I have this theory that however cosmopolitan and well-travelled you are, you always go first to the dishes you liked as a child. At least this is my case and even now, nearly 40 years after I left the home country, I always want to eat one of my favourite Lebanese dishes, mehshi silq bil-zeyt (stuffed Swiss chard in olive oil in Arabic), as soon as I see Swiss chard in the shops. I normally get my mother to prepare it for me because it is very time-consuming but she is in Beirut. So, I decided to take the plunge and make myself some when I saw fabulously fresh Swiss chard at Zeina in Moscow Road where I shop for my Lebanese ingredients.
Bil-zeyt describes a whole range of vegetarian or even vegan dishes, which, in Christian communities, were prepared Fridays and for lent when people abstained from eating meat. This is not to say that these dishes are reserved for those days only. They are also essential mezze dishes. Anyhow, because of the different steps and the time it takes to make stuffed Swiss chard leaves, you need to be well organized and do your mise en place before you start. Then start with the stuffing which is a little like tabbuleh but with rice instead of burghul and even more tart.
Once you have chopped the parsley, mint, spring onion and tomatoes, rinse the rice and add to the rest of the ingredients. Then add the seasonings which include sumac to give the stuffing an extra zing and salt and mix well. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave on the side.
This is the easy part. Now you are ready to tackle the Swiss chard and you need to be very patient as it is tricky work. And make sure to cut the leaves in large enough pieces so that you can roll them around the stuffing at least four times otherwise they may become too fragile to handle and they may break during cooking or serving. Also try to cut the pieces fairly equal so that the Swiss chard rolls are more or less the same length and thickness. Ideally, each leaf should divide into three, one piece from the top and two from either side of the stalk. Don’t throw away the bottom stalks; you can boil them and dress them with a tahini sauce for an unusual mezze to serve with the stuffed Swiss chard or separately.
Once you have your stack of leaves, boil some water and pour into a bowl. A useful tip is to dunk the leaves in the water with the top side down. This way, you don’t have to turn them once you start rolling them.
You are bound to have some damaged leaves like the one below. Don’t worry about it although you should pay attention when you are shopping (unless you are lucky enough to have them growing in your garden) and make sure the leaves are very fresh and in good condition. If a few are damaged, then use them to line the pan, also to cover the rolled leaves. Just cut out what you can use and tear the rest to line the pan, using also the thin stalks from the middle of the leaves.
You also need to line the pan with tomato slices — I like to add potatoes because I love them cooked in the tart sauce. Lining the pan helps insulate the rolled leaves from the bottom and stop them from sticking. The tomatoes also add flavour and colour to the sauce which should be quite reduced by the end of cooking.
When you are rolling the leaves, make sure you don’t use too much rice. If you do, the rolls will be too hard and too dry, and may even burst. Also, do not spread the filling all the way to the edges otherwise it will come out during cooking. Leave 1 cm or a little more free and flatten the edges together to seal the stuffing in. And arrange the rolled leaves quite neatly, making one layer at a time and pressing gently on them. Once you have finished filling the pan, cover the leaves with odd bits, both blanched and raw, and invert a plate over the rolled leaves to stop them from coming undone during cooking. Another tip, is to pour some water in the bowl where you had the stuffing and swirl it around to extract the last bits of flavour then pour the water over the rolled leaves. Don’t worry if you have a few cubes of tomato and grains of rice. They will dislodge during cooking.
And this is how they come out. Not the prettiest things you have ever seen but I can assure you that they are amongst the most delicious: soft and silky, juicy, tart but not so that they make you pucker and totally moreish. So much so that I ate half the pan! They are served at room temperature but I also like to have them warm. My mother would be proud of my hard work today. They were almost as good as hers!
Mehshi Silq bil-Zeyt
For the stuffing
Traditionally this stuffing has added split chickpeas (50 g), soaked overnight and skinned. I don’t like their crunchy bite and find it an unpleasant contrast to the melting rice and I don’t use them. And I made my mother stop using them as well! In the south, they leave out the lemon juice and olive oil and increase the amount of sumac to 3 tablespoons. I never tried it this way but I can’t imagine it to be an improvement. Serves 4
150 g white short grain rice
300 g firm red tomatoes, diced into 5 mm square cubes
½ bunch spring onions (about 50 g), trimmed and thinly sliced
½ bunch flat parsley (about 100 g on the stalk) washed, dried, most of the stalks cut off, chopped medium-fine
¼ bunch mint (about 50 g on the stalk), leaves only, chopped medium-fine
2 tablespoons sumac
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
juice of 1 large lemon, or to taste
150 ml extra virgin olive oil
Rinse the rice under cold water. Drain thoroughly and put in a mixing bowl. Add the diced tomatoes, sliced onions, chopped parsley and mint. Season with the sumac, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt to taste. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and mix well – the stuffing should look like a salad. Taste, adjust the seasoning if necessary.
To roll the Swiss chard
1 kg Swiss chard
1 large ripe tomato, sliced
Prepare the Swiss chard leaves as explained above.
Line the bottom of a large casserole with the damaged leaves, thin stalks and tomato slices.
Take one leaf and lay it, smooth side down, on your work surface with the cut side nearest to you and the veins running away from you. Spread 1 teaspoon of stuffing (or more depending on the size of the leaf), in a long, thin and slightly raised line, the thickness of your little finger, about 1 cm inside the edge nearest to you and the same distance short of the side edges. Fold the narrow strip of leaf over the stuffing and roll into a flat and loosely packed roll so that the rice has enough room to expand. Flatten the empty edges, lift the rolled leaf carefully onto the pan and lay over the tomatoes with the loose end down.
Continue stuffing, rolling and arranging the stuffed leaves side by side, doing one layer at a time until you have finished both leaves and stuffing. If you have any stuffing leftover, put it in a small pan, cover with water and cook over a low heat to serve on the side. Use the leftover leaves, if any, to cover the rolled ones.
Pour enough water into the casserole to barely cover the stuffed leaves and add salt to taste, bearing in mind that the stuffing is already seasoned. Cover the leaves with an overturned plate to stop them from unrolling during cooking, put the lid on the pan and place over a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and boil gently for 45 minutes or until the stuffing is done. Two thirds of the way through cooking, taste the broth to check the salt, adding more if necessary.
When the 45 minutes are up, it is a good idea to taste a filled leaf to make sure the rice is done. If it is cooked through, turn off the heat and let cool before transferring the leaves delicately onto a serving dish (I usually pick up the rolled leaves with my fingers to keep them intact, if you don’t like using your fingers you may have to use two spoons for the longest leaves). Serve warm or at room temperature.
©anissa helou, adapted from Lebanese Cuisine