Embrace Fall with Delicious Comfort Food from the Middle East

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Lebanese chef Joumana Accad blends traditions and seasonal ingredients to create bountiful fall recipes.

With shorter days approaching, hours spent by the barbecue are coming to a close. Summer vacation may be over, but the comfort food of fall is just around the corner. Beat the end-of-summer blues with the warmth of simmering spices and comforting flavors from Chef Joumana Accad and TasteofBeirut.com.

The best comfort food tastes like home. Here to inspire you with hers is Chef Joumana Accad, sharing both classic and innovative Middle Eastern fall recipes. Chef Joumana serves up a traditional comfort dish from her native Lebanon: Lamb shanks and rice (roz-be-dfeen). Her addition of dried berries and nuts creates a hearty, festive feel often associated with fall and great for a holiday meal. This “one-pot meal” can be prepared ahead of time and with many variations from meat type to rice substitutions, making it a party-friendly dish for everyone.

As a side dish, Joumana includes a dandelion greens salad. Popular in the Levant, this healthy, easy dish is served at room temperature and requires few ingredients. Joumana notes that people in rural areas of the Levant still forage for dandelions; time-honored tradition is the invisible tasty ingredient.

Top your meal off with a a classic southern dessert made with a Lebanese twist to create an intriguing blend of culinary traditions.

Celebrate fall with Chef Joumana Accad’s inviting family-friendly recipes.

Lamb Shanks and Rice (Roz be-dfeen)
8 servings

This is the quintessential comfort dish in the Middle East. Its preparation varies by region, but it always elicits delight when presented on the dinner table. It consists of lamb shanks, cooked until they fall off the bone, in a broth flavored with cumin, allspice, and cinnamon. The shanks are served with rice, chickpeas, and pearl onions.. It is a one-pot meal.

Rice is often substituted with bulgur (the coarse type) or roasted green wheat (freekeh). Craisins and nuts can be added to make it more festive, however this step is not traditional and can be omitted.
This dish is served with a bowl of yogurt on the side. A dollop of yogurt helps balance the warm richness of the rice and lamb.
It can be prepared ahead, which makes it ideal for a party. It can also be made simply with lamb pieces, minus the bones; bones, however, add flavor to the broth and, by extension, to the rice. If lamb shanks are not available, substitute stewing beef and some beef bones and brown the bones to add flavor to the resulting broth. This dish can be also made with chicken. A vegan version could be made as well by simply omitting the meat and switching to a vegetable broth.

1 1/2 pound of lamb shanks, either with the bone or boneless (adding bones to the dish gives more flavor to the broth)
1 pound of pearl or cipollini onions
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups of basmati or long-grain rice, soaked in warm water with a dash of salt until the shanks cook

Spices:
1 tablespoon of cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of white or black pepper (can substitute 1 1/2 teaspoon of seven-spice, 1 teaspoon of allspice, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon)
    1 can of chickpeas (or 1/2 cup of dry chickpeas, soaked in water overnight with 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda)
    1/2 cup of Craisins (optional)
    1/4 cup of pine nuts (optional)
    1/4 cup of slivered almonds (optional)
    Clarified butter or olive oil, as needed
    6 cups of water

Equipment needed: 1 large pot to cook shanks and rice. 1 skillet to brown the pearl onions and nuts. 1 bowl to soak the chickpeas in overnight. 1 bowl to soak the rice. 1 serving platter. 1 bowl to serve the yogurt in.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil (or clarified butter) and brown the shanks from all sides. Remove the shanks to a plate. Fry the chopped onions until golden in the same pot. Place the shanks back in the pot; sprinkle with all the spices.

Add to the pot 6 cups of boiling water and simmer the shanks gently until tender, about one hour. If you are using dry chickpeas that have soaked overnight, rinse them and drain them and add them to the shanks now. The chickpeas will cook with the meat.

In a skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of oil (or clarified butter) and brown the pearl or cipollini onions. Remove the onions and set aside. Add the almonds and pine nuts and toast them in the same skillet. Set aside.

