Growing up, my grandmother would make a dish called kufta which you may be more familiar with if I refer to it as kibbeh. The kufta that my family enjoyed could best be described as a type of meatball except unlike an Italian style meatball that uses bread as a thickener, fine bulgur wheat is used instead. Together the meat (generally lamb) and bulgur were combined with a bit of onion and that mixture formed the outer layer of the meatball. I say outer layer because unlike the meatballs you know and love, these kufta were stuffed with a filling that consisted of more meat/bulgur mixed with some more onions, pine nuts which give the kufta some texture and the most distinctive allspice which impart a slightly sweet, warming flavor. So delicious.
In our family, we floated these meatballs in chicken broth, garnished with some parsley and always sprinkled with paprika by my father. Not the prettiest dish to look at because the meat was not seared but ultimately the soup was comfort in a bowl, Armenian style! My mother kept prepared kufta in the freezer for a last minute supper.
Now, imagine my surprise when I went to visit my friend, Arlene at her Cape house one weekend and her mother, Nancy (a fabulous cook) brought out the most gorgeous pan of what is called sini kufta. She had prepared the kufta, same ingredients, but rather than form them into a ball, she layered the meat and its filling in a sheet pan. I’m sure she drizzled some butter on it because I remember it was golden brown and looked gorgeous. And it tasted divine. Why I have never made the time to make it at home I will never know but it’s on my list now. By the way, why is lamb so divisive? It seems folks either love it or hate it – no middle ground! Thankfully, my husband is one of the lovers 🙂
Now, it’s the lenten season and that means less meat is consumed by many so we need to find creative ways to bulk up our meals. We have another dish, similar to kufta that we serve during lent that is a mixture of lentils and bulgur, together with onions, spices and butter to create delicious patties that really fill you up. You can buy them at the Armenian markets in Watertown if you are ever visiting and they are called vospov kheyma. Vosp means lentils and kheyma is basically the raw combination of meat and bulgur wheat, another Armenian delicacy that I will explain another time!
So when I saw a recipe for Baked Kibbeh with Sweet Potato in this cookbook I borrowed from the library with very few ingredients, I thought to give it a try as it felt very timely. I thought a lot about the recipe before setting out to make it because I had high hopes and really wanted it to taste as close to the flavor profile in my memory as possible. Were the seasonings suggested correct? What about the technique and the ingredients. What changes could I make?
There were a few. First, the recipe uses cumin, cinnamon and a choice of allspice or cardamom. We don’t often use cumin in these preparations but I love it’s flavor so decided to keep both it and the cinnamon but insisted on the allspice which as I said is so emblematic of our food that without it, the dish would not have hit the mark.
Also, there was no layering. A sweet potato was cooked and mixed with the bulgur wheat and seasonings and then layered on tops of some softened onions. I thought of two things. One, I wanted to take the onions down a longer path to caramelization and to add texture I added the traditional pine nuts that I toasted during the last minute of cooking the onions. Without the nuts, the dish would have just been mushy without texture. Not good.
Lastly, instead of drizzling the top with 3 tablespoons of olive oil as the recipe suggested, I used melted butter. Trust me, it’s better and helps the top to brown nicely and enhances the flavor.
The recipe suggested serving the kufta with some yogurt mixed with parsley. I added some mint, sumac and olive oil to the mixture as well. And a squeeze of fresh lemon is a must to wake up all the flavors.
Don’t like sweet potatoes? You can swap in carrots which would be delicious!
I think my small changes made a difference and I loved it. I shared it with two friends who also thought it was delicious!
The recipe couldn’t be simpler although there are a few steps. Boil chunks of sweet potato and add to a combination of grated onion and bulgur that has been hydrated in boiling water. Season with the spices and some salt and pepper. Separately, caramelize an onion and add pine nuts during the last minute or so of cooking. Layer the sweet potato/bulgur mixture in the pan with the onions and pine nuts in the middle. Cut the dish into diamonds before pouring the melted butter over the entire surface. Dot with pine nuts for garnish and bake for about 35 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Serve with a little yogurt sauce and some fresh lemon wedges.
Sweet Potato and Bulgur Wheat Kufta makes a wonderful main dish or you could even serve little wedges as a side dish, perhaps for Easter? It’s a pot luck winner too as you can cut it into many pieces and even a little piece is quite filling.
The original recipe suggested a 12 inch oven proof pan but I used my go-to, 10-inch cast iron and am glad for it as otherwise the kufta would have been too thin.
So what do you think? Will you add Sweet Potato and Bulgur Kufta to your repertoire? If you do, please report back and let me know if you enjoyed it!
Caramelizing the onions and adding pine nuts for texture…
Add a layer of the sweet potato-bulgur mixture to the bottom of the pan and then cover it evenly with the onions and pine nuts…
Add the second layer of the sweet potato-bulgur mixture and then begin the process of cutting your diamonds. First the vertical cuts…
And then the diamond shapes. It almost looks like a tree, but here I cut from the top of the middle line to the left at 4 intervals and again to the right…
And the finished kufta with lemon wedges and an herby yogurt sauce…
Until next time…
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This recipe is adapted from Milk Street: Cook what you have: make a meal out of almost anything. It is a vegetarian riff on a classic Armenian dish called sini kufta which is a combination of meat, bulgur wheat, onion, spices and in this case, pine nuts. A terrific main course served with a side salad, or it can be a filling side dish or even an appetizer cut into small squares. Enjoy this dish warm, at room temperature or even cold from the fridge with a squeeze of lemon juice and some yogurt sauce. Enjoy!
- 2 medium yellow onions, both peeled, 1 halved and thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup fine bulgur wheat (see note) also called #1
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 pound sweet potato (orange fleshed), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (1 good size potato)
- 3 Tablespoons pine nuts, plus additional for garnish
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 3/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (you can use 2% if you'd like)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley and/or mint
- 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sumac (or zest of 1 lemon)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Lemon wedges for serving
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the middle.
- Set a box grater in a large bowl. Grate the whole onion on the large holes down to the root end. Stir in the bulgur and 1/2 teaspoon salt, then stir in the boiling water. Cover and let stand until the bulgur is softened, about 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook your sweet potato in a pan of boiling, lightly salted water until tender, about 10 or so minutes depending on the size of your cuts. Drain the potatoes and return to the hot pot. Mash the potato until completely smooth.
- When the bulgur has softened, drain it in a fine-mesh sieve or strainer, pressing to remove excess liquid. Return to the bowl and add the mashed sweet potato, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Stir well and then set aside.
- In an oven safe 10-inch skillet (I used my cast iron), heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the sliced onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown. Once they are almost set, add 3 Tablespoons of pine nuts and toast them with the onions for just a minute or so to bring out their flavor. Remove the mixture to a separate bowl.
- Spoon half the bulgur mixture into the 10 inch pan and smooth the top. Add the onion-pine nut mixture and spread it evenly on top. Add the other half of the bulgur mixture on top of the onions and smooth the top.
- Now comes the fun part. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the kufta into diamond shapes by first drawing your knife from top of the pan to the bottom in about 1 - 1 1/2 inch intervals. Second step is to create the diamonds by cutting on the diagonal from the top of the middle cut, following suit in equal intervals to the bottom of the pan.
- Place a pine nut in the center of each diamond and drizzle the entire surface with the melted butter.
- Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
- While the kufta is cooking, prepare the yogurt sauce by mixing all the ingredients together and seasoning to taste.
- Enjoy the kufta warm or at room temperature.
Tips from The Kitchen Scout
If you can only find coarse bulgur in the grocery store, just give it a blitz in the food processor or a spice ground for 10 to 30 seconds.