My friend Hoda Soueid had graciously offered to show me how to make sheesh barak, the dish I remember most fondly from my grandmother’s. Tiny little dumplings made in a soft and very thin dough smothered in a yoghurt sauce and served over rice. Comfort food Lebanese-style! So good you can’t stop eating them!
We sat on her balcony and sipped Turkish coffee while she reminisced about life in Beirut over the years: when the Israeli tanks rolled on her street in Moussaitbeh, when her building was hit by a missile during the fighting between the Syrians and the Christian militias, when she had three hours a week of available water. Our talk was interrupted by a deafening concert of gunfire and explosions. “Berri got elected” she said matter-of- factly, referring to a prominent politician. We decided to retreat to the kitchen and focus on the work at hand instead of risk being hit by a stray bullet. (Which turned out to be wise, the bullets and exploding bomblets killed one person and wounded 11 others)
Making sheesh barak can easily be done in stages. Busy Lebanese housewives buy the dumplings frozen in the neighborhood market to save time. I prefer to make my own and freeze the extras. Assembling the dish is easy once the dumplings are ready, because the yoghurt sauce and the rice can be prepared at the last minute.
INGREDIENTS: This quantity will make 600 dumplings, sufficient for 50 servings (12 dumplings per serving)
1 lb of kafta meat (500g. of lean ground beef or lamb, mixed with 1/4 cup of chopped onions and parsley, with salt and pepper, a dash of allspice and cinnamon)
3 cups of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup of lukewarm water (80 to 85F)
- Sift the flour over a large bowl. Gradually pour the water, mixing with either hands or a wooden spoon.
- Knead the flour and water mixture until the dough holds together evenly and is smooth and shiny, adding a bit more flour if sticky or a couple tablespoons of water, depending on the air and the humidity level in the room. Cut the dough in four balls and cover with a towel and put in a draft-free place for 30 minutes.
- On a marble board or a cool surface, sprinkle some flour and roll out one ball of dough at a time until very thin, about 1 mm. in thickness (1/16 inch, if possible). Cut into rounds with a 1 inch cutter or a liqueur glass.
- Place on each circle of dough 1/2 teaspoon of kafta stuffing. Fold the dumpling into a half circle, pinching the outside edges delicately. Grab the two ends and pinch them shut towards the back of the dumpling. Place the dumpling on a greased cookie sheet.
- Place the cookie sheet in a moderate oven (325-350F) until the dumplings are slightly toasted and golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Reserve a portion for immediate consumption and freeze the rest in freezer bags.
To Complete the Sheesh Barak:
- Cook the yoghurt. Place the yoghurt in a large saucepan and add one tablespoon of cornstarch per pound and an egg (optional) if desired. Place on low to medium heat and with a wooden spoon stir the yoghurt in the same direction until it starts steaming and a bubble or two escapes. Turn off the heat and keep aside.
- Prepare the rice, following package directions. If making rice with vermicelli noodles, which is the traditional way, brown the noodles first and then add the rice and stir on low heat to get all the grains moistened with grease or butter. Add the water and cover the pot. Cook for about 20 minutes until the rice is done.
- Make the cilantro pesto. Heat a couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil and fry some mashed garlic cloves and some chopped fresh cilantro leaves. When the fragrance of the mixture starts to rise, turn off the heat and set it aside. It should not take longer than 2 minutes.
- Serving time! Heat the yoghurt very slowly and swirl the cilantro pesto and throw the dumplings and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes. Serve over the cooked rice. Expect seconds and thirds! Sahteyn!