There came a time a few weeks ago, where I really started craving winter squash. Maybe it’s because my body is really accustomed to a literally freezing climate this time of year. Maybe it’s because part of me is homesick (even with the ugly winters of Chicago). Either way, in spirit of this blog, I asked my mom if she knew any winter squash Syrian recipes. After consulting some resources (aka my aunts), we came to: mnazlet yaqtin, or pumpkin (squash) mnazaleh.
Mnazeleh typically involves eggplant, tomato sauce and minced meat. This version, adapted to fall and winter bounty, uses pumpkin, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg in place of the tomato and eggplant. I’ll be honest and say that I never ate this before making it, but I really love how it came together. It’s traditionally made with red pumpkin, but I really enjoyed using butternut squash.
You start this dish by frying peeled and chopped squash. It is then combined with a minced beef and pine nut mixture, a sauce of tahini, tamarind paste, and winter spices and simmered with water for about 45 minutes. Reducing sauce isn’t typical of Syrian cuisine, but doing so carries everything to whole other level. Biting into the completed dish is so comforting, it brings me right back to those cold Chicago days, where we sit around a fireplace with sweaters, cozy socks and all. And now, I present to you, the recipe.
Squash Mnazaleh (Squash with Minced Beef and Pine Nuts)
1 butternut squash or red pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 lb. minced beef
1 large yellow onion
1/2 c pine nuts
5 tbsp tamarind paste
1/4 c tahini
2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste
1 tsp dried mint
2 tsp ground cloves
3 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 c calrose rice, or other medium-grain rice
neutral cooking oil, like sunflower
pomegranate seeds for garnish
Start preparing the rice by soaking it in water for about an hour.
Make the ground beef
First, fry the pine nuts. In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 tbsp of butter over medium until the foam subsides. Add the pine nuts and stir constantly until they turn golden-brown. Set aside.
Place a 12 inch skillet over high heat and reduce to medium. Pour 1 tbsp of olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the chopped onion with 1 tsp of salt and cook, stirring periodically, until it starts to change color. Set aside in a small bowl.
Place the skillet back on high heat and cook the ground beef, stirring constantly and breaking up with the spoon until the moisture completely evaporates.
Take off heat, add the pine nuts and onion to the pan. Season with 1 tsp of 7 spice, 1 tsp of salt and pepper to taste.
Do ahead: Can be made 3 days ahead of time
Fry the squash
Pour neutral cooking oil into a medium-heavy pot to a depth of 2 inches.
Heat oil to about 350 degrees fahrenheit, or if you don’t have a thermometer, heat until you drop a grain of rice and it rises and starts cooking.
Fry the squash about 2 minutes each side in batches, being careful not to crowd the oil.
Drain on a paper-towel lined plate.
Make the sauce
Stir together the tahini, tamarind paste, garlic cloves, dried mint, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and a bit of water. Set aside.
Place about 3/4 of the ground beef mixture to the bottom of a heavy pot. Add the squash and top with the sauce. Cover with about 4 cups of water, or until the squash is covered but not submerged. Set the rest of the ground beef aside.
Cover the pot, simmer for about 45 minutes.
Do ahead: After the squash is finished cooking, can be made and kept in an air-tight container in its liquid for about 2 days. Bring to room temp and continue with reducing the liquid before ready to serve.
Meanwhile, cook the rice.
Drain the rice and let sit for about 30 seconds to completely dry
Sauté the rice in a saucepan with about 1 tbsp of neutral oil and 2 tsp of salt until the rice turns opaque.
Add about 1.25 c of water, bring to a boil, cover and reduce to the lowest setting.
Once the rice has absorbed all the water, set aside, after about 20-25 mins.
Once the squash has simmered for about 45 minutes, turn off the heat. Fish the squash out into a mixing bowl. Drain the ground beef, reserving the liquid.
Put the liquid back on high heat and reduce until it’s nice and thick, about 10-15 minutes, being careful not to over-reduce (but if you do, just add more water).
Place the sauce on the bottom of a serving platter. Pour a layer of the 3/4 ground beef component on top of the sauce. Place the squash and top with the remaining ground beef and pine nut mixture. Add pomegranate seeds to garnish.
Serve with rice, and enjoy!