Easy Kurdish Pasta

Is a big heaping bowl of rigatoni smothered in ground lamb and spicy tomato sauce Kurdish food, strictly speaking? Probably not. But it is easy and delicious, they do eat it in the village when they’re low on meat. So there.

One thing I’ve learned about Kurdish people is that they love carbs. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a middle eastern person eat what is essentially a rice sandwich… Kurdish. So pasta is the perfect chance to introduce a little variety into your Kurdish kitchen and still please the crowd. And you definitely don’t have to be Kurdish to enjoy it, either. This is one of those rare, universally enjoyed dishes.

This dish is either a one-pot 40 minute dish or a two-pot 25 minute dish. Personally, I only have one pot big enough to hold four servings of pasta, so I have to do it the long way.

You will need:
1 lb of rigatoni, bowtie, or penne dry pasta
1/2 lb ground lamb (or beef)
1/2 lb sliced or chopped mushrooms (optional)
1 Bell pepper
1 Onion
2 Cloves garlic
2 large tomato, or 4-5 medium/ small tomatoes
2 spoonful of spicy tomato paste, if you have it, or regular tomato paste
1 big handful of parsley
Salt, pepper, olive oil, red pepper flakes

1) Start with boiling your water. Put in lots and lots of salt; I can’t stress this enough. The water should taste salty, like the ocean. I’m serious.  If you have 2 pots, you can start with Step 4 at the same time.

2) Start finely chopping your onions, garlic,  and green peppers. When your salty water is boiling, dump in the pasta and cook to instructions. To a man, all the Kurdish people I know like this dish with well-done or even over-done pasta. But you can cook it al dente if that’s your pleasure.

3) When the pasta is nearly done, remove 1 full cup of the pasta water and set aside. The sauce tastes a lot better with the pasta water and if you used your fancy sea-salt I’m sure you’ll be glad to retrieve some of it. I do this without burning my fingers by dipping a mug in the water by it’s handle. You could use a ladle too, I guess. Dump your pasta into a colander and if you’re a one-pot person or are not done with the sauce yet, cool the pasta with cold water and then pour some olive oil on it to keep from sticking.

4) Pour a nice coat of olive oil into your newly free pot and allow it to warm up before putting in your ground meat. I like to add a little garlic in at this stage and some salt and pepper. Fry until brown.

5) Add your bell peppers and fry till they have softened. Then add your onions, soften. Add more garlic, and mushrooms if you have them.

6) Put your tomato paste into your pasta water and mix well until the tomato paste has melted somewhat. Pour the mixture in with the meat and veggies. Allow to simmer uncovered while stirring constantly. Flavor with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.

7) When flavors have combined, spread out the tomatoes and parsley over the other ingredients and cover without mixing. Allow to simmer on a low-medium heat for 5 minutes, then mix and cover again. It should look something like this!

8) Take a taste and season if necessary. Dump the pasta into your sauce and stir for a while on very low heat. Then you’re ready to eat!

Side note: This dish is actually so delicious that I keep forgetting to take photos of the finished product. My bad. Update forthcoming!

Vegan/Vegetarian rating: Take the meat out of this dish, double-check your brand of pasta and BAM! Vegan! Vegetarians can always substitute a fake meat or even egg for the meat, but I think it might be even better just to increase the amount of veggies and definitely introduce the optional mushrooms for texture. Cheese is completely unnecessary.

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My first Kurdish dinner

Before my husband and I got married, I lived with him, two of his older brothers, and his sister-in-law in a small Japanese apartment for 6 months.

Why there are so many Kurds in Japan and how I ended up moving in with them is a story for another day. The story for today is my husband’s sister-in-law, Suzan, and the first meal she ever made for me.

After a long day of suitcase dragging and stair climbing, I sat down at the sofra (a table cloth, but spread on the floor) with my new family/roommates and enjoyed my first Kurdish meal. It was a mouthwatering mixture of ground lamb and vegetables, slow cooked on an electric hot plate and topped with thinly sliced potatoes to trap the moisture and flavor. Delicious and comfortingly filling, this dish of Suzan’s became my favorite.

So much so, that the first time I had to cook in Suzan’s kitchen without her there, I decided to make it myself.

Despite the fact that only me and my fiance were at home, I got out a big old thing of lamb meat and a bunch of potatoes, pulled out the 15″ electric hot plate and got to work on enough food to feed a vollyball team. When it was all finished, I plugged in the hot plate, put on the lid and never checked it again. I then threw random quantities of rice and water into the rice cooker, since Suzan had nothing resembling a measuring cup in her kitchen.

When my husband came home, he had to eat the horrific result- the alarmingly large quantity of meat that I’d burned black in the electric plate, and the watery rice that I’d neglected to season with oil and salt (not flavoring rice is practically a Kurdish sin).

Keeping in mind my first disastrous foray into Kurdish Cuisine, the recipeI’m sharing with you today is a foolproof version of Suzan’s dish that you can make on your stovetop. All you need is a large frying pan with a lid and the following fresh ingredients:

Note: Like Suzan, I rarely measure what I put into my food. The great thing about this recipe is that it will work fine with less meat or more meat, and any amount of potatoes. You can also substitute the Turkish pepper paste with more tomato paste and a generous shake of red pepper flakes. But if you live near a halal market I would highly recommend going out of your way to purchase it.

