How to select and prepare meat for Lebanese Kibbeh
Sep 20, 2011, Updated Sep 29, 2023
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I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I notice that many—ok, all—of the main course dishes I’ve served up here have involved red meat. It’s not that the Lebanese can’t make a meal without including beef or lamb…Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines are considered so healthy, in fact, because of our extensive use of good fats (olive oil, nuts), grains, fish and vegetables. There’s just this thing we have for the red meat that is akin to a crush that never gets old. The Lebanese dishes made with red meat are so sumptuous that they get a lot of play at the table.
But before you start wandering off, hear me out on the kibbeh this week. Then I promise we are going to hit some other food groups. I want you to dive into the kibbeh because, well, like the za’atar we talked about last week, there really is no dish that represents Lebanese cuisine quite so distinctly as kibbeh. Besides that, it is THE ONE and ONLY dish that I have to be pulled away from the table like some kind of hedonist in order to stop eating (dessert is excluded from this pronouncement). Others must feel the same or its popularity would not be what it is.
Let’s start with the basics. What is kibbeh? A dish made of ground beef or lamb combined with bulghur wheat, pureed onion, and spices. Kibbeh can and should be eaten raw as kibbeh nayeh. Then when you’ve had your fill of that, bake or fry the kibbeh, stuffed with still more meat with onion and spices, to a deep and delectable golden brown.
Once you know how the meat is prepared for the kibbeh nayeh, the idea of eating it raw won’t seem quite so freakish. We don’t have a death wish that includes gorging ourselves on risky foods. Kibbeh is never made from ground meat in the display case at the supermarket. The meat must be ground on clean blades, so the grinding should be done first thing in the morning. Order kibbeh meat the day before you are making it. The meat used for kibbeh has to be free of all fat and gristle, which might lead you to think tenderloin is the optimal cut. But tenderloin is actually too tender for the kibbeh, making it mushy. The better cuts of meat are lean cuts of top round or eye of round. If you can find grass-fed beef or lamb that is raised on a family farm, that’d be ideal. I like to use beef for kibbeh, but lamb is beloved by many for this.
Purchase and grind your meat the same day you are going to eat it. You can grind the meat yourself if you have the equipment. My mother reminded me recently, when I was grinding the meat myself, that she never grinds her own meat for kibbeh. And I reminded her that if you live in a place like Lansing, Michigan, like she does, you can go to the butcher at Goodrich’s and simply say, “I need two pounds of kibbeh meat for tomorrow.” He won’t bat an eye. Quite the opposite: HE’LL give YOU a lesson in kibbeh, as he did with me this week (I’m down-state for this post), covering all facets from the cut (99% lean; all vein, gristle and fat trimmed away) to the grind (some like it ground 3 times, others 5 times; I prefer fewer—3 times—for a firmer texture). When I said I’m Abood, he gave me a litany of every relative, every Lebanese family, every Lebanese restaurant in the greater Lansing community for whom he grinds kibbeh meat. And he spells it kibbie. Probably he’s right.
In other parts of the country, you either grind the meat yourself (which my brother swears by regardless, for the ultimate fresh kibbeh-joy) or you need to do some ‘splaining to the butcher. Tell him (or her) that you are ordering meat to be ground and eaten raw, like tartare. If you feel up to it, this would be a great time to talk to the butcher about kibbeh and what it is. Perhaps we’ll start a kibbeh revolution, and butchers the world over will come to know how to prepare meat for kibbeh like the butchers at Goodrich’s in no time.
If you are grinding the meat yourself, cut the meat into strips about 2 inches wide and 4 inches long. Season with salt and pepper, and freeze the meat for a half hour. This way the meat becomes firm and will pass through the grinder much more easily.
Come back tomorrow and see how to mix, serve, and devour Lebanese kibbeh.