Region: Arab Levant, Palestine
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Upside-down dishes have a long history. In the thirteenth-century Arabic cookbook known as the Baghdad cookery book, a chapter is devoted to "fried, marinated, and turned" dishes. Two of the recipes are called maqluba, which means "upside down." Although they don't bear any resemblance to this famous preparation of the same name popularly made in Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, being made mostly with meat, eggs, and spices, the method of inverting the cooked dish is the same.
This Palestinian recipe for maqluba is a rice and eggplant casserole made with richly succulent braised lamb and tomatoes. When the casserole is inverted, the top is bright red from the tomatoes that cover golden eggplant.
This recipe is from my former mother-in-law Leila al-Qattan.
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 4:30 hours
1. Lay the eggplant slices on some paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt. Leave them to drain of their bitter juices for 30 minutes, then pat dry with paper towels.
2. In a large skillet, heat 5 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion until yellow, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to the medium-low, add the lamb, baharat, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/ 2 teaspoon of the pepper, the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and brown for 10 minutes, turning the lamb. Add the water to barely cover the lamb and cook until the lamb is very tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding a little water to keep the skillet from drying out. Remove the lamb from the skillet with a slotted ladle or skimmer, getting as much of the onion as you can and leaving behind the fat.
3. Meanwhile, preheat the frying oil to 375F in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert. Deep-fry the eggplant slices in batches until golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes, turning once. Drain and reserve on paper towels. Let the frying oil cool completely, strain, and save for a future use.
4. Lightly oil the bottom of a round, heavy-bottomed 4- to 6-quart casserole 10 inches in diameter with a tight fitting lid with the remaining teaspoon extra virgin olive oil and arrange the tomatoes slices on the bottom, overlapping or double layering if necessary. Sprinkle a handful of the rice on top of the tomatoes. Layer the lamb on top, then layer the sliced eggplants on top of the meat. Press down with a spatula or the back of your hand. Pour the rice on top and spread it evenly, pressing down again with a spatula or the back of your hand, add 1 teaspoon salt, the remaining 1/ 2 teaspoon pepper, and the boiling water. Cover tightly and cook over low heat until the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed, about 1 hour. Don't check too often, maybe twice during the whole cooking time. The liquid in the casserole should not be boiling vigorously, so reduce the heat to very low, or use a heat diffuser, if you find that necessary.
5. When the rice is done, take off the lid, place a large round serving platter over the top of the casserole, and carefully invert in one very quick motion, holding both sides very tightly. Slowly and carefully lift the casserole. Serve.