3/4 pound ground beef or lamb- lamb is tastier
2-3 potatoes, peeled
1 large or 1 1/2 medium juicy, ripe tomatoes, finely chopped and use the juice!
1 small, or 1/2 large bell pepper, finely chopped
1 medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic
1 spoonful tomato paste
1 spoonful of turkish pepper paste
1 handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, olive oil

1) This couldn’t be easier. Just throw all of your finely-chopped ingredients and throw them in a bowl. Start with the meat, onions, garlic, and bell pepper, and mix. Then add the oil, red pepper paste, tomato paste, tomatoes and mix. Sorry to do this to the squeamish, but you must mix with your bare hand. The magic of this dish is the moisture in the meat, and that moisture comes from the olive oil and the tomatoes getting infused into the meat mixture. So get in there and really mush, squeeze, and knead the ingredients together!

2) This part is harder for people who aren’t used to not measuring things. Add generous amounts of the salt, pepper, parsley, and red pepper. The potatoes don’t get flavored, so it’s important that the meat really pops. Since you can’t taste as you go along, mix in the spices and then smell the mixture. You should be able to smell the onion, salt, garlic, pepper, and parsley. If you can’t, add more of whatever is missing. You’ll get better at this over time. Make sure you’ve added enough oil so that the mixture feels soft and juicy.

3) Slice the potatoes into coin-slices- but very thin. They should be translucent.

4) Oil your frying pan and spread the meat mixture over it evenly. Then layer the potato slices over the top, evenly as well. You shouldn’t be able to see the meat anymore.

5) Sprinkle a few drops of water on top of the potatoes. This will turn into steam and help cook the potato slices. Put on the lid and then turn on your stove to medium heat. Then you can forget about it for about 20 minutes. Just make sure the heat is low enough so that it doesn’t burn the meat.

6) Stick a fork in one of your thicker potato slices to see if they are soft. Also check the liquid level in your pan. If you’re like me and you used really juicy tomatoes, you might have a lot of liquid in your pan. If this is the case, continue cooking on low heat, but take off the lid.

This is a little bit watery. I'd simmer uncovered for a few minutes before eating.

7) When the liquid has reduced a little- not too much! you don’t want dry meat- turn off the stove.

8) Serve over rice- olive oiled and salted rice, of course!

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Yogurt Soup/ Shwediz

We had a dinner party last week and decided to make my husband’s special Yogurt Soup, or shwediz for the occasion. This is a mild soup that anyone can enjoy, but it’s undeniably unusual and delightfully exotic- a great introduction to Kurdish cooking.

Creamy, yet very savory and flavorful, the soup is often served at Kurdish weddings. It is eaten at or around room temperature- meaning you don’t have to worry about having it piping hot when it gets to the table.

The greatest thing about the soup though, is that it comes together fairly easily, although you will end up getting all your big pots and saucepans dirty. This is a great soup to make when it’s not your night to do the dishes!

You will need:

2 lb container of plain, firm yogurt (not smooth and creamy)
1 medium sized bone-in lamb shank, or 1/2 pound of bite-sized lamb stew meat
1 1/2 cups of green beans (fresh, chopped to 1″)
1 cup of dried chickpeas (soaked in cold water overnight)
1/2 cup of chopped mushrooms (optional)
1 large garlic clove
olive oil
black peper
red pepper flakes
dried mint flakes

1) So the first thing you’ll need to do is boil your meat. Put the shank or meat into salted, boiling water and let it sit uncovered. When nasty looking foam comes up to the surface, skim it away.

In a separate pot, boil the mushrooms, green beans, and chickpeas. If you forgot to soak your chickpeas overnight, you can still throw them in there if you don’t mind them being a bit firm. Alternatively, yes, fine, you can use canned.

2) When the meat has been mostly cooked and no more foam is coming up, pull out the shank and chop the edible meat off the bone into bite-size chunks. I like to use some of the lamb water (plus salt and olive oil) to make rice; we’re not going to need a lot of the water in the soup.

3) Combine the lamb, remaining lamb water (no bones) and veggies and vegetable water into one large soup pot. Continue to simmer uncovered so that it reduces.

4) Meanwhile, smash the garlic. My husband uses the broad side of a knife for this; I like to chop the clove very finely, sprinkle with salt, and then use a spoon to mush it. Whisk the yogurt in a bowl until very smooth and then add a spoonful of salt and the crushed garlic. Mix very well. Taste the yogurt to make sure that the salt and garlic flavors come through.

5) When the flavors have combined in your pot, turn off the heat and look at the amount of water you have left. If you have more than about an inch or so of liquid left, ladle some out. You don’t want more than about a cup of broth in the soup.

6) Adding the yogurt to the piping hot broth will cause the yogurt to curdle and separate, so wait until the it cools considerably before combining. When the broth is cool enough to touch, add the yogurt gradually while stirring and mix very well. Taste and add salt if necessary.

7) Finally, take a small frying pan and pour in 1/3 cup of olive oil. When the oil is hot enough that a drop of water sizzles on it, shake in a good amount of mint, black pepper, and red pepper flakes and immediately remove from heat. Swirl the pan gently so that the oil absorbs the flavors. This red-hot oil gives the soup its flavor so don’t be stingy. Drizzle it over the soup and stir twice- don’t blend.

And you’re done! Serve with rice or some toasty French bread. Depending on the appetites of your guests, this recipe serves 6-8 people.

My husband likes to eat the leftovers cold, sometimes for breakfast! I usually reheat in the microwave for a few minutes on a low temperature setting. Microwaving it on high will curdle the yogurt.

Vegan/Veggie rating: I suspect this soup would taste just fine without the meat. Just use the water you use to boil the green beans or substitute a veggie broth for water. Sorry vegans, I can’t endorse a yogurt substitute for this soup.

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