I grew up in Shaker Heights, an eastern suburb of Cleveland. My family belonged to Council on World Affairs, a non-profit providing education and training on different countries, as well as sponsorships of people coming to the U.S. As sponsors, we showed our new friends the ropes: where to bank and shop, how to find a doctor or a dentist. We had families over for one of my father’s gourmet dinners and they in exchange would have us over. We never missed an opportunity to sponsor someone. Since so many researchers and physicians came to the Cleveland Clinic for fellowships or residencies, those opportunities abounded.
Shaker Heights had a large Jewish population—truth be known, I loved the Jewish holidays because we usually had five or six kids in class and just watched movies all day. Being in the minority, the non-Jewish kids naturally soaked up the stories of Hebrew school and all the Jewish traditions. I guess we soaked up points of view as well. The aftermath of the Six Day War created an anger and angst that was deeply felt by the teenagers. I adopted the “us” of Israel and the “them” of “everyone-else-in-the-Middle-East.” Lumped all those other countries together into one big, faceless enemy.
It therefore came as an unhappy surprise when my parents agreed to sponsor a young couple from Syria. It felt like we had to keep this secret, this small act of betrayal to our neighbors and schoolmates. Then I met the Chattys. They were both doctors working at the Clinic. I remember how beautiful she was, with eyes outlined in a manner that made me think of her as Cleopatra. They were so genuinely warm and appreciative of everything we did. They were caring and fun. They were human. That faceless enemy receded in my mind as I got to know these two wonderful people.
How I looked forward to being invited over to their postage-stamp apartment for a meal! I had never tasted the exotic flavors of kibbeh, labneh or creamy hummus. We had stuffed grape leaves and I discovered the magic of pine nuts. In a time before food processors, I imagined that they minced parsley for days to create their tabouli.
It was a rich time of learning and understanding. Of coming to believe in the human-ness of each one of us, and appreciating the richness of cultures not my own. It was the first shade of gray in my theretofore black-and-white world. I have never forgotten.
My parents found a recipe for an Americanized version of kibbeh that was baked and served with a lemon yogurt sauce. It was good enough to bring back happy memories after the Hannas returned to Syria.
When I married my husband Marc, a second-generation Lebanese-American, he used to tease me that I was making Syrian kibbeh, not the fried kibbeh balls his grandmother and aunts made. It was a good early joke until I found out his grandmother had been Syrian.
Today I make all those wonderful foods with their exotic spices. There are times I even make the kibbeh as it was made by Marc’s grandmother: little balls of beef, bulghur wheat and those spices, deep fried with a filling of pine nuts, beef and onion. I serve it with tzatziki, a spiced cucumber yogurt.
When I strive for a healthier version, I make the baked version below. I have tweaked it over the years here and there, and it still remains a family favorite.
2 lbs. 90% lean ground beef (round or sirloin)
1 c. bulghur wheat, fine or medium grind
1 c. very hot water
1 small yellow or white onion, small dice
Spice List #1: 1 tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. cinnamon, and a dash each of allspice, ground cloves and pepper
Spice List #2: ¼ tsp. each salt and cinnamon, dash each allspice, ground cloves and pepper
½ c. pine nuts, lightly toasted until golden brown
- Place wheat in a large bowl and cover with very hot water. Let sit for at least 15 minutes.
- 2. Meanwhile, combine 1-1/2 lbs. ground beef with first spice list, mixing well. Drain wheat, kneading gently, and mix together wheat with meat-spice mix.
- Brown remaining ½ lb. meat and onion until meat is no longer pink and the onion is tender and translucent. Add the second spice list to the meat-onion mix.
- Put half of the raw meat mix in the bottom of a 9×13” pan, patting firmly in place.
- Top with browned meat-onion mix, spreading it across the pan. Top this, in turn, with the pine nuts.
- Spread the remaining meat-bulghur wheat mixture out on wax paper with an outline of your 9×13 pan. Carefully invert the wax paper over the casserole, allowing the meat to fall gently into the pan. If the edges don’t meet or are too big, just smooth them out.
- Cut the casserole in half lengthwise, and in fourths crosswise. Then cut each square diagonally. I give everyone 1/8th portion, but I only eat one of the triangles and that is plenty for me.
- Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Slice and serve with the yogurt sauce.
3 Tbl. Cornstarch
3 c. chicken broth
6 Tbl. Freshly squeezed lemon juice, from about 2 lemons
1-1/2 c. Plain Greek yogurt (full fat tastes best, but choose as you wish!)
- In a medium saucepan, mix chicken broth and the cornstarch with a whisk. Add the lemon juice and cook and whisk over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.
- Beat the eggs in a medium heat-proof bowl, then whisk in the yogurt. When the hot mix is thickened, whisk a small amount of that into the yogurt to temper the eggs. Slowly add more of the hot mix, whisking. Return it all to the saucepan and cook for about 2 minutes more. You can make this ahead then reheat it either on the stovetop or the microwave.