L’shanah tovah, Food Junta readers. Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and l’shanah tovah is the usual greeting, meaning “may you have a sweet year” (there are other translations as well, but “sweet” works best here). On Rosh Hashanah, we typically dip apples in honey, to symbolize this sweetness. I did that. I also made this sweet and sour Iraqi rice dish, which may have made this one of the tastier Jewish holidays I’ve ever experienced (though nothing, nothing, nothing will ever beat latkes).
I saw this recipe in the NY Times Dining section last Wednesday, and I just had to try it. It was Iraqi, and I had never had Iraqi food; it was by Joan Nathan, the queen of Jewish food; and, it was purple! Or it was supposed to be. As it turned out, the beets I bought were magenta on the outside, but white and red striped inside, meaning that my dish came out more a beige color, though everyone was very sweet and said it was beautiful. I don’t know about that, but damn, was it good! And it was good in an utterly new and unprecedented way, at least in my flavor palate.
I am a big fan of sweet and salty combos, as we all know, but my only real experience with sweet and sour has been Sour Patch Kids and that syrupy-sticky sauce that gets put on pork and shrimp at Chinese restaurants (not that that doesn’t have its place, but we can all agree it’s not particularly complex, plus we shouldn’t even be talking about pork and shrimp in a Rosh Hashanah post!). This was sweet and sour in the most subtle, aromatic way, with every bite compelling and complex. It is a layered dish, of a rice mixture (jasmine rice, chopped beets, onions, cubes of beef, swiss chard stems, and mint) layered with swiss chard leaves, and topped with a sweet and sour “sauce” that is just water, sugar, and lemon juice, which you need to adjust carefully to make sure it’s right.The beef, slow-cooked, is succulent and tender, the chard will fall apart with a spoon, and the mint — along with the beets, another subtly sweet element — elevates the flavor of the whole dish. The sweet and sour liquid infuses all of these layers, and makes the dish almost cerebral, a puzzle to be figured out. More people asked me what was in this dish, with looks of awe and wonder on their faces, than maybe ever before (or at least not since the margarita pie).
If this is Iraqi food, then I want more, and it is just too bad that an Iraqi restaurant, given the current climate, wouldn’t go over so well. I did think, actually, that it was interesting that Nathan’s article gave no mention of the current war, but only paid tribute to the utter tastiness of this dish and to its long history (1,000 years old, speculates a professor in the article!). It became an especially interesting contrast to me when I was standing in the Brooklyn Lyceum today, the best makeshift temple ever, for services, reciting the prayer for our country, which includes lines about staying out of war, and furthering peace, not written with any specific occasion in mind. I don’t know what to make of all that, exactly, other than that this food — the dish is called mahshi — stnads alone, and it is beautiful, and that the importance of that, of trying Iraqi food for the first time on the Jewish New Year, the driving purpose of which is to make amends for the past and look to the future, shouldn’t be underestimated.
False Mahshi: Layered Swiss Chard, Beets, Rice and Beef
Note: I’ve made some changes to Nathan’s recipe — taking out the dried mint (where does one find dried mint, I want to know) and reducing the amount of beef, mostly because I didn’t feel like spending $30 on meat that was basically going to be stewed. The meat was totally delicious, though, so if you are up for the expense, by all means get 2 lbs. as she suggests in her version. I also suspect that ground beef could be really good in this, but without having tried it out myself, that will remain a suspicion til this dish’s next go round. Do let me know, though, if you try it and it works — I would get 2 lbs. and mix it with all the rice, so that beef was layered throughout.
Also note: This is not a difficult or even super time-consuming dish, but there are a lot of elements to it. It will help you immensely if you prep everything once you get the rice soaking and lay it all out in front of you in individual bowls, as in the photo below.
(Adapted from the NY Times, which was in turn adapted from Esperanza Basson)
Time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour for soaking rice
1 1/2 cups long-grain jasmine rice
1 pound rib-eye steak, cut in 1-inch cubes
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and diced
3 large beets (about 1 pound), peeled, 2 cut into 1/2-inch dice and 1 grated
1 pound Swiss chard, leaves left whole and stems cut into 2-inch pieces
8 teaspoons sugar, or as needed
5 tablespoons fresh mint leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced
Juice of 3 lemons (about 1/2 cup), or as needed.
1. Place rice in a mixing bowl and cover with water. Stir, drain off cloudy water, rinse rice (this is important, otherwise you will – like me – be stirring and draining for a looong time; once I realized I should be rinsing, it only took one repeat) and repeat until water runs clear. Cover rice with fresh water and let soak for about 1 hour.
2. Season beef with salt and pepper to taste. Place a large pot over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. When oil is shimmering, add beef and sauté until well-browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove beef and set aside. Return pan to low heat and add 2 more tablespoons of oil. Add onions and sauté until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add diced beets and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add two-thirds of the Swiss chard stems and continue cooking until onions are golden, about 5 more minutes. Stir in beef, cover, and remove from heat.
3. Drain rice and return to a bowl. Sprinkle with salt to taste, 5 teaspoons of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and 2 tablespoon fresh mint. Stir to blend, and add garlic, grated beet, remaining oil and juice of 1 lemon. Spread one-third of Swiss chard leaves in Dutch oven, on top of beef mixture. Spoon half of rice mixture on top, and cover with another third of chard leaves. Spread with remaining rice, and top with remaining Swiss chard leaves and stems.
4. In a small bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups water with remaining 3 teaspoons sugar and juice of another lemon. Taste and, if necessary, add more sugar or lemon juice so mixture is both sweet and sour (taste carefully, you do want to definitely taste both the sweet and the sour elements of this dish). Pour over Swiss chard and bring to a boil. Cook partially covered until chard begins to wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water if pan is very wide and there is little liquid on bottom. Poke handle of a wooden spoon into mixture in three places, making holes to let steam rise through chard. Cover, reduce heat to very low, and cook until rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 15 minutes. Just before serving, sprinkle with remaining lemon juice and remaining fresh mint.
Note: I made this a day ahead, and kept it covered in the refrigerator overnight. To heat it up, I added a can of no-salt added beef broth, covered it, and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. No problemo.