Celebrating With Stuffing
One of the most celebratory dishes in Arab culture is a whole lamb stuffed with rice and meat. It both signals respect to the guest and marks a momentous occasion because of the cost and labor associated with preparing it. In fact, most stuffed dishes are considered worthy of guests and special occasions, and Palestinians stuff a wide variety of animals from lamb and chicken to squab and rabbit. The most typical stuffing is made of rice and meat with spices, and oftentimes pine nuts as well. While these elaborate dishes remain an indispensable part of the Arab culinary repertoire, in recent times, as meat has become more accessible, simplified versions have come to prevail and feature more commonly on dinner tables. In these versions, the stuffing is served as a meal in its own right. For a slightly more elaborate version, short of stuffing a whole animal, shredded chicken or lamb can be scattered on top.
The word for stuffing in Arabic is hashweh, and that’s what Palestinians call this dish even when it doesn't function as an actual stuffing. Other cultures in the Arab world have different names for similar preparations, including quzi (the Arabian Gulf), ruz bilkhalta (Egypt), or ruz mtabal (Syria).
The complex flavor of the dish belies its simplicity. Because of that underlying simplicity, though, the quality of the ingredients is especially important, in particular the meat and broth. Although it is possible on a very busy day to make this meal using ready-ground beef and store-bought broth, the flavor is incomparable to one made with hand-diced (or home-ground) beef and homemade chicken broth.
When you dice or grind beef at home, you are able to control the cut of meat you are using and its fat content, so both the flavor and texture will be superior. When broth is homemade, you control the aromatics that go in and ensure it has a rich, clean flavor that compliments the spices in the dish.
I make hashweh on an almost weekly basis at home and have experimented with all kinds of variables. I have found that for the beef, any cut trimmed of excess fat will do, from sirloin and flank to chuck, boneless rib, or skirt. What I most often do is trim and semi-freeze the meat (broken down first into smaller chunks if it’s a big piece like chuck or brisket), which makes dicing it into very small cubes much easier. This piece explains that process in more detail, although you will need to freeze meat for longer than a fatty cut like bacon since it takes longer to firm up. You could also grind it while semi-frozen, just make sure to use the coarsest setting on your machine.
For broth you can use chicken, beef, or lamb. I personally prefer chicken because it offers a rich taste without overwhelming any of the other ingredients. For a quick weeknight meal, I will often use homemade chicken broth from my freezer, but when serving this to guests, I will make the broth using a whole chicken and then top the final dish with the reserved shredded chicken and nuts. You could use lamb shanks or beef short ribs in place of the chicken (although they would require longer cooking time in the broth to tenderize) for an equally delicious, but slightly different flavor.
In terms of rice, my favorite variety for this dish is Calrose, although jasmine is a good substitute. Basmati, while its grains are less likely to clump up, just does not absorb the flavors as well or yield the same cohesive taste. In either case, it is imperative you wash the rice until the water almost runs clear (it will never be crystal clear with rice, but you should see a marked difference from the milky water that first appears when you start washing); removing the loose starchy powder from the surface of the rice grains will help ensure the grains remain separate and don't become gluey or clump.
Some people add the broth to the diced or ground meat once it has been cooked and then drop the rice in after that. I find that sautéing the rice with the meat and then adding the broth yields a fluffier texture that is much less likely to clump or become sticky—high heat from the sautéing breaks down the rice's starch, reducing its ability to thicken and helping to keep the grains even more light and fluffy instead of clumpy and sticky.
The final “trick in the book,” if you will, is to set a tea towel or some paper towels between the pot and its lid once you’re done cooking and to let it rest for a good 15 to 20 minutes before fluffing up with a fork and transferring to a serving dish. This resting step not only helps the flavors to settle and meld better, but also allows the rice to finish cooking in the remnant steam in the pot. The towel, meanwhile, ensures that condensed water doesn't form on the underside of the lid and drip back down onto the rice, which can make it mushy. The result: delicious rice with the perfect texture. With little more than a bowl of yogurt and a Palestinian farmer's salad served alongside, the meal will be perfect too.
For the Spiced Chicken Broth: In a stock pot or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat until almost smoking. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pot, add chicken, skin side down, and sear until golden brown all over, about 5 minutes each side, then transfer to a plate or platter; add additional oil as needed to prevent pot from drying out during subsequent batches.
Return all chicken pieces to the pot and stir in the onion and garlic. Add 10 cups (2.5L) water and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 5 minutes, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the bay leaves, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, and nutmeg and simmer until chicken is cooked through but not falling apart, about 1 hour; season lightly with salt midway through cooking.
Using tongs and a slotted spoon, transfer chicken pieces to a heatproof bowl along with 2 cups (475ml) broth. Cover to keep warm and set aside until ready to use. Strain remaining broth through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding solids. Keep the broth hot.
For the Hashweh: Place rice in a medium mixing bowl and rinse with several changes of cold water until water runs clear. Cover rice with fresh cold water, soak for 15 minutes, then drain well.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg.
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil and butter (or ghee) over medium-high heat until the butter starts to sizzle, then add half of the spice mixture and fry just until fragrant, about 5 seconds. Add the beef and cook, stirring often, until any released water evaporates and the meat starts to sizzle, 10 to 15 minutes.
Add 1/2 cup (120ml) of the reserved chicken broth, then lower heat and simmer until the liquid evaporates again.
Add the drained rice to the meat and toss until rice is fully coated in the oil and evenly mixed with the meat. Add 4 cups (950ml) of the reserved chicken broth along with the remaining spices. Season with salt: the broth should be slightly saltier than you would like your finished dish to be, as the rice will absorb some of the salt.
Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cover and cook until the liquid has mostly evaporated but the rice is still easy to stir with a spoon and not sticking to the bottom, about 10 minutes. Wrap a clean tea towel or paper towels around the lid and cover tightly again, then remove from the heat and let it sit to steam in the residual heat for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the toppings: In a small skillet, combine 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil with almonds. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring, until almonds are a light golden color, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil and pine nuts.
While the rice is still resting, shred the chicken from the broth into bite size morsels, discarding all skin and bones; reserve any remaining broth for another use. Add a ladleful of the simmering broth to the chicken to keep it warm, then remove the broth from the heat.
To serve, fluff rice with a large fork and transfer to a serving platter. Top with the shredded chicken followed by the toasted almonds and pine nuts and serve immediately.
Meat grinder (optional)
To make dicing the meat easier, partially freeze it first (how long this takes will depend on the specific cut of beef you use and its dimensions).If you are pressed on time, you can substitute ground beef, lamb, or veal.
For a simpler weeknight version, you can use any homemade chicken stock you keep in the freezer, or store-bought low-sodium broth; in this case, omit the shredded meat garnish.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The broth and toasted nuts can be made up to 2 days in advance. The broth and chicken can be refrigerated, then returned to a simmer before proceeding with the recipe (it's easiest to shred the chicken while cold, then heat it up after with some broth). The toasted nuts can be held in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to use. If the chicken cools down too much before serving, you can always dip it back in the simmering broth for a couple of minutes.