I love Mediterranean food especially from the eastern region, spanning the countries from Greece through Turkey and all the way down to Lebanon and Egypt in the north of Africa. Just thinking about gyros, kebabs, and a platter of mezze from these countries makes my mouth water. It was in college that I first experienced this culinary culture, trying new things like pita bread, falafel, tabbouleh, and hummus. Then on a summer break from school I took a family trip to Hungary and was surprised by all the restaurants selling gyros and kebabs. One corner it was a restaurant owned by a Turkish and on the other corner a restaurant owned by a Greek, all selling similar foods but with different names. That's when I realized the close connection between all these countries: they were all ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
Probably the best thing that came from the Ottoman rule was the melting pot of cuisine. One of my favorite restaurants to go for eastern Mediterranean slash Middle Eastern food is Kashkaval in New York City. I really can't tell which country their food represents, but they have everything on the menu from Hungarain chicken paprikash to Turkish meatballs. Their enormous selection of mezze are a feature of the menu and so are their fondues. The one made from Kashkaval cheese, the source for the restaurant's names, is unbeatably good. A vegetarian coworker first introduced me to the restaurant and I've returned countless times ever since always with friends in tow. It's the type of good food that encourages sharing among everyone.
Inspired by the restaurant and by my love for all things stuffed, I created this recipe for stuffed squash. It's very similar to the Lebanese Koosa, which is a dish of hollowed squash, stuffed with lamb and rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. Instead I stew the ground meat with the tomatoes and blend it with cooked bulgur before stuffing roasted acorn squash halves. The resulting dish is packed with Eastern flavors and textures. The special blend of spices is just right for warming hungry bellies this time of year. It's the ultimate meal for a laidback dinner party with friends and family. Just add wine, good conversation, and enjoy.
Lebanese Lamb and Bulgur–Stuffed Acorn Squash
2 acorn squashes
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds ground lamb or beef
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 garlic cloves
1 medium yellow onion
1 cup bulgur
2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped fresh oregano
1/2 cup grated Kashkaval cheese or pecorino Romano
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut the squashes in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 40 minutes or until squashes are tender when pierced. Once cool enough to handle, scrape out some of the interior flesh of the squash halves.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add lamb and cook until brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and spices. Simmer until liquid has reduced, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Warm oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add bulgur and water. Lower heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until bulgur has absorbed all liquid, about 15 minutes.
Combine lamb, bulgur, and oregano. Divide mixture among squash halves. Top with cheese. Place stuffed squash halves on baking sheet. Bake until heated through and cheese has melted, about 15 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve. Yield: 4 servings.