Among my other romantic ideas were Orientalist dreams about the Middle East. As one of the recipes was a Middle Eastern dish called Mansef with an "e," it was the one I most wanted to try. Actually, I think most recipes you'll find online these days are for Mansaf with an "a," but seeing as how the name was transliterated from the Arabic, and dialects vary regarding the pronunciation of vowels, the slight difference between an "e" and an "a" is understandable. Of course, when I cooked this recipe, the Internet hadn't been invented yet. Even today, with the Internet being largely English-oriented, recipes for Mansef or Mansaf -- or whatever the name is -- are still uncommon, despite the fact that this is said to be a common Middle Eastern dish served at large family gatherings and to honored guests. It is a lamb dish in a yogurt sauce. At the time, I thought it was an authentic ethnic dish, although I know now the version I stumbled across was highly Americanized.
You will note in the recipe the large number of spices, and if you will use your imagination while reading, you will only begin to realize how delicious Mansef is.
After dinner, my husband knelt down at my feet. Seriously. Not only did he kowtow before me, but he kissed my feet.
Despite the utter joy of that moment in our young marriage, it has been years -- perhaps more than a decade -- since I have made Mansef. We're still married, still in love (although our understanding of "in love" has inevitably changed over the years). I still enjoy cooking for him. But ... remember that severe grass allergy of his? The one that kept us from picnicking? Those allegies led to asthma so severe that he was puffing on inhalers multiple times a day. His medical doctor and an allergy specialist could do nothing more for him. In desperation, he scheduled an appointment with a doctor of Chinese medicine. (I'm not saying one must be desperate to turn to Chinese medicine. I'm just saying my husband was desperate.)
The Chinese medicine doctor prescribed accupuncture, herbs and dietary changes ... including no more dairy. Which means no more yogurt.
Now my husband can breathe. And we can picnic. Not that we have, lately, but we can if we want to. He just can't eat Mansef, despite all its warm, delicious spicy yogurty goodness.
What I have listed below isn't the original recipe in my picnic magazine. I can't find that publication now. Probably I discarded it during a move from one apartment to another, or the apartment to the house, or from house to house. But this recipe that I found online looks pretty close to what I recall of that recipe that made my husband kneel down before me to kiss my feet all those years ago:
• about two pounds raw lamb, cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks
• beef or chicken broth
• about 3/4 tsp ground cardamom
• 3 cinnamon sticks
• 10 or 12 cloves
• salt and pepper
• a little olive oil
• juice of a lemon
• 2 containers or more of plain yogurt (about 4 cups; Greek-style is recommended)
• pine nuts
• a little chopped parsley
• pita bread
Season the meat with salt and pepper. Skim the bottom of a large frying pan and brown the the lamb pieces nicely on all sides. Then place the browned meat in a large crock pot.
Sprinkle cardamom and cloves over the top of the meat, and tuck the cinnamon sticks in around the meat. Cover with beef or chicken broth. If there’s not enough liquid, add some water to cover. Squeeze the juice of a lemon into the pot with the liquids.
Place the lid on the crock pot, turn the pot to “low,” and let the meat cook until tender, about four to six hours.
At dinner time:
Prepare some rice—for a large group, you might want to cook up two or three cups of dry rice, which will make quite a lot of cooked rice. Judge the amount of rice you’d like by the amount of meat you’re cooking. While the rice is steaming, gently brown a handful of pine nuts in some olive oil or butter. Watch: don’t let them scorch.
Remove the meat from the crock pot and set aside. Place a cup or so of the juices in a blender, and add about a cup of yogurt. Cover the top and place a towel over the top to protect your hands, in case the hot liquid tries to escape. Blend the ingredients well. Repeat to incorporate all the yogurt into the juices.
If any juices remain in the pan, pour the yogurt mix back into them and stir well to mix. Taste. Add salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add more yogurt, using the same mixing technique. But don’t turn the heat on under the pan with this yogurt-meat sauce, lest it curdle.Pile the rice in a big bowl. Toss the meat and toasted pine nuts into it. Then pour the sauce over the rice and meat mixture. Garnish with chopped parsley sprinkled over the top.
Serve this with some warm pita. Diners place a bit of mansef into the center of a piece of flat bread, wrap the bread around the meat mixture, and eat.