From the May 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine.
This recipe, adapted from Kathy Sullivan and Janine El Tal, international educators and longtime residents of Jordan, is a scaled-down version of that country's national dish, which is usually served in large quantities at important gatherings. Mensaf is eaten standing up, using the right hand to form a little ball of rice and meat. Traditionally, jameed, a ball of reconstituted sun-dried yogurt, is used to make the sauce, but it is replaced here by regular plain yogurt that has been stabilized (with egg white and cornstarch) for cooking. Buy the richest, tangiest yogurt you can find.
Active time: 55 min Start to finish: 3 1/2 hr
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1. Combine lamb and 4 cups water in a wide 5-quart heavy pot (add more water to just cover lamb if necessary). Bring to a boil over moderate heat, skimming froth from surface. Once liquid is clear and at a full boil, add pepper and 1 teaspoon salt, then cover and simmer 30 minutes.
2. While meat is simmering, heat butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add pine nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer nuts with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Add onion to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 12 minutes. Stir in turmeric, allspice, cardamom pods, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add onion mixture to lamb and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Remove lid and briskly simmer until liquid is reduced by half, about 1 hour more. Add yogurt, gently shaking and swirling pot to incorporate.
3. Simmer lamb over moderately low heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally in one direction only (or yogurt may curdle), until sauce is slightly thickened and meat is very tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper if necessary and discard cinnamon stick.
While sauce simmers, bring remaining 3 cups water with remaining teaspoon salt to a boil in a 3-quart saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add rice and stir once, then reduce heat to low and cook, covered, 20 minutes. Slide pan off heat (do not lift) and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Fluff rice gently with a fork.
4. Line a 3-quart shallow serving bowl with a single layer of pita halves (reserve remaining pita to serve alongside), then mound rice on top of bread. Spoon 1/2 cup sauce over rice to moisten and arrange meat over rice. Sprinkle with pine nuts and spoon 1/2 cup sauce over meat, then arrange reserved pita and red onions around edge of bowl. Pour remaining sauce through a sieve into a sauceboat or small bowl and serve on the side.
Stabilized Whole-Milk Yogurt
Yogurt curdles easily when heated, but mixing it with egg white and cornstarch, and then simmering it, makes the yogurt more heat-stable without changing the flavor signigicantly.
Whisk together all ingredients in a small heavy saucepan. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until mixture just comes to a boil, 8 to 10 minutes, then reduce heat to moderately low and simmer until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes more.
*Available at Middle Eastern markets.
"[Side dishes] have to be quite dramatic," says Australian author Donna Hay. "They're like the good supporting actors in their roles."