شيخ المحشي/كوسة باللبن
Stuffed zucchini filled with spiced beef and cooked in a garlicky yogurt sauce.
If you've been following me for a while, you'll know that I consider yogurt-based dishes to be the ultimate comfort food. But, I'll admit, I never cared much for zucchini growing up. This summer vegetable is used in many Syrian dishes, but I was put off by the texture. If I was ever served a zucchini dish, I was more interested in the stuffing. As a child, I'd cut open the zucchini, scoop out the stuffing and give the zucchini to my mother to eat. As I grew up, I grew to enjoy the delicious flavour and texture of this versatile vegetable.
What is Sheikh al Mahshi/Koussa bil Laban?
Sheikh al Mahshi is a popular Middle Eastern dish that consists of zucchinis stuffed with an aromatic meat filling and cooked in a garlicky yogurt sauce. It is such a delicious and laborious dish to prepare, that it is given the esteemed name Sheikh al Mahshi meaning King of Fillings. It is also known as Koussa bil Laban -- literally, zucchini in yogurt.
Sheikh al Mahshi is served alongside vermicelli rice. This dish tastes even better a day or two later. To reheat, I gently simmer the stuffed zucchini and yogurt in a saucepan until hot.
Making Sheikh al Mahshi
To make this dish, you'll need a narrow vegetable corer called hafara that is sold in most Middle Eastern grocery stores. The hafara is a utensil that cores the pulp out of vegetables like zucchini and potatoes. Simply wash the zucchini and trim off both ends before coring. Gently core them, making sure not to tear the skin of the vegetable. Place all the pulp in a bowl for use in another dish. Check out what I do with the pulp here.
The next step involves frying the zucchini until they're lightly browned, about 4 minutes on each side. Drain each zucchini upside down in a colander with a plate underneath to collect the drained oil.
While the zucchini are draining and cooling, prepare the meat stuffing.
Allow the cooked stuffing to cool and then stuff each zucchini. Fill it with some stuffing, tap the zucchini to get rid of air pockets and continue filling, leaving about 1cm space by the rim. It is important not to overstuff.
Once all zucchinis are stuffed, we'll prepare the yogurt sauce by blending it for about a minute with garlic, egg and corn starch. Transfer the yogurt into a large pot and gently heat it over low heat to prevent curdling. The yogurt is ready when small bubbles begin forming around the edge and steam is rising steadily. At this point, add in the zucchini and cook for about 40 minutes over low heat, stirring every few minutes.
I really enjoy working with my hands which is why I don't mind the many steps involved in making Shaikh al Mahshi. Yes, it is a laborious dish in terms of preparation and I tend to split the cooking process into two steps over two days. Step one involves coring the zucchini a day ahead and keeping them in the fridge. Or I may core and fry on day 1. Step 2 involves the frying, stuffing and cooking the next day.
Zucchini: For this recipe specifically, use small (3-4" long) white zucchini. Although these zucchinis are called white, they're actually a pale green colour. These zucchinis are shorter and squatter than green zucchini, which makes them ideal for coring and stuffing.
Oil: Use vegetable or canola oil.
Onions: Use white or yellow diced onions.
Ground meat: You can use either lamb or beef.
Pine nuts: These nuts add a little crunch to this otherwise soft-textured dish.
Ghee: Used to toast pine nuts. You may use butter or clarified butter if you can't find ghee.
Yogurt: Use Balkan yogurt, preferably full fat.
Garlic: Fresh garlic lends its delicious flavour to the tangy yogurt sauce.
Corn starch and eggs: These are used as stabilizers and thickening agents. They will prevent the yogurt from curdling when cooking.
Freezing the zucchinis would alter the texture and make them susceptible to breaking down when they're cooked in yogurt.
Stay calm and don't panic. Curdled yogurt can easily be saved by using an immersion blender for a minute or two.
To reheat, place the desired number of stuffed zucchini and yogurt in a saucepan and gently simmer until hot.
Shaikh al Mahshi is traditionally made with pine nuts, which are plentiful in the Middle East. If you can't find pine nuts where you live, you can simply leave them out or sub with toasted cashew halves.
Sheikh al Mahshi/Koussa bil Laban - Stuffed Zucchinis in Yogurt
- vegetable corer
- 12 zucchinis cored
- ½ cup veggie oil
- 1 onion finely diced
- 1 lb ground meat beef or lamb
- 1 tablespoon ghee
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon 7 spice blend
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- 1½ kg yogurt (two tubs)
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 cloves garlic
- Fry zucchinis in oil over med-high heat. Set aside to cool.
- Sauté onion in oil until softened. Add beef and spices and sauté until fully cooked. Mix in toasted pine nut and set aside to cool.
- Gently stuff zucchinis. They will be delicate from frying, so do not overstuff.
- Place yogurt, egg, cornstarch and garlic in a blender and blend for 45 seconds.
- Over medium-low heat, bring yogurt and ½ cup water to a gentle simmer.
- Add zucchini and cook for 25 minutes, stirring constantly to ensure yogurt doesn’t burn or break.
- When done, garnish with remaining toasted pine nuts and serve with vermicelli rice.
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