Unlike a lot of people who love to cook, I don’t tend to pick up cookbooks and read them like novels. The majority of the cookbooks on my shelves are there for reference only, useful when I need to check an ingredient’s preparation or cooking time. But Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah has changed all that. Lately I often lug the 3 1/2 pound, 650-page tome with me to bed just to read the fables, stories, and snippets of personal and cultural history woven among the 400 recipes.
Delights traces Iraqi cuisine back to ancient Mesopotamia and the first documented cookbook in history, written on clay tablets about 3700 years ago in Babylon, and explores the history of some better-known recipes (hummus, baba ghanouj) while bringing to light many that were new to me (I had no idea black-eyed peas were used in Iraqi cooking) .
Though it’s far from vegetarian–avoid particularly the section called “Recipes Not for the Faint of Heart”–the cookbook has chapters on vegetarian appetizers, snacks, sandwiches, and side dishes. Nasrallah points out that medieval diners thought of vegetarian dishes as “counterfeit,” though they valued them as snacks and accompaniment to to the meat dishes, so most of the main dishes contain some meat. She often notes when the meat can be left out without hurting the dish, and for other recipes, I’ve found that it’s easy to replace it with a vegetarian alternative, as in the case of this recipe.
Called “Hassle-free Kubbat Halab” in the book, this recipe is a simplified, “lazy day” version of Kubbat Halab, which is made by stuffing a dough made of grains such as bulgar or rice with a spicy meat filling and forming it into balls or disks that are then fried. (The football-shaped kibbeh found in Middle Eastern restaurants here in the U.S. is a variant of the same dish.) In the hassle-free version, all of the ingredients are mixed together and formed into patties and fried or spread into a pan and baked.
I’ve substituted lentils for the ground beef and changed the spicing a bit to make the recipe a little more accessible for those of us who don’t want to buy a jar of baharat seasoning for just one dish. I’ve also doubled the amount of raisins because, frankly, I misread the recipe. If you’re wary of putting raisins into a savory dish, let me tell you bluntly that the raisins, in my opinion, save this dish, which would be bland without them. They give these crispy yet tender patties a certain spark that you don’t want to miss.
Spiced Rice and Lentil Squares
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked short-grain brown rice (or 3 cups cooked rice)
- 1 1/4 cup cooked brown lentils (or canned, drained, liquid reserved)
- 1 medium onion , chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper freshly ground
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne or other red pepper
- 1 flax or chia "egg" (see Tips, below)
- 1/2 cup raisins
- Cook the rice according to package directions or use leftover rice. Put it in a large mixing bowl and cover until ready to use.
- Preheat oven to 375F. Brown the onion in a non-stick pan. Add it to the rice along with all remaining ingredients. Stir well so that seasoning are distributed evenly. If mixture appears dry, add a little of the reserved lentil broth.
- Spread mixture into an oiled or parchment-covered 9x12-inch pan. Use a spatula or knife to score into 12 equal rectangles. Bake until top is lightly crispy, about 40 minutes.
- Allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Nutritional info is approximate.
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