Arabs cook meat—most often lamb, goat, or chicken—with a variety of aromatic spices and then add yogurt to make an ineffably delicious sauce. The feast based on this dish is called mansef. Recently in my collection of magazine and newspaper clips I came across a late 1960s Americanized version of mansef. Authentic mansef is boiled lamb with sweet spices and yogurt. The Yankified version substituted cream cheese for yogurt, probably because few Americans would eat yogurt during the 1960s, and those who would were unlikely to find it in a grocery store. The flavor is quite lovely…but not having any cream cheese on hand, I decided to try yogurt and also substitute freshly made beef/chicken broth for the original recipe’s water.
Re-adapting it backward for authenticity and forward for the crockpot, here’s what I came up with:
• about two pounds raw lamb, cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks
• beef or chicken broth
• about 3/4 tsp ground cardamom
• 3 cinnamon sticks
• 10 or 12 cloves
• salt and pepper
• a little olive oil
• juice of a lemon
• 2 containers or more of plain yogurt (about 4 cups; Greek-style is recommended)
• pine nuts
• a little chopped parsley
• tortillas or pita bread
Season the meat with salt and pepper. Skim the bottom of a large frying pan and brown the the lamb pieces nicely on all sides. Then place the browned meat in a large crock pot.
Sprinkle cardamom and cloves over the top of the meat, and tuck the cinnamon sticks in around the meat. Cover with beef or chicken broth. If there’s not enough liquid, add some water to cover. Squeeze the juice of a lemon into the pot with the liquids.
Place the lid on the crock pot, turn the pot to “low,” and let the meat cook until tender, about four to six hours.
At dinner time:
Prepare some rice—for a large group, you might want to cook up two or three cups of dry rice, which will make quite a lot of cooked rice. Judge the amount of rice you’d like by the amount of meat you’re cooking. While the rice is steaming, gently brown a handful of pine nuts in some olive oil or butter. Watch: don’t let them scorch.
Remove the meat from the crock pot and set aside. Place a cup or so of the juices in a blender, and add about a cup of yogurt. Cover the top and place a towel over the top to protect your hands, in case the hot liquid tries to escape. Blend the ingredients well. Repeat to incorporate all the yogurt into the juices.
If any juices remain in the pan, pour the yogurt mix back into them and stir well to mix. Taste. Add salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add more yogurt, using the same mixing technique. But don’t turn the heat on under the pan with this yogurt-meat sauce, lest it curdle.
Pile the rice in a big bowl. Toss the meat and toasted pine nuts into it. Then pour the sauce over the rice and meat mixture. Garnish with chopped parsley sprinkled over the top.
Serve this with some warm tortillas or pita. Diners place a bit of mansef into the center of a piece of flat bread, wrap the bread around the meat mixture, and eat.
About the tortillas. They’re not cooked (exactly) when they come from the store. One way to finish them is to dab a little butter on each tortilla, stack them up, wrap them in tinfoil, and warm in a 250- to 300-degree oven while you’re preparing the sauce. Another way is simply to heat a griddle over a moderately hot burner and flip the tortilla on it until the tortilla is hot. Stack them on a clean table napkin or piece of waxed paper and keep wrapped until you take them to the table.