Cookbook Tester: The Iraqi Cookbook by Lamees Ibrahim


Iraqi zucchini and eggplant stew

Our Man Sietsema has recently written about Iraqi food (and two weeks ago reviewed the first “out” Iraqi restaurant in the city)–good reminders that the country has a rich culinary tradition, and has much more going on than constant strife. Just two months ago, Interlink Publishing (one of the best, and most serious purveyors of international cookbooks) came out with The Iraqi Cookbook by Lamees Ibrahim, a Baghdad native who now lives in London. The book is chock-full of recipes–19 recipes for rice alone, and 15 for pickles. Ibrahim teaches you to make fried turnovers with cracked wheat and eggs, baked carp, meatballs with pine nuts, date syrup cake, Turkish delight, and more.

It’s a fascinating book to page through, and most recipes are so straightforward that they will not even require a trip to the Middle Eastern market–lemon, garlic, tomato, lamb, parsley, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, and maybe some garam masala are the primary flavorings.

But keep in mind that Ibrahim’s recipes are like the ones you try to gather from your grandmother: “How many cloves?” “A few.” “How much water?” “Until it looks right.” You have to be prepared to use your own senses in the kitchen, with Ibrahim as your guide. The ingredients are not always in order; the amount of water to add to a stew is not specified. It could be problematic, but it also gives the book a life and a roughness that seems right in the kitchen. For instance, Ibrahim writes in a recipe for stew that cracked chickpeas are “optional, but very nice.”

The recipe tested was zucchini and eggplant stew, since both vegetables are in season right now. It’s enriched with ground lamb and tomatoes, and simply spiced with salt, pepper, and garam masala. Don’t be tempted to add more spices (we were, but resisted)–the stew turns out to be nicely balanced and very tasty as it is. At the end, if you want a bit of crushed red pepper, go for it.

Zucchini and Eggplant Stew
Margat Shijar wa Bathinjan
Yield: 4 to 5 servings

Adapted from The Iraqi Cookbook, by Lamees Ibrahim
The recipe doesn’t specify how much water to add, so we added about 4 cups, which was enough to just cover the vegetable-lamb mixture. As it cooked, it turned into a thicker stew, which we liked. If you’d like more of a brothy soup, add more water. Start with a little, you can always add more. Feel free to use chicken stock instead of water, if you like. If you do use water, be sure to salt the stew well, to bring out the flavors. Dried, cracked chickpeas cook quickly, so no need to soak them. But a scattering of canned chickpeas would be okay, too.

1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 pound ground lamb, or diced lamb
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 pound chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato puree
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 cloves garlic, smashed to a rough paste
salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
1 pound chopped zucchini
1 pound chopped eggplant
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1/4 cup dried, cracked chickpeas, optional, but very nice

In a large pot over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the lamb, and saute it, breaking it up with a spatula, until it is starting to brown. Add the onion, and cook about 2 minutes more, stirring. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, garam masala, and garlic, and mix well. Add water [see note above]. Then stir in the zucchini, eggplant, and pepper. Pour in the chickpeas, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer gently until vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes.