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FOOD & WINE : Stewpendous : Lamb, Vegetables and Spices Simmer in This Hearty Middle Eastern Dish

January 06, 1991|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is an editor in the Food section of The Times

MASBAHET il-Darwish means "The Dervish's Rosary" in Arabic, but I've never heard an explanation for the name. It must involve some tale of a ragged beggar sitting by the road and counting over the ingredients of the dinner of his dreams--a concentrated essence of lamb and vegetables.

I first had the Dervish's Rosary in Lebanon in 1962--this was more or less between wars--and there, the custom was to include potatoes in the dish. It was boring. On an autumn day some months later, though, I found myself in the half-Syrian, half-Turkish city of Antioch. Before heading up into the mountains and facing the cold winds, I stopped in a little restaurant where they had something that looked like the Dervish's Rosary but with garbanzo beans instead of potatoes. It turned out to be exactly the sort of warming dish I wanted.

If that dish in Antioch was the Dervish's Rosary, it was unusual to find it served during cold weather, because it calls for tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini--all summer vegetables. Also unusual was that it was served in a restaurant, because it's very much a home-style dish. It's neither sauteed over a fire nor stewed in a covered pot; it is baked uncovered in a round pan called a siniyyah --the same round pan traditionally used in the preparation of baklava. The stew is ordinarily cooked in a village bread oven; a brick oven stays hot for hours after the day's bread baking is done, so the baker rents space in it to village housewives. Because the oven's interior is only about a foot high, baking has to be done in shallow pans rather than pots.

This cooking method makes an unexpectedly attractive dish. The texture is thick because there is a lot of evaporation from the large, exposed surface. The flavor is faintly bittersweet, and the eggplant and tomatoes develop a toasty aroma from exposure to hot air.

I began noticing children in Near Eastern villages carrying pans of stew on their heads to the village oven. They might have been the original inspiration for the dream of that nameless dervish crouched beside the road.

MASBAHET IL-DARWISH (The Dervish's Rosary)

1/2 cup clarified butter (see below)2 tablespoons bulgur wheat2 cups cubed lamb1 cup diced onions1 cup cubed eggplant, tightly packed1 cup zucchini, tightly packed5 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional)1 cup canned garbanzo beans1 teaspoon salt1/4 teaspoon allspice1/4 teaspoon cinnamon1/4 teaspoon oregano1/4 teaspoon turmeric1 1/2 cups waterJuice of 1/2 lemonon

To clarify butter: Melt butter, with bulgur wheat, in small pan; cook over very low heat, stirring from time to time, until grain has trapped milk solids and butterfat runs clear. Strain out and discard solids.

Pour clarified butterfat into frying pan and fry cubed lamb, 1 cup at a time, until stiffened and thoroughly brown. Remove meat and cook onions until softened and slightly browned.

Place meat and onions, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, garbanzos, salt, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric and water in round Arab baking pan (siniyyah) 13 inches in diameter or 15 1/2x11-inch baking dish. If tomatoes are not particularly ripe, add tomato paste. Place pan, uncovered, in 350-degree oven 2 1/2 hours. Stir mixture every half hour; add lemon juice after two hours.

If stew seems to be drying out, add a little water when stirring. If mixture has not achieved thick, ropy texture when eggplant and meat are done, remove pan from oven and reduce liquid over flame. Serve with rice or bulgur pilaf. Serves 2 to 4. If doubling recipe, use second pan for cooking additional quantities.

Photographed by Martin Jacobs; food stylist: Deborah Mintcheff; prop stylist: Linda Johnson; plate and napkin: Frank McIntosh Shop at Henri Bendel, New York City

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