My Big Lebanese Family gathered for Easter this past weekend. Saturday night, Dad, Uncle Neil, Cousin Kristin and I prepared Kibbi – a beloved Lebanese dish. Uncle Steve, Uncle Scott, Cousin Amy, Aunt Barbara and Mom were there too. Sunday, we fed about 35 people at my parent’s house. Growing up, I compared my family to the family in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “My family is big and loud but they’re my family. We fight and we laugh and yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And wherever I go, whatever I do, they will always be there.”
Okay, we don’t roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. But, making Kibbi, inside in the kitchen, comes pretty close. It’s the centerpiece of holiday meals. A favorite to many. It takes time. Family gather around as we prepare it. Kibbi’s hard to explain. It’s a three-layered meat dish: top and bottom layers made of ground chuck (our butcher knows it as “kibbi meat”) mixed with bulgur wheat and chopped onion, and middle layer “stuffing” made of ground chuck sautéed with onion and pine nuts; salt, pepper and cinnamon in all the layers; bake for about 45 minutes. Full recipe below, but first, let’s take a little time in the kitchen…
My Sitti (Lebanese name for grandmother), used to prepare every holiday meal, in its entirety, single handedly, without batting an eye. She learned how to cook from her mother-in-law, Victoria Baddour. Many of us enjoyed cooking with Sitti and tried to pick up a few recipes here and there. But it was hard for us to really learn because she rarely measured ingredients and kept all the recipes in her head. In the last year of her life, my Uncle Neil followed his mother around the kitchen. Unbeknownst to any of us, he spent months translating every ingredient into defined quantities, measuring and timing each recipe to perfection. Sitti’s last Christmas with us, Neil presented a cookbook to the family, complete with every single one of her recipes. Not a dry eye in the room, we realized that Sitti’s recipes would live on.
There’s our Sitti, standing in front of the home where my dad and uncles grew up, holding a pan of Fathayi.
In his beautifully written introduction, Neil dedicates the cookbook to his daughters, nieces and nephews. He tells us that he “set out to discover the secret of Sitti’s ability to produce such wonderful, delicious meals for her family and friends.” Neil even purchased some of her fifty-year-old cookware on eBay. After all this work, he “discovered that the secret lies beyond any measured ingredient.”
In Sitti’s kitchen it often seems that as soon as breakfast is over, it’s time to start preparing lunch. Meal preparation to her is always a labor of love, not some dreaded chore. Sitti creates a relaxed atmosphere that can keep everyone at the kitchen table for hours – eating, talking and laughing. Most of the recipes in this book require time and careful preparation. In today’s world it may not seem worth the trouble to make these dishes. But they are more than just a good meal; they bring family and friends together. The next time you are tempted by fast food, remember your time in Sitti’s kitchen. Remember it all, especially how much you enjoyed being with everyone. I hope you discover, like I did, that the secret to Sitti’s wonderful meals is not in any ingredient or pan. Sitti’s secret is in her heart.
I’m telling you, not a dry eye in the room.
Neil’s right, you know. Everything moves so fast these days. It’s tempting to grab fast food, or grab food fast, so we can keep going full speed ahead. Sitti’s Secret shares the same message as my other favorite cookbook, Run Fast, Eat Slow – food preparation takes time and it shouldn’t be rushed. Pay attention to what’s in your food and take the time to prepare it yourself.
We took our time preparing the Kibbi. We laughed at how the onions made us cry. We listened as Neil instructed us on how to make the bottom and top layers thin, how to cut the perfect diamond shapes. Then we gathered in the den, ate dinner and talked for hours – just like Sitti would want it.
Kristin and Dad making the “stuffing” and Neil overseeing.
Kristin and Neil adding the stuffing to the Kibbi pan (yes, there is a pan just for Kibbi).
Thin top layer is key.
Cutting the diamonds.
“Final” product. Didn’t actually bake the Kibbi until morning.
The next day, family enjoyed the food we all prepared – our “labor of love.” Each family member contributed to the meal in some way. Then kids hid and found Easter eggs. Ping pong matches and basketball games commenced. Others told stories and shared memories on the back deck. Somehow, I know Sitti is looking down and beaming with pride that her family carries on Lebanese recipes and family traditions.
Sitti’s girls! (Missing a few)
If you’re so inclined, try the Kibbi recipe, below. Either way, please take away the message of Sitti’s Secret. Take time to cook in your kitchen. Put a little heart into your meal preparation. Then enjoy your labor of love with friends and family.
Here’s to health and happiness – from my family to yours!