What a week. Donald Trump continued on his marathon of political insanity, shamelessly and flippantly making statements about solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict as if choosing between two-state and one-state was the same as choosing what make of car to buy. Infuriating stuff.
In somewhat less high-profile news, I too seemed to compete with, if not Donald Trump, at least other semi-sane people, in madness, when deciding to follow a two-hour training run, at 5 mins 30 a kilometre, with a five-hour Palestinian cooking marathon, at 5 mins 30 a cored half-courgette. Unlike Trump however, I realise that if you are serious about your job, you will try to be well-equipped. And yet sometimes, one’s equipment may just never be big enough for the job.
As more eagle-eyed readers will have clocked, I postponed my cooking of Joudie Kalla’s enticing Maftoul tabbouleh and Za’atar chicken for another special occasion, and, having wised up to the reality of tackling 50 Palestinian dishes in one year, a ‘six-in-one’ Sunday lunch seemed like a clever way of upping my score. Until, that is, I found myself looking wistfully after smiling, fresh-faced passers-by on their way to the local hipster food market to drink £4 slow-drip filter coffees and eat organic, multicultural, and/or paleo-vegan food in the warm February sun, while I marched doggedly towards the cheaper, artificially-lit, indoor alternative for my marathon shop.
I attracted a lot of interest as I lined up tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines in (non-violent) regiments on the supermarket shopping belt. ‘Can I come for lunch?’ the lady behind me in the queue asked, after I told her I was making stuffed courgettes (I decided against listing the rest of the menu). ‘Oh my God’ the cash attendant exclaimed ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone buying that many tomatoes…’
I have wanted to make stuffed courgettes – or kousa mahshi– since coming back from Palestine. Well, more specifically, I have been wanting my use my courgette ‘corer’, which was one of my last purchases in Jerusalem, since that time. A courgette corer which I was highly surprised to discover, forgotten, in my handbag after a thorough hand luggage check by Israeli airport security, who are not known for their light touch.
Kousa mahshi was one of the first dishes (the very first being the wonderful Maqluba, which is definitely going to get a spot on this blog) I was served upon arrival in Al Khalil/Hebron, when my team and I were treated to a feast by our generous and gifted landlady. In another life, when not doing the important and necessary work of accompanying children to school through military checkpoints, I would have spent all my time as an apprentice in her kitchen. As it was, I only got to help her prepare a weekend lunch of kousa mahshi once, and that is when I realized I needed a courgette corer.
This need was identified despite many years of blissful ignorance of its existence while eating Greek kolokithakia yemista (stuffed courgettes) at my grandmother’s house, presumably prepared using a vegetable peeler or some other improvised method.
So, is the courgette corer worth all the hype, including risking an unwelcome brush with the Israeli border police, you ask? Well, after I settled on the method of starting in the middle of the courgette and working outwards, it seemed to go well, if probably at a quarter the speed of well-practiced Palestinian cook.
In a subsequent, and yet characteristic, abandonment of method, I proceeded from carefully coring courgettes to frantically trying to combine three recipes in one, as detailed below. Despite that, it went down well, along with the other dishes, with a lunch party of eight friends of discerning tastes. ‘This food not only delicious, but it tells a story’, one commented. Stay tuned for further food stories.
Kousa mahshi (serves 12)
12 large courgettes
For the fillings:
1.5 cups of short-grain rice
3 cups water
1 onion, diced
1 tbsp allspice
½ tbsp cinnamon
3 tbsps olive oil
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup of toasted pine nuts
1 kg beef (or lamb)
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp allspice
½ tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 diced tomatoes
1 cup of chopped parsley
For the sauce:
3 large whole tomatoes or two cans of chopped tomatoes
2 cups of broth (vegetable or chicken)
3 tbsps tomato paste
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
First, core your courgettes, so that they are left with about a ¼ centimeter rim (see photo if that doesn’t sound right). Remember aforementioned indicative timing of 5 minutes 30 seconds per half-courgette, and you will realize you need quite a bit of time to do this.
Making the vegetarian filling:
- Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until soft. Add the spices, fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the rice and sauté for a further few minutes.
- Boil the water in the kettle for speed, then add to the rice. Simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked (around 20 minutes, depending on the rice).
- Once cooked, remove from heat, add in the raisins and toasted pine nuts and mix well.
Making the meat filling
- Heat the olive oil in the pan, add the onions and sauté until soft.
- Add the beef, allspice, cinnamon and salt, and fry until the meat has brown and the liquid has evaporated.
- Remove from heat and mix with the diced tomatoes and parsley
The sauce and the rest
- Puree the whole or cans of diced tomatoes, and mix with broth, tomato paste, 1 tsp salt, garlic cloves and chopped mint. Simmer for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
- Mix about a cup of the rice mixture with the meat, so it is still mostly meat but ‘peppered’ (or maybe more appropriate to say ‘salted’) with rice.
- Stuff 6 courgettes with the veggie mixture and the other 6 with the meat mixture. Stuff them well, as there is nothing worse than finding half your courgette empty.
- Line them up in an appropriately sized baking tray (s), leaving enough space between courgettes so they cook properly. Cover with sauce.
- Cook for 45 minutes-1 hour (until they are soft and a bit coloured), turning half-way through.