I love a good celebration--especially celebrations that involve coming together around a table to collectively share a meal with loved ones. The process of breaking bread with friends, family, and neighbors is key to the development of community--it is relational, connective, and spiritual (spiritual as in relating to the spirit). Also, sharing a communal meal provides an opportunity to experience and express gratitude: for the people around you; for the bounty of your harvest; for the abundance of what you have; and a recognition that there are others who are less fortunate, who do not share the same abundance.
These celebrations are not inherently ‘religious,’ although there are many examples of religious traditions that involve community, gratitude, and food. One such religious tradition involving reflection, study, gratitude, celebration, and (ultimately) food is Ramadan. We are currently in the final week of a month-long spiritual observance for practicing Muslims that culminates in a three-day celebration called Eid.
Way back in 1997, during my first year as a religious studies major in college, I visited Israel during Ramadan. It was an immersive, first-hand experience with a religious tradition with which I was totally unfamiliar. During my time in Israel and the traditional Palestinian lands, I did my best to be respectful of those celebrating Ramadan. Throughout this most holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating any food, drinking any liquids, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in any sexual activity, from dawn to sunset. The fast is intended to serve several purposes: a reminder of human frailty and dependence on God for sustenance, a demonstration of what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty to inspire compassion for (and a duty to help) those less fortunate, and an opportunity to focus on introspection especially related to a personal relationship with the divine.
I know what you are thinking as you read this--Kelli, how is a religious practice that requires fasting related to and/or relevant for an article about food and cooking??? The key to the fasting piece of Ramadan is that you “break your fast” every day at sunset. As with any traditional or spiritual celebration with a long-standing history, there are many amazing dishes that are affiliated with the breaking of the fast. I have a particular affinity for dishes and ingredients from the Mediterranean and Middle East--anecdotally, we have a number of Nevada farms (mostly in the south) that are quite proficient at growing ingredients that originate in middle eastern countries thanks to a similar climate (pomegranates, apricots, pistachios). Maqluba, literally “upside-down,” is a dish that originated in the Levant region (historically includes Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and most of Turkey--sometimes spanning from Greece to Libya) that is comprised of meat, rice, and fried vegetables that are layered and cooked in a saucepan then inverted onto a serving dish. The recipe that I prepared, and the one that I am sharing with you below, includes lentils, dried apricots, and pistachios. It is both a delightful spectacle for your eyes AND for your belly.
This week, I recommend that you try your hand at crafting a maqluba (my farmer friend says it sounds like a dish your granny would make--if you grew up with a Turkish granny). Maybe read a little bit more about Ramadan--here’s a great resource: https://www.newsweek.com/ramadan-2021-calendar-fasting-prayer-times-1583194
and if so inspired, take a moment to reflect on the bounty you experience in your life, feel some gratitude, and give back to those who are not as fortunate.
Spiced Maqluba with Tomatoes and Tahini Sauce
Modified from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi
¾ c dry lentils
Salt and black pepper - to taste
1 ¼ cups basmati rice
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2 ½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely minced or pressed garlic
5 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 loosely packed cup parsley leaves, finely chopped
½ c dried apricots, diced
½ c roasted & salted pistachios, chopped
5 tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing
1 large or 2 small yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 slicing tomatoes, cut into 1-inch thick rounds (or use cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 cup tahini
A handful of crispy shallots, for garnish (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, combine lentils with 1-quart cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer for 20 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary to keep temperature low, then stir in rice. Simmer for another 6 to 8 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. (The rice won’t be ready at this stage.)
- Drain very well. Stir in lemon zest, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, cardamom, allspice, turmeric, dried apricots, pistachios, half of the parsley, plenty of pepper and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Mix to combine and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large nonstick frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onions, 3/4 teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper and cook, stirring, until soft and well browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Using olive oil, grease a 10-inch saucepan with straight sides and a lid. Line the bottom with a round piece of parchment paper.
- In a bowl, toss tomatoes with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper and then arrange them flat on the bottom of the pan. (If using cherry tomatoes, lay the cut sides down.) Layer the cooked onions on top and then spoon the rice mixture over the onions, smoothing it down so the surface is flat. Using a skewer, poke about 6 holes in the rice and then sprinkle the surface with 2 tablespoons water. Place the pan over high heat for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover the pan with a clean tea towel followed by the lid and then cook for 15 minutes, until rice is barely cooked. (Take care that the towel edges are held safely over the lid, so they don’t catch fire!) Check after 10 minutes to make sure the pan is not dry; add a little water if needed.
- Set pan aside for at least 20 minutes (with the lid and tea towel left on); residual heat will finish the cooking.
- While rice rests, make tahini sauce: In a bowl, combine tahini with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of garlic, remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1/8 teaspoon of salt and 1/3 cup of water. Whisk until smooth and creamy and set aside.
- When ready to serve, remove the lid and tea towel and then cover the top of the pan with a large platter. With one hand on the pan and the other holding the platter, invert the dish so that the top of the rice is now the base of the maqluba on the platter (like unmolding an upside-down cake). Tap the bottom of the pan a few times to help the tomatoes ease off the bottom. Peel off and discard the paper.
- Serve hot, with shallots and remaining parsley sprinkled on top. Pass tahini sauce at the table.