Rapha Cooks: Lamb Kibbeh

With this edition of Rapha Cooks the North American office gathered up ourselves and pedaled through the sweltering Portland heat to the other side of town. Seemed about time to sample these fine foods that we had been hearing about. We were not let down, and as they say “the proof is in the pudding.” Mr. Card is a great writer of food and he is just as good a cook.

by Matt Card

As cyclists, much of our attention this month is focused on all things French. Sure, I’m watching that race circling France, but I’m not eating French. Instead, the summer’s high heat, my sore legs, and an abundance of fresh produce make me think of one thing: Lebanese food. Confused? It makes perfect sense: few cuisines do food better targeted towards torrid summer weather. Much of the Lebanese that I prepare is quick, easy, and light, but by no means short on flavor. I find the cuisine’s reliance on vegetables, complex spicing, and multi-layered textures wholly addictive.

So what do I make? All manner of salads, dips, and mezzo. An easy weeknight dinner might include: lamb kibbeh with a cucumber and tomato relish and an herbed yogurt sauce. I can prepare all three elements within a half hour or so—the time it takes to fire up the grill—and pick up the produce and meat at the farmer’s market on the way home from an afternoon ride (In Portland, there’s always a market someplace in town).

At its most basic, kibbeh is any meat or vegetable mixed with bulgur, herbs, and spices and packed into a baking dish, wrapped around skewers, or shaped into patties. Most are cooked; some are raw. I like mine shaped into small pucks and grilled, which I think brings out the best in the gamey lamb and crisps the nutty bulgur (much less keeps the kitchen cool).

To the ground lamb and bulgur, I add a pretty standard Lebanese blend of warm spices, herbs (mint and parsley), and sumac, a crushed berry used throughout the southern Mediterranean to add a sweet-tart edge to countless dishes. Track it down and use it. Often. Grated onion and tomato add moisture as well as acidity to balance the lamb’s richness. Sounds like a lot to do, but its more assembly than cooking—all the ingredients go into one large mixing bowl and are kneaded together by hand. As for grilling, think a hot fire for a deep, quick sear—a couple minutes per side. I like mine on the rare side, but I’ll leave that decision to you.

A simple cucumber, tomato, and shallot relish add some contrasting texture to the meal and help cut the richness of the lamb. Makes sure to seed the cucumbers and tomato to avoid a watery mess. And pick fresh, ripe produce—the time is right to finally start enjoying tomatoes that taste like a tomato should.

Full fat, Greek-style yogurt makes everything better, especially when loaded up with herbs and garlic. In this case, it moistens the kibbeh and enriches the relish. With the raw garlic, don’t make the sauce too far in advance; otherwise it’ll be bitey and acrid.

Grilled Lamb Kibbeh
Serves 4 to 6

When shopping, make sure to purchase fine-grained bulgur; medium or coarse-grained bulgur won’t hydrate well (it must be cooked) and will produce very crunchy kibbeh. While sumac isn’t essential for the recipe, its tart, fruity flavor adds depth and I recommend searching it out at a Middle Eastern market. Serve with plenty of fresh pita or lavash in which to wrap the kibbeh.

While the kibbeh are best grilled, they can also be sautéed in a medium-hot skillet or broiled.

1 medium onion
1 Roma tomato
½ cup fine-grained bulgur (see note)
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, hydrated in hot water and chopped fine
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons sumac (optional; see note)
1 ¼ pounds ground lamb
11/2 teaspoons salt

Pita bread or lavash

1. Grate onion and tomato on large holes of box grater. Transfer pulp and as much exuded juice as possible to mixing bowl. Mix in bulgur until incorporated. Stir in remaining ingredients and knead well until evenly incorporated. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then shape into patties roughly 2 to 3 inches across and about ¾-inch thick.
2. Prepare a hot fire and scrape cooking grate clean. Grill kibbeh until well browned and charstreaked, 2 to 4 minutes. Flip and cook second side until browned, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Transfer to platter; warm bread on grill and serve immediately with minted cucumber and tomato relish and herbed yogurt dipping sauce (recipes follow).

Minted Cucumber and Tomato Relish
Serves 4 to 6

If the tomatoes aren’t particularly ripe, add a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity.

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
4 Roma tomatoes, cored, seeded, and diced
Pinch sugar (if needed)
1 small shallot, peeled, cored, and sliced very thin
1 small Serrano chili, seeded and minced (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint

Combine all ingredients in bowl and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste and allow to sit at least 15 minutes before serving.

Yogurt Dipping Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

For reducing garlic to a fine paste, nothing beats a Microplane grater, which is more commonly used for grating Parmesan.

1 garlic clove, minced to paste with salt or grated on a Microplane grater
1 ¼ cups whole-milk yogurt
Pinch sugar
Pinch cayenne pepper
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, marjoram, or mint

Combine all ingredients in bowl and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste and allow to sit at least 15 minutes before serving.