To cook the rice:
Measure the broth. If you have too much, let it boil down, if too little, add some water. (Just empty the broth into a measuring cup). You need no more than 3 cups of broth for rice or bulgur (or roasted green wheat if using).

Drain the rice and add to the lamb shanks in the pot and simmer for another 30 minutes until the rice has absorbed the broth and the lamb shanks are falling off the bone. If using canned chickpeas, add them along with the rice. Ten minutes before the end of cooking, add the Craisins (if using) and the pearl onions to the pot. Serve the dish with a garnish of toasted nuts and a bowl of yogurt.

Dandelion salad with Halloumi Croutons
4 servings

1 bunch of dandelions
2 onions
1/4 cup of pine nuts
3 cloves of garlic
Olive oil to fry the onions and dandelions
Butter to fry the halloumi
1 Halloumi cheese, cut in cubes (can be replaced with mozzarella-bocconcini)
Salt, pepper
1 Lemon

1.    Wash the dandelions well and cut off the tough ends. Boil a few cups of salted water and drop the dandelions in the boiling water for a few seconds until they turn limp (but not too long to preserve their vibrant color).
2.    Drain the dandelions and set aside. Slice the onions into rings and fry over gentle heat in several tablespoons of oil until golden brown, stirring every couple of minutes and watching them to prevent burning. Mash the garlic with salt in a mortar and set aside. In a smaller skillet, drop three tablespoons of butter and let the butter melt and froth; at this point, fry the halloumi (or bocconcini) cubes on all sides till golden; drain on paper towels. In the same skillet, fry the pine nuts until caramel-colored, drain them on paper towels and set aside.
3.     Squeeze the dandelions of any extra water and drop them in the pan with the onions and pine nuts. Add the garlic paste and stir to combine evenly into the greens. Remove from the skillet onto a platter, serve with the cheese croutons and some quartered lemons on the side.

NOTE: After slicing the onions, you can sprinkle them with salt to make them purge their water and fry to a crispier state. Some people prefer to cut the dandelions in one or two-inch pieces, which makes chewing them easier.
Halloumi is a sheep cheese imported from Cyprus that is very popular in the Levant; it is sold in major supermarkets in the imported cheese aisle; it can be substituted with bocconcini (small mozzarella balls).

Apple Dumplings with Fig Jam
8 servings

An apple covered in pie dough is not a Middle Eastern tradition; it is something I discovered in the South. I stuffed the apple with a Lebanese/Levantine fig jam [made from dried figs, anise, sesame seeds, and walnuts], which can be bought at stores specializing in Middle-Eastern or ethnic foods, or made at home quite easily (see following recipe).
The apple peels can be recycled into apple-flavored syrup which can be used over several days and stored in the refrigerator.

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups of flour
1 cup of softened butter
1 egg yolk (from a large egg)
1 or 2 Tablespoons of cream
3/4 cups of powdered sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla or rose water or orange blossom water

For the apples:
8 small apples of similar size
8 tablespoons of fig jam
8 pats of unsalted butter

For the fig jam:
The fig jam can easily be made instead of being store-bought and will last several months. To sum it up, here is what you will do: You will cook cut-up figs in a simple anise-scented sugar syrup along with some walnuts, until the figs are totally imbibed with the syrup; you will “finish” it off with a swirl of toasted sesame seeds and a dash of mastic (optional).

INGREDIENTS:

  •          1 pound of dried figs
  •     
  •     1 cup of walnuts
  •     
  •     3/4 cup of sesame seeds
  •     
  •     1/2 tablespoon of ground anise
  •     
  •     1/4 teaspoon of mastic pebbles (optional)
  •     
  •     1 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 1/2 cups of water
  •     
  •     1/2 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

What you can do ahead of time:
    1.    Cut up the figs in little pieces and discard the hard tips.
    2.    Chop the walnuts in coarse bits.
3.    Place the sesame seeds on a baking sheet or in a skillet and toast gently for a few minutes till golden.
    4.    Squeeze the juice of half a lemon and measure to get one half of a tablespoon.
    5.    Place the mastic pebbles in a small mortar and crush with a pinch of sugar till powdery.

