Some dishes are fit for royalty. This is one of them. I remember the anticipation of having moghrabyeh prepared for us by my dad’s favorite cousin in the mountains in the village of Maad; hers was the best and I still have her recipe that she passed on to my mother. Alas, the cousin is no longer and I feel it is my turn to try and duplicate her moghrabyeh.
It is believed that couscous was brought to Lebanon centuries ago from the Maghreb (so-called because it refers to the Arab nations such as Morroco and Algeria and Tunisia located in the West al-gharb) and this is the version devised by local Lebanese cooks. A mixture of semolina and water, it is rolled and dried, first by hand and now by machine. In Beirut, there are places where it is sold fresh. My childhood friend Jacqueline, who lives in Paris, always picks up a few kilos when she visits Beirut. I am not so fortunate and have to contend with the dried version, perfectly acceptable mind you.
This dish is done in stages: first, one has to braise the lamb shanks in order to obtain the delicious broth that the moghrabyeh will finish cooking in. Second, one has to parboil the moghrabyeh in salted water in order to soften it enough and prepare it to absorb the spices and broth. In addition, pearl onions and garbanzo beans are also prepared to add depth of flavor to this dish. To be perfectly authentic, chicken is also included in the mix and cooked separately in its own broth; however, since I was serving 4 to 6 people I was perfectly satisfied with lamb shanks only.
2 Lamb shanks
To flavor the shanks:
1 stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
2 bay leaves
1 bag of Lebanese couscous (about 3 cups)
To flavor the couscous:
2 teaspoons of ground caraway seeds
1 teaspoon of 7-peppers spice
1 teaspoon of white pepper
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 lb of pearl onions
olive oil or vegetable oil, as needed
1 can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed under cold water
1)Braising the shanks: Salt and pepper the lamb shanks and brown them in a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, quartered, and brown it as well. Add water to the pan (about 1 1/2 quart), the cinnamon stick and bring to a simmer. Let it simmer until the shanks fall off the bone, about 1 hour or longer, either on top of the stove or in a slow oven (300F). This can be done one or two days before. Remove the shanks into a plate and pick apart to remove all gelatinous and fibrous tissue. Let the stock and meat rest for a day in the fridge.
2) Parboiling the couscous: Bring about a quart of salted water to a boil,add a tablespoon of oil and drop the couscous in it. Let it cook for about 10 minutes until al dente. Then drain the water and set the couscous aside.
3) Sauteing the pearl onions: Heat about 3 tablespoons of oil in a skillet and drop the peeled pearl onions in it, twirling the pan until the onions are gently browned and glistening with the oil. Add a couple ladles of broth to the onion and simmer for 10 minutes.
4) Add the garbanzo beans to the lamb broth and simmer gently for about 15 minutes for the beans to soften and the flavors to meld. Leave it on the heat to be added to the moghrabyeh later. Add all the spices: caraway, cinnamon, white pepper, 7-spice, and salt if necessary. Add the pearl onions to the broth.
5) Heat the pan that will be used for the final cooking of the couscous and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil with a tablespoon of butter (if you wish); add the drained couscous to the pan and start to stir with a large wooden spoon for the grains to be all evenly coated with the oil and not to stick; add the hot broth gradually to the pan (as if making risotto), a couple ladles at a time, for about 30 minutes. Normally, you should need around a quart of broth for 3 cups of moghrabyeh. It is possible to cover the pan and let it cook on its own either in a slow oven (300F) or on top of the stove, checking it every 10 minutes or so. Taste and adjust seasonings.
7) If there is any leftover broth, add a handful of garbanzos and onions to it and serve it separately in a saucepan to present with the moghrabyeh on the side.
7) Serve the moghrabyeh by piling the grains in a serving dish with the pearl onions and the lamb pieces arranged on top.
This dish can be frozen. It can also be served with the addition of chicken, cooked the same way as the lamb. As it is the dish will serve 6 people as a main dish; if you are serving a crowd (up to 20 people) you can add 2 chickens (3 lbs each) using the same method as the lamb shanks and adding the chicken pieces at the end on top of the moghrabyeh.
7-spice is a spice mix; as each community or even family has its own mix, you can save yourself trouble and purchase it in a small packet from any middle-eastern store. Sometimes, you can find a packet labeled moghrabyeh spice, which is a blend of all the needed spices, and would be used instead of all the others.