Friday, August 10, 2007

Training Meals, part 1: Kofta

My husband, Mark, thinks his diet needs improvement. This is because nearly everyday he is either mountain or road biking, and he's sure if he has a diet to match his exercise regimen, he'll be better off. So he challenged me to come up with 10 healthy training meals. They need to be nutritious, low in saturated fat, contain some healthy protein, and be a good source of energy without overdoing it on calories. Basically he wants good, clean fuel that also tastes good. Because energy bars are good, clean fuel, but they don't taste good. At least, not for dinner. So here's number one. Kofta.

I should start by mentioning that Mark is part Armenian. That means I'm lucky he married me, since Armenians generally marry Armenians, but really his grandma was lucky Mark's grandpa married her, because that's where it started. And I'm fortunate that my mother-in-law learned all the family recipes from her aunts and passed them on to me, especially since what I'm
about to pass on to you is probably my favorite comfort food.

What? Comfort food is healthy? Well, not most, but this one is. It is fried in olive oil, but doesn't absorb much of it, especially when blotted on a paper towel. It's true.

So, essentially, kofta is a combination of ground beef and bulgur, seasoned, and stuffed with onions, peppers, and parsley. The patties are fried in olive oil and served in a yogurt soup with crushed dried mint leaves. Yes, I said yogurt soup, and yes, it is very good.

Let's get right to the recipe, and then we'll talk about how healthy it is and how absolutely delicious it is as well.

Kofta with Soup

1 32-oz. container plain low-fat yogurt
1/2 c. cooked long grain rice

1 large green bell pepper
1 medium yellow onion
1-2 bunches Italian flat-leaf parsley (curly will do in a pinch, but rinse it several times as it holds a lot of dirt)
1 1/2 c. bulgur wheat (you can often find this in the small "Bob's Red Mill" packs section of the baking goods or in the health food area of a grocery store)
1 1/4 lbs. top sirloin steak
1 small package dried Ancho chiles (find these in the Mexican food section of the grocery store)
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. onion powder
2 t. cumin
1 t. paprika
Kosher salt
fresh black pepper
olive oil
fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

Place the bulgur in a bowl and add enough warm water to cover by 1/2". Set aside for half an hour to saturate the bulgur.

Remove the tops and seeds from the dried chiles, then place in a bowl and cover with warm water. Wrap the top of the bowl in plastic and microwave on high for 2 minutes, then set aside for half an hour to hydrate. After it has fully hydrated, open the pods up and scrape the "meat" away from the skins.

Very finely chop up
the bell peppers, onions, and parsley. Add one cup of each ingredient to a bowl and stir to combine. This is called keema. Set mixture aside. Very important note: After speaking with my mother-in-law, I realize that we mistakenly left the keema raw, and for this application it's supposed to be cooked. So heat up a skillet over medium to medium-high, add a bit of olive oil, and toss in the vegetable mixture. Stir over the heat with a bit of salt until the onions and pepper are soft. Remove to a bowl and set aside to cool.

Cut the sirloin up into strips, removing all fat and gristle. Process through a meat grinder three times. If you don't have a meat grinder, ask your butcher if he/she can do this for
you. As a very last resort, you can purchase the leanest ground beef you can find. After you make this once, you may consider getting a meat grinder to make it more frequently!

Combine the triple-ground meat, 2 c. hydrated bulgur, rehydrated chiles (to taste), paprika, cumin, garlic and onion powders, 1 t. freshly ground black pepper, and 1 T. Kosher salt (to start with). Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if necessary. You're just going to have to assume the rest is about right if you've never had it before. (If you didn't grind the meat yourself, I don't recommend tasting it raw, but you can sauté up just a bit to test it.)

[Stop here for just a moment. There's also a dish called Chee Kofta that you can have right here. (I'm probably spelling all of these wrong, except Armenian was originally just a spoken language, so there's no one right way of spelling all this.) Instead of moving on to the next step, just make a little patty from the meat mixture, top with some of the vegetable mixture, and drizzle with olive oil. It's kind of like a ceviche, in that the meat is partially cooked, without heat, from the chiles. It's also very good, and I'm not usually a rare-steak kind of girl.]

So, now we assemble. This is where we add pictures, too, since I'm not there to do this with you. First, you take about a quarter cup of the meat mixture. Place it in the palm of your hand (left hand if you're right handed), patty it up, and make a deep well in the middle. Add about 2 T. of the keema and close the patty up so all the vegetables are hidden. Continue with the remaining ingredients. You probably will have some keema left over, but you can find another use for that, or ask me for another Armenian way to use it. When you're done, you'll probably have 8-10 patties.

Pour some olive oil in a sauté pan up to 1/2 an inch. Heat over medium high, and when a touch of the meat sizzles when dropped in, add enough patties to loosely fill the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side, then remove to paper towels and continue with the rest. If the oil is popping a lot, reduce heat to medium.

Separately, prepare the soup. In a medium saucepan, empty the container of yogurt and add 32 oz. of water as well as the uncooked rice. Heat the soup over medium low until just barely simmering, then the cooked rice and warm thoroughly. Do not let the soup boil, as this will curdle the yogurt.

To serve, ladle about a cup of soup (scooping up some rice from the bottom) into a bowl, add a kofta patty, and crush a bit of mint leaves in your hands and sprinkle on top. Enjoy and repeat as desired.

All this may sound a little foreign if you're used to hot dogs and apple pie, but it only took me about 3 bites to decide it's one of my favorite meals forever. And it's very healthy, with very lean red meat, carbs from both the bulgur and the yogurt, and a generous dose of nutrition from the wheat and vegetables. Not to mention it is just as good leftover, which can hardly be said for most meals.

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