Around Christmas when the house is full of hungry folks, I love to have a big one-pot meal on standby, preferably one which can be prepared pretty much ahead. Enter maqluba – or maqlooba or even makloubeh – an upside-down meat, veg. and rice ‘torte’. The name depends on where in the Middle East you come from: Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians each claim it as their own and vary the spelling accordingly. There are recipes aplenty on t’internet, and Ottolenghi has one in Jerusalem. The recipe I’ve ended up with, below, is the product of four different attempts (including two done at workshops), and borrows elements from all around.
Also varied – though not hugely – are the ingredients. Aubergines are pretty much standard, which end up perched on top in a beautiful flower shape (you can do rounds too, but I like the petal effect better). Rice too is essential, usually Basmati, though any long-grain will do. Then different cooks play around with different vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes are pretty standard. Some people add rounds of potato. Finally the meat: I’ve done it with chicken (legs are best, much juicier) and with shoulder of lamb, both delicious. And as I write, I’m thinking this could be just the moment to use up the leg meat from your turkey, if that bird was part of your Christmas feast.
There are a lot of steps, but you can do all the prep work (salting and then grilling the aubergines, frying and cooking of meat, frying the vegetables, soaking the rice) and assemble the whole shebang in advance. Put it in the fridge, then add the hot stock just before baking. It’s a good-natured dish and the timing is pretty random, depending in large part on whether you’ve moulded the maqluba in a pottery dish (takes longer) or in a metal one (e.g. a paella pan or cake tin – but not a springform, otherwise all your stock will splurge out the bottom).
Here we go:
Serves 8-10, depending on appetites and the rest of your menu
2 aubergines (about 800g)
350g Basmati rice
1 small boned shoulder of lamb (ca. 1.2kg) cut in 2-cm chunks OR 6-8 chicken legs
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper
500g cauliflower or broccoli florets (or a mix of the two)
2-3 tomatoes, thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon each of: turmeric, cinnamon, 4-épices, crushed cardamom seeds
Salt and pepper
Pine nuts and/or sesame seeds to serve
Cut aubergines in lengthwise 1-cm slices, sprinkle with salt, and cover with paper towels. (I usually discard the rounded end-slices – or chop them up and fry them to go into the filling.)
Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan and fry the chicken or lamb on all sides till nicely browned, turning once – don’t crowd the pan or the meat won’t brown. If necessary do this in 2 batches.
When the meat is nicely coloured and crusty, remove it to a large, deep pan, add 1 litre water, the halved onion, peppercorns, bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and simmer gently for 35-40 minutes or until the meat is tender. Lift the meat out of the stock with a slotted spoon. (If you’ve used chicken, remove skin and bones and shred it in large pieces.) Strain and degrease the stock and measure out 800ml.
For the aubergines, heat the oven grill to maximum. Pat the slices dry and lay them on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Brush with oil and grill them for 10-15 minutes on both sides till golden – be careful they don’t burn!
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large frying pan and fry the cauliflower or broccoli briefly till golden. Lift it out and let it cool.
To assemble the dish, take a deep cake pan, shallow casserole or ovenproof dish measuring about 26 cm x 7 cm and cut a disc of baking parchment to fit the bottom. Arrange the aubergines in the pan like the petals of a flower.
Follow with tomato slices, cauliflower and cooked lamb/chicken. Drain the rice in a sieve, rinse and shake it dry and spread it on top, pressing down firmly. Mix spices together and sprinkle on top, add the garlic slices and season with salt and pepper. If not baking immediately, cover the dish and refrigerate.
When ready to bake (it takes about 45 minutes, including resting time), heat the oven to 180C. Boil the stock and pour it over the maqluba, pressing down firmly – the stock should be just visible. Cover with foil and a lid and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the stock is absorbed and the rice cooked (taste a bit and see!) – press the rice down from time to time to make sure it absorbs the stock. You’ll find this takes considerably longer if done in an earthenware dish than in a cake tin or paella pan (I’ve tried it with both my Catalan cassola and my IKEA paella pan, pictured above).
While it’s cooking, heat the pine nuts and/or sesame seeds in a small pan until lightly toasted – be careful they don’t burn (SO annoying…).
When maqluba is done, remove it from the oven, invert a large serving dish on top and leave for 10-20 minutes to firm up. When you’re ready to serve, assemble your guests (if you’re feeling reckless and like an audience), grip the serving dish and the maqluba and turn the whole thing upside down (apparently the word means ‘upside-down’ in Arabic) onto the dish. Peel away the baking parchment and sprinkle with nuts/seeds.
Cut in wedges to serve – it falls apart something horrible, but those gorgeous, Middle Eastern spicy aromas, rich meaty flavours and toasty nuts more than compensate for its slightly louche appearance.
Serve with a cucumber and yogurt relish (tzatziki-type) and a big salad of mixed leaves with avocado and a shower of pomegranate seeds.