Baked Kibbeh is a Lebanese tradition and a favorite way to make kibbeh. This savory dish fills the kitchen with an unforgettably delicious aroma while it’s baking. We like to eat kibbeh raw (kibbeh nayeh) the first day it’s made, then bake it in a sahnieh the next day.
We aren’t the only ones making kibbeh this week…David Tanis at the New York Times baked a kibbeh sahneh yesterday using a recipe from the Lebanese grandmother of a friend of his. He considers kibbeh a transformation of meat loaf, and tough as it is for me to place “kibbeh” and “meatloaf” in the same sentence, I suppose it is—ground meat combined with a binding element (cracked wheat) and spices. It’s always fascinating for me to see variations on the way Lebanese dishes were prepared in my home growing up. David’s kibbeh is served with caramelized onions and pine nuts on top, a version of the househ that I noted with my raw kibbeh post yesterday. I’ve had baked kibbeh only with the househ stuffed inside, never on top and never with the onion so pronounced. It looked delicious.
I keep thinking about the meat with meat combination that reigns in Lebanese cuisine: raw meat with cooked meat on top (kibbeh nayeh with househ), or baked meat stuffed with sautéed meat (kibbeh sahnee stuffed with househ), or even the appetizer version of raw kibbeh that I learned about this summer called frahkeh. For that you set aside a bit of your kibbeh meat and mix it with crunchy cracked wheat that has not been reconstituted in water, and up the cayenne quotient for added bite. The frahkeh is shaped into little torpedoes and passed around to whet the appetite just before a platter of kibbeh nayeh is served up.
What is with the meat bonanza?! All I can say is that when you are cooking with exceptional ingredients such as the perfectly lean, nearly sweet meat used for kibbeh, you just can’t get enough. I also have the idea that these dishes represent a kind of strength. It’s something like what my Sitto used to tell me about the farm she grew up on, where not one thing was wasted when it came to cooking and keeping house. When they killed a chicken for a special dinner, they used every last bit of that chicken for more than one meal. So my thought is that kibbeh was probably served up infrequently and specially in the rather humble Lebanese mountain villages where my family comes from, so when they indulged, they indulged big. The animal protein nutrition likely needed to go a long way until next time.
There are several ways to cook kibbeh after you’ve had your fill of the raw. I will admit that you can also skip the raw kibbeh if you must, and head straight for the baked or fried dishes—in which case, the perfectly sterile grind of the meat is far less of an issue. When I stayed at a villa in Umbria, Italy on a writing retreat with a group of food writers, one evening we each decided to make a special dish to share. I went on a quest that day to find the ingredients to make kibbeh, fried in little patties, for my friends. The cracked wheat was tough to tackle, but we found some kind of boxed tabbouleh (this is the one time I was happy to see the wheat trump the parsley for tabbouleh) and pilfered the bulghur from that. Telling the butcher in Italian that I needed fine ground meat with no fat whatsoever for Lebanese kibbeh was likewise surreal. I ended up with a more standard rather than finely ground meat, but because it was to be fried, it worked out fine. The flavor of the kibbeh was a great foil to the richness we had been indulging in all week—truffles we foraged ourselves (I have a framed certificate proving that I did hunt truffle), ricotta we made on the idyll of our lawn.
But I digress. It’s so easy to when it comes to food, isn’t it?
The simplest way to cook the kibbeh is to shape it into flat patties, unstuffed, and fry it in a few tablespoons of olive oil. But I love a sahnee, a.k.a. Lebanese meatloaf (ouch)–it’s a delectable dish that you can share if you are willing, or eat yourself in a variety of ways over several days: on a plate, with labne and a salad or tomatoes, or in the hand as a Lebanese-style wrap of thin pita bread filled with the kibbeh, labne, tomatoes, pickled turnips, and anything else you think would taste good. And don’t worry about getting the top of your sahnee cut like a stained glass window as my mother did in the photo below; simple squares will taste just as good.
This kibbeh is made in layers with filling, as a sahnieh (in a casserole). Make it ahead and freeze the casserole raw, then thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bake as directed below. Or bake it ahead, refrigerate for up to two days or freeze, then reheat in the oven, thawed.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Make the stuffing: in a large frying pan, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and about a half teaspoon of salt and sauté until soft. Add the ground beef and season with cinnamon, another half teaspoon of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Cook until browned, breaking up the meat with a metal spoon into small bits as it cooks. Squeeze the lemon juice over the househ, taste, and adjust seasoning if needed. Stir in the pine nuts and set aside to cool.
Coat a 9x13x2 inch baking dish with oil. Set up a small bowl of ice water where you are working and use the water to coat your hands as you flatten and shape the kibbeh. Use half of the kibbeh to form thin, a flat layer covering the bottom of the baking dish. Smooth the layer with cold water.
Spread the stuffing evenly over the flat kibbeh layer. Using the remaining kibbeh meat, form another thin, flat layer over the stuffing and smooth with cold water.
Score the top in squares (or the traditional diamond pattern) into the kibbeh, cutting through to the center layer but not all the way to the bottom of the dish.
Place a dab of butter on each square—this adds a wonderful savory flavor and moisture to the kibbeh. Bake in the center of the oven for about 50 minutes, or until the kibbeh is deep golden brown on top (place the kibbeh under the broiler if needed), otherwise it looks more like a mundane meatloaf than the kibbeh we love.