Writing and Recipe by Abigail Kaufman // @ifyouhungryy
Part of Issue 3: Back to Basics
There’s something so soothing, so misleading, verging on therapeutic, about the path to mastering a skill in the kitchen. It's like, as soon as you nail your technique your brain goes into this blank, ’auto-pilot’ mode. And god knows we could all use a taste of that kind of serenity! Now, just as much as ever.
But do you know what I mean?
When you tackle an uncomfortable, discouraging task like getting the seeds out of a pomegranate, or cracking and shelling nuts, or even cleaning sardine- have you ever cleaned sardines? Somewhere between doing it for the 7th time and still nearly gutting yourself rather than the fish, to doing it for what seems like the 376th time, you find yourself (surprisingly) getting the hang of it. You start getting comfortable. Your hand glides into position like a well oiled machine. “Moving your gammon” as James likes to call it. You become addicted to the motion... like going on a nice long walk and getting your legs moving, or taking a long shower and enjoying the constant stream on your skin, only this time your hands are doing the job.
That's comfort! Is that what’s meant by the comfort of home cooking? Of comfort-food? It’s about the process from preparation to consumption. I think that’s what makes you fall in love with something, when you fall for the process in its entirety. This is about me, and hopefully you, falling back in love with the process. Because these really are a labour of love.
Well, what are ’these’ exactly? So, my mum called me up, and said “I’m going to make Kubbeh! I heard of this new technique of freezing the filling and my friend and I are going to make them together. I’ll report back on how it went”. This was on the 16th of January. Rest assured, report back she did, and then she reported back some more. Urging me, in the kind of encouraging persistence that only she possesses, to try and make them myself.
For those whose mothers are a little less Jewish and don’t call them up with the excitement of having found a new, unlikely flavour combination or to provide them with some tips on how to hand-whip meringue for pavlova when you’re in a pinch: Kubbe or kubeh or even kubbeh is a Jewish-Iraqi winter warmer. Plump semolina dumplings, with juicy meaty centres swimming in a deep red, tangy beetroot broth.
So I caved. I missed their flavour. Also, the challenge of coming up with two recipes: a meaty one and an entirely plant-based one, sounded pretty sweet to me. I announced that I will be attempting these and reserved the evening for the true test. The idea of my boyfriend and his family taste- testing this culture mishmash of a dish was an exciting one, expectedly making me fall back in love with sharing food and setting up a table for friends.
There I was, 7 p.m. on Thursday 28th January, standing in the kitchen for what seemed like a whole day. Meticulously following a technique of wrapping a layer of semolina over and around a meatball filling that I had made and frozen a couple of hours earlier. And loving every second of it! Did I master the skill? not entirely, but I made around 40 kubbeh’s that evening and my mind was cleared. I remember watching the “Acid” episode in Samin Nosrat’s Netflix show ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’. Samin visited Dona Asaria who taught her how to make homemade corn tortillas. When asked how many tortillas she makes each day, Dona Asaria replied “about 200, 250”. I felt like Dona Asaria, and it was wonderful. I was rolling kubbeh, James even joined me for a couple of rolls, and it was meditation at its finest. In your head, you imagine mastering a kitchen skill to be the equivalent to dating someone who asks you to pick the blue M&M’s for them. Outrageous, impossible, nerve-racking, and time-consuming. But it isn’t. The M&M’s are, the kubbeh isn’t. It’s home-cooking comfort-food for you and whoever is lucky enough to be invited to dance with your tastebuds. It's about enjoying the movement and forgetting about perfecting it.
The following is a summary of your takeaway order: your way of meditating is your own even if its not an obvious one, mastering a skill in the kitchen means you are well prepared and ready to roll
whenever necessary, and as a final treat for pudding I am happy to confirm that English people like kubbeh.
For the filling:
500g full-fat ground beef (or vegan mince for vegan version)
1 large onion or 2 small, finely chopped
3 celery sticks, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp smoked paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp vegetable oil + a knob of butter (for vegan version simply use 2 tbsp vegetable oil)
1 tbsp refined coconut oil (for vegan version only)
For the casing:
500g fine semolina
pinch of salt
280ml room temperature water
In a pan, heat up the vegetable oil and butter on medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté for 15-20 minutes, until golden-brown.
Add the salt, pepper, and smoked paprika and sauté for a further 2 minutes to allow the spices to bloom.
Add the chopped celery and garlic, and cook for 2 minutes.
Add your choice of mince and turn up the heat slightly. Cook for about 15 minutes or until all watery liquids have evaporated, a shallow layer of fat remains, and the mince has browned. As it cooks, break up the meat into little chunks with the back of your spatula. For vegan version, there will be little liquid and no layer of fat, simply cook until liquid has evaporated and mince has browned.
Turn off the heat and transfer the filling to a separate bowl and set aside to cool slightly. For vegan version, add your refined coconut oil at this stage and mix through. The oil will make up for the fat naturally found in beef, which later helps the filling stick together and form balls.
When slightly cooled, wrap the bowl in cling film or a tight kitchen towel and place in the fridge for 3 hours. For a quicker way out, you can place the bowl in the freezer for 1 hour, occasionally stirring the mixture to prevent it from freezing.
Once your filling is properly cooled, mix it well to disperse the fat/coconut oil equally (as it tends to collect at the bottom of the bowl).
Your mixture must be cold-cold and straight out of the fridge for the next step to work. With that in mind, roll the mixture into small balls (approximately 30 in total). Once rolled, place each ball on a tray lined with parchment paper or cling film to avoid it from sticking to the surface. Cover and place in the freezer for 1-2 hours, or until they are fully frozen.
Once the balls are frozen, you can begin working on the casing dough.
In a bowl, mix the semolina and salt. Add the water to the mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until combined.
Once combined, turn it out onto your work surface and knead by hand until a soft ball of dough is achieved.
Cover the dough and allow it to rest for 20 minutes.
On your work surface, set out a small bowl filled with water, the frozen mince balls (fresh out of the freezer), the casing dough, and a tray covered with parchment paper to place the finished Kubbeh balls on.
Dip your hands in the water (this will prevent the dough from sticking to them), pick up about 1tbsp of the dough, roll it into a ball, flatten the ball into a cookie shape, place a meat ball in the centre and wrap the dough around it, covering it entirely. To ensure a smooth Kubbeh, quickly roll the finished balls once last time to smooth out any unwanted bumps. If you happen to pick up too much dough at once, tear off any excess and add it back to the main dough. Repeat until you run out of ingredients.
At this stage, you can choose whether to freeze the finished balls and use at a later date or go ahead and cook them in any soup or broth of your choice.
To use in soup, add the balls into a your boiling broth and cook for 30-40 minutes on a rapid simmer, stirring the soup occasionally to avoid any unwanted stickage to the bottom of the pot.
Avoid over-crowding the pot or the broth’s temperature will sink which will prevent the Kubbeh from cooking.
Serve them in the hot broth, as soon as they are fully cooked. You can always take one out and cut it in half to double check that its cooked through.
Traditionally served in Borscht, but they go well with a variety of soups.