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Over the past year, lamb has become a surprise star in the U.S. Sales in stores rose 28% year over year as of February 2021. That’s in part because of changes in the supply chain, as well as demographic shifts that have seen increased demand from first-generation Middle Eastern residents in the U.S.
And that was all before hitting lamb’s traditional high season in the spring. This year, in addition to its place as an Easter table mainstay, there’s the chance to serve it for iftar, or breaking-the-fast meals, for Ramadan. The month-long Muslim holiday starts at sundown on Monday, April 12, and goes through May 12.
In her just-out cookbook, The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World (Phaidon; $40), Palestinian food writer Reem Kassis offers a terrific assortment of dishes that pay homage to dishes she grew up with, adjusted to make them accessible in kitchens around the world. Kassis worked as a consultant at McKinsey and with the media team at the World Economic Forum before writing the excellent 2017 cookbook The Palestinian Table. She prefers the term “Arab” to the broader “Middle East” to define the region she has focused on.
“The term ‘Middle East’ only really came into use as a European perception of a region between Western Europe and the British colony of India in the East,” says Kassis, adding that Mediterranean countries are sometimes included. People use it in the culinary world, “usually without specificity, because it’s sensually evocative and easy to grasp.”
Arabesque Table features an evocative section on ingredients such as rice, which, she says, though important to Arabic cooking, was mostly reserved for the wealthy until the past few decades, when it replaced wheat products. Among the recipes, which are divided up according to the ingredients they highlight (“za’atar and sumac” for example), are a garlic- and chili-stuffed chicken and spiced kebabs with preserved lemon dill yogurt and herb—both of which make good Ramadan feasts, according to Kassis.
One of her favorite dishes for the occasion—especially for people who don’t have hours to devote to a meal—is a dish of lamb and rice pilaf flavored with baharat, the perfumed spice blend that includes pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon. Her recipe is a simplified version of an elaborate one known as ouzi, an Arab derivative of the Turkish word for lamb.
“Traditionally ‘ouzi’ referred to a baby lamb stuffed with rice, ground meat, and nuts”—a grand dish that showcased the hospitality of the host, says Kassis. “Nowadays, people often make the rice with the spices and nuts and sometimes, vegetables.” The meat is often roasted and served alongside. To make things simpler still, Kassis uses ground meat.
Her most steadfast point is that the dish be delicious, particularly for those observing Ramadan.
“We have a sarcastic saying in Arabic,” says Kassis. “It’s along the lines of ‘He fasted and fasted, only to break his fast on an onion,’ which is used in cultural contexts about waiting and ending up with something not worth waiting for.”
Thus, her ouzi is one worth waiting for; a great-looking, all-in-one dish.
The fluffy, colorful rice is studded with bites of sweet, gamey lamb—or beef, if you prefer to use it—and caramelized onions, plus peas and carrots. (Kassis efficiently uses frozen ones, but you can shell and chop fresh vegetables.) Having been cooked into both the meat and the rice, the warm baharat spice blend infuses each bite. There’s a happy crunch of nuts throughout, accompanied by cool spoonfuls of yogurt.
It’s a dish that, as Kassis says, “screams festive.” Yet it’s also supremely comforting—a gift if you haven’t eaten all day but quite satisfying, even if you have.
The following recipe is adapted from The Arabesque Table, by Reem Kassis.
Ouzi Rice With Lamb, Peas, and Carrots
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 ½ tbsp. ghee or unsalted butter
1 onion, finely diced
1 lb. ground lamb, beef, or a combination
1 1/2 tsp. baharat or Lebanese 7-spice blend (see Note)
2 cups (10½ oz.) frozen peas and carrots
2 cups (about 1 lb.) basmati rice, washed until the water runs clear, then soaked for 15 minutes, and drained
3 ½ cups chicken stock or low sodium broth
½ tsp. ground turmeric
1 cup toasted or slivered almonds or pine nuts, for serving
Plain yogurt, for serving
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and ghee over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and starting to brown, 5–7 minutes. Add the meat, 1 teaspoon of the spice blend, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon, until the water has evaporated and the meat is nicely browned, 10–12 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the peas and carrots, and set aside.
In a large pot, combine the drained rice, chicken stock, and 2 teaspoons salt with the turmeric, and the remaining ½ teaspoon of the spice blend and bring to a boil. Reduce to a lively simmer, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the meat and vegetable mixture to the rice, give it a good mix, and taste for seasoning. Cook until the rice is soft but firm to the bite—and not so overcooked that it all sticks together—another 10–12 minutes. Check on it once or twice. If the liquid evaporates before the rice is cooked, add a few tablespoons of water.
Remove from the heat, uncover, and place a thin tea or kitchen towel over the pot. Top with the cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
To serve, uncover the pot and fluff the rice up with a large fork. Check for seasoning, then transfer to a serving platter and top with the toasted almonds. Serve with yogurt on the side.
Note: The spice blend baharat is available at specialty food stores and at Whole Foods.