Friday evenings are special in the home of the Phyne Dyner. The workweek is officially declared finished and all unfinished business is put aside until Shabbat ends. The meal on Friday evening is festive and frequently themed. Supper is eaten slowly and leisurely…as if there were all the time in the world to enjoy it.
One of our favorite Shabbat suppers is a trio of menu items from North Africa and the surrounding lands. We most recently enjoyed Moroccan-style Meatballs served with a piquant tomato-pomegranate reduction atop it, an Egyptian-style Brown Bean Salad, and a Yemeni-style Cauliflower Stir-fry. A crisp salad of multi-colored peppers with red onion finished off our feast and cleansed our palates.
Morocco gives the world a menu that features sweet spices that were once common only to Asia. The spice caravans crossed Morocco and the local folks traded meats and vegetables with caravans. They set up casbahs, or protective hostels for weary travelers and the trading commenced. Later, the Moorish conquest of Spain took spices with it and Hispanic cooking around the world now features common spices of the Moors, such as cumin and cinnamon.
Egyptians love beans. They are a staple of everyday Egyptian folk for breakfast, usually in the form of broad, brown beans served at breakfast. Beans also find their way to Egyptian tables for dinner and supper as well. They are served hot, cold, or warm and typically have bright flavored sauces that contrast with the earthy flavors of the beans.
Yemen is home to heat. In Yemen, the dishes are fiery…to scorching in intensity. Most Yemeni cooks use cayenne or fresh hot peppers to add the fire. I have a preference for heat that is barely noticeable and begins with a faint sweetness, but later can turn into a mouth-scorching inferno. Cayenne does not do that. So, I use Aleppo pepper from Syria in my Yemeni-inspired dishes.
Peppers rule the salad bar across Africa and in the Arabian Peninsula. I finished off our latest Shabbat feast with a simple salad of thinly sliced, multi-colored peppers and thinly sliced red pepper in a very basic red wine vinaigrette dressing (1:1 red wine vinegar and good quality olive oil). Be sure to soak the red onion slices in a bowl of salted water for 15-30 minutes to remove bitterness!
A couple of quick notes before we start cooking:
The meatballs may be made with any meat and they are traditionally made with lamb. I used very lean ground beef (Have you priced lamb?). I grind my own from inexpensive steaks (?!) because doing so lets me know where the beef came from. Cooks frequently use breadcrumbs and eggs as binders for minced meat patties and balls. I omit them in this recipe. The magic is in the meat and bread would tend to dull the magic. But, if you use lamb (or goat) or commercially ground meat, you may wish to add a couple of tablespoons of very dry breadcrumbs and one egg…to prevent the meatballs from falling apart.
The reduction sauce may be made with pomegranate vinegar. If that is not available, use pomegranate juice to which you add a tablespoon of lemon juice.
Okay! Let’s get cooking.
For the meatballs:
1 lb ground meat (beef, lamb, or goat)
1 medium onion, finely minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground sweet paprika
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground cardamom
3-4 TBS vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix all of the above items in a large bowl, using your hands to ensure complete blending of the ingredients. Place the meat mixture in a covered container and refrigerate for 6-8 hours to allow the spices to fully permeate the meat.
After the meat mixture has sat, refrigerated, for 6-8 hours. Heat the oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Form the meatballs into 1-inch balls, using your hands. Be sure to pack the meat tightly! Gently place 6-8 meatballs at a time into the pan, being careful not to crowd them. Use a spoon to roll the meatballs in the oil until they are nicely browned on the outside. Do not over cook them. After each batch of meatballs is browned, place them in a shallow, covered baking dish in a single layer. Now, you may crowd them. Set them aside as you pre-heat your oven to 300F and prepare the reduction.
For the reduction:
1 can (4oz) tomato sauce, or 6oz passata
¼ C pomegranate vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
2 TBS sesame seeds
Place all of the above ingredients in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until the volume is reduced by half. Stir continuously to prevent scorching. When the volume has reduced, set it aside to cool a bit. While it is cooling, toast the sesame seeds in a dry, heavy pan until they are golden. Now, spoon the reduction over the meatballs and sprinkle the top with the toasted sesame seeds. Cover, and place in the oven for 45 minutes. Uncover. There should be plenty of liquid still in the dish. If not, add a couple tablespoons of HOT water and return the dish, uncovered, to the oven for an additional 15 minutes.
For the beans:
You can start with dry beans that have been soaked overnight and cooked to firm-tender. I used a can of kidney beans once and the dish was still spectacular. Any brown bean will work, except chili-style beans (YUCK!).
1 15oz can of brown beans
2 sprigs of fresh oregano (1/2 tsp dry)
OR 2 sprigs fresh rosemary (1/2 tsp dry)
1 tsp ground cumin
3 large cloves garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
1 C minced scallions
¼ C chopped fresh parsley
1 C jumbo green olives, thinly sliced
1 TBS lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Drain, and reserve, the liquid from the beans. Place the onion, cut side down, in a saucepan heated over low-medium heat. Heat until sizzling. Add the drained beans. Stir in the bay leaves and the oregano OR rosemary and simmer for about 10 minutes, add a bit of reserved bean liquid if the pan is dry. Remove the onion, herb stems, and bay leaves. Stir in the garlic, cumin, minced scallions, chopped parsley, lemon juice, olives, and a bit of salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm, directly from the stove, or set aside to cool to room temperature for service.
For the cauliflower:
1 small (or ½ large) cauliflower, cut into chunks (not florettes)
5 Roma tomatoes, quartered
1 large onion, chopped
2 TBS vegetable (or peanut) oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
¾ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground turmeric root
½ C chopped cilantro
2 tsp lemon juice
½ to 1 tsp Aleppo pepper (or 1/8 to ¼ tsp cayenne)
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over high heat. Stir fry the onion until it begins to brown. Add the cauliflower and continue stir-frying until the onion turns dark brown and brown spots form on the cauliflower. Stir in the garlic and reduce the heat. Stir continuously to prevent the garlic from burning. Add the Aleppo pepper, cumin, ginger, and turmeric root. Gently fold in the tomatoes and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Cover, and finish cooking with the meatballs in the oven for 15 minutes or on the stovetop over medium heat for about 8 minutes (until the cauliflower is firm-tender). At service, drizzle a bit of lemon juice over the cauliflower-tomato mixture and sprinkle the top with the chopped, fresh cilantro.
This meal doesn’t need a starchy base, like rice or couscous. But, you can make the meal go further for a large group by adding a starch. Color the rice or couscous with a few saffron threads for a truly festive look.