Growing up, I watched my mom cook almost every night and every weekend. It’s what Arab mothers like to do. And they were good at it. But you learn a lot about Mediterranean and Middle East recipes from watching. My favorites were stuffed grape leaves and this one, koosa, lamb and rice stuffed in zucchini
By Ray Hanania
The Middle East or Mediterranean region is about more than conflict and war. It’s also about a rich culture that dates back thousands of years and that was grounded in family, and family gathering.
I know Arab culture as being exactly that, when the family would sit at the dinner table and celebrate being together. We ate dinner together every evening, after my dad came home from work, and on the weekends, often with visiting relatives.
America and its fast-food culture and its emphasis on spending money may have changed that priority over the years, but for many ethnic families, including American Arabs, the cultural traditions remain strong.
And nothing reflects the foundation of Arab culture more than sitting around a meal based on a long tradition of Mediterranean and Middle East lifestyle.
The dinner table would often feature a main meal dish surrounded by garnishments and side dishes.
The side dishes would include lental soup, hummus, baba ghannouj and tabouli salad. The main dish would often include mensef (mensiff) for special holidays like Easter and Christmas, or every day dishes like rolled grape leaves, green bell peppers, zuchhini and potatoes stuffed with diced lamb mixed with rice.
Food has become a part of the Middle East conflict, of course, in part because the Israelis have no modernday indigenous food menu of their own, so they shoplifted Arab food recipes in order to create the artificial claims to Palestine and Middle East culture. Maybe this issue is why Arabs cling so tightly to their food and keep their families so close. The Israelis have stolen almost everything from Palestinians but we won’t let them steal our food. The dinner table is the one place where Arabs can come together without worrying about the brutality of the Israeli occupation, or Israel’s rejection of peace.
One of my favorite Arab food recipes is for koosa, or stuffed zucchini (squash). It’s very easy to make.
The dish will feature zucchini stuffed with a mix of seasoned ground lamb and rice, cooked in a stew consisting of prime lamb chops (French style, shortened with the rib removed leaving only the main bone covered in meat), and onions, tomatoes, garlic and other seasonings.
I start with 8 zucchinis and I have a special instrument to carve out the long inner meat of the vegetable. You have to be careful so you don’t puncture the zucchini skin, although you can put a small opening at the end to allow easier stuffing when the ground lamb and rice mix is added.
I use a large pot and cover the bottom with the slices of two onions. I add my spices, usually lemon pepper and garlic salt, cumin, and diced garlic to the stew. I will empty two cans of diced tomatoes into the mix and add 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Place the lamb chop ends on top of the mix, usually about 12 to 16 pieces, depending on how many people will be eating. Then, I cover the entire contents with water.
The prepared zucchinis will rest on top of the lamb and stew, with the pot covered so they steam during cooking process. Generally, I will pre-cook the stew for 40 minutes on a low-to-medium heat (while preparing the zucchini and rice stuffing), and then cook the entire stew with the stuffed zucchinis an additional 45 minutes.
After I cut out the inside of the zucchini, I prepare a large pot slow cooking the lamb and rice mix. I generally will chop the lamb myself from the leg and mix about 4 pounds with 1 cup of long grain rice. I will add a 1/8 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup of water, and the juice from 1 can of diced tomatoes to give the rice more flavor. Season with lemon pepper, garlic salt and dice onions and garlic into the mix.
The key to cooking the lamb and rice mix is to get it started, not to completely cook it so on a low flame in the mix you will constantly stir the mix until it is partially cooked, usually about 15 to 20 minutes. You want the meat to be slightly cooked, not over cooked.
Once the mixture is near completion, I use a small spoon (you can use your hand if you let the lamb and rice mix cool) to lift the mix and stuff it into the hallowed out zucchini. You need to constantly push the rice and meat mixture down. Not too hard, but enough so it fills. Don’t pack it hard. The rice will expand. If you push too much into the zucchini the zucchini skin might break during the cooking process.
4 lbs Lamb leg (diced)
12-16 lamb chop (French style)
8 zucchinis (green squash)
Sultan Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cans diced tomatoes
Cumin, lemon pepper