When you are ready:
1.    Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan. As soon as the syrup boils, add the lemon juice and stir. If you find some froth at the top, remove it and discard it.
    2.    Add the anise and the walnuts. Let them simmer for a minute, then add the cut up figs.
3.    Simmer the mixture gently for about 15 minutes or so, stirring frequently so as not to let it stick to the bottom of the pot. When the syrup has almost evaporated, add the sesame seeds.
4.    Stir for a few minutes until the mixture is very thick. Turn off the heat, add the ground mastic and stir vigorously to mix it well.
    5.    Let the mixture cool. Pour into a sterilized jar and close tightly. It will keep for up to one year.

To decorate:
Two egg yolks, beaten lightly, with a tablespoon of milk or water.

1.    Peel and core the apples (try to leave the bottom 1/4 inch closed); keep the stems if using later to garnish the apples; keep the apple peels if using for the apple-flavored syrup later in a basin of cold water with the juice of half a lemon.
2.    Stuff the opening of each apple with a tablespoon of fig jam.
3.    Place a tablespoon of butter on top of each apple; set the apples on a piece of foil in a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, until the apples are soft. Remove from the oven and cool.

For the crust:

1.    Place the flour and powdered sugar and dash of salt in the bowl of a food processor. Run the machine 30 seconds till mixed well.
2.    Add the butter, cut in large chunks and process for a few seconds until the flour and butter look well mixed. Add the egg yolk and, if still dry, one tablespoon of cream (or two); when the dough starts to clump, stop the machine, gather into a ball, wrap in paper or plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. (The dough can be frozen for two weeks).
3.    Roll out the dough between two sheets of baking paper. Get it as thin as possible (about 1/8 inch or 2 mm). Remove the top layer of paper, lay an apple on the dough, cut a circle around the apple, wide enough to come up to the sides. Seal the dough, rolling it between the palms of your hand until smoothed out. Do the same for all the apples, and when they are all covered, roll out scraps of dough to make the leaves. Place the leaves on the apples and score them with a knife to simulate real veins.
4.    Beat the egg yolks lightly in a small bowl and brush onto the apples all over if possible, in order to give them a nice sheen. Bake the apples at 375F for about 20-30 minutes until the crust is crisp and golden. Insert an apple stem in each dumpling if desired. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream if desired.

NOTE: You can make apple-flavored syrup with the apple peels instead of throwing them away. Place the apple peels in a large pot; sprinkle the juice of half a lemon on them; add 1 1/2 cup of raw sugar (or white sugar) on the peels, a cinnamon stick if desired or a couple of green cardamom pods (optional); pour 4 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Let it simmer until a light syrup consistency is reached. Strain and serve with additional water if desired.

Recipes may be reprinted with the following credit: Copyright Joumana Accad
To create other traditional Lebanese dishes for your fall feast, go to http://www.TasteofBeirut.com.

About Joumana Accad
Joumana Accad was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She left the Middle East in 1975 and began an international journey. She moved to Paris in the mid-‘70s where she finished her formal education. She returned briefly to Beirut before moving to the United States in 1979. Widowed at a young age, Joumana moved to Dallas, Texas in 1987, remarried and raised two children. She couldn’t resist the call of cooking as she entered the Pastry Arts program at El Centro College in Dallas. Upon graduation, Joumana became a pastry chef for a German restaurant, worked as a caterer, and sold her decorated cookies and cakes. Whole Foods Markets asked her to teach classes on Lebanese cuisine at several of their local markets. Today she runs the popular food blog http://www.tasteofbeirut.com where she explores the cuisine of the Levant as well as the Middle East. Her recipes have been featured in newspapers and magazines across the country and she is a frequent guest on radio and television.

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TRINA KAYE