Upside-down Casserole Brings some Memories and some History

Maqluba (Palestine) (6) Recently I’ve been enjoying myself by remaking many of the recipes on my web site that don’t have photographs. Some of those recipes were posted so long ago–some from the late 90s–that photography wasn’t that important in web sites and digital photography was in its infancy. Today is different.  One dish I wanted to make I hadn’t made in 20 years and once I did I was thrilled.  Maqlūba is and upside-down rice and eggplant casserole.

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 maqlūba, 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 maqlūba 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.

2 medium eggplant (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and slice 1/2-inch thick
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of as much fat as possible and cut into pieces
1 tablespoon bahārāt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice berries
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 cups water
Olive oil for frying
3 large ripe but firm, tomatoes (about 1 3/4 pounds), sliced
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice, rinsed well or soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes and drained
1 cup boiling water
1. In a large saute pan, heat 5 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring occasionally, the onion until yellow, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to the medium-low, add the lamb, bahārāt, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and cook, turning the lamb, until browned, 10 minutes. 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 pan from drying out if necessary. Remove the lamb from the pan with a slotted spoon or skimmer, getting as much of the onion as you can and leaving behind the fat.
2. Preheat the frying oil to 375 degrees F in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert.
3. 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 ½ teaspoon pepper, and the boiling water. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat, using simmer-control setting or a heat diffuser, until the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed, about 4 hour. Don’t check too often, maybe twice during the whole cooking time. The liquid in the casserole should not be boiling vigorously. If you do not have a simmer-control setting the dish will be done in 1 hour, but it may unmold with difficulty.
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 hot.
Makes 6 servings

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