutes or until water is absorbed and bulgur is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, garnished with pine nuts.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Toast pine nuts or slivered almonds in a 175º oven, shaking baking sheet once or twice, about 3 minutes or until lightly browned, or in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, shaking it often. Transfer them to a plate.