The Story

Shoulder Surgery Leads to Food Discovery

By Lindsay Sterling   

You never know who might have a delicious immigrant recipe in their back pocket. Two weeks after shoulder surgery (rotator cuff) I was headed into my physical therapy appointment when I noticed my physical therapist’s name under his picture on the wall. It wasn’t a name I’d ever seen before. As he guided me in stretches and exercises that ranged from mildly to severely uncomfortable, we chatted to take my mind off the pain. His mother was from Armenia and lived in Lebanon before coming to the U.S. I asked him if he thought she might teach me how to cook Armenian food, and he responded, laughing, “She might just adopt you.” She lives far away, but visits Maine a couple times per year. My fingers are crossed we connect.
At my next appointment a week later he handed me a sheet of paper. It wasn’t the usual cartoon drawings of the pain-inducing exercises I was assigned to do that week. It was a photocopy of his mother’s hand-written recipe for one of his favorite dishes: Lebanese beef with rice. I was grateful and excited to try the recipe, but also wary. Handwritten recipes for my grandmother’s Polish pierogi and great grandmother’s homemade Polish sausage did not turn out well. Cooks tend to forget to mention little things they do. And sometimes words don’t do cooking justice. You  just have to see how it’s done.
But as I read through the recipe, it sounded simple enough. Sauté ground beef in a large pot and drain off the fat. Add chicken broth and water to the meat and bring to a boil. Add cinnamon, allspice, salt, and medium grain rice. Bring to a boil again and cook on medium for fifteen minutes with the lid off, then lower heat and put the lid on. Finally turn the heat off and let the pot sit covered for an hour. While the rice is cooking, sauté pine nuts in a little oil until golden. Serve beef and rice with pine nuts sprinkled on the top.
At home I followed the recipe. I have seen a lot of mixed chicken and rice recipes throughout the years exploring immigrant kitchens, but this was my first time cooking ground beef in with the rice. Great idea. Why not, right? The dish was easy to make, and it turned out tasting great. All the water gets absorbed and you end up with fluffy, spiced meat and rice. The cinnamon and allspice are surprising spices for many of us to put in our dinner, but they don’t really end up recognizable in the end. They imbue familiar ingredients like ground beef and white rice with Arabian mystery.
My physical therapist had recalled that when he was growing up this dish was served with a lot of other dishes on a table, including dolmas, hummus, and fattoush. I dug out a recipe for fattoush that an Iraqi woman once taught me. I tossed lettuce, green pepper, green onions, cucumbers, pieces of toasted pita bread, and lots of fresh mint and parsley in lemon vinaigrette. Together the rice and fattoush made a wonderful meal. The Lebanese rice was warm, earthy, meaty, and satisfying. And the salad was fresh, crunchy, tangy and cleansing.
I never know how I’m going to come up with the dish for the next Immigrant Kitchens column. I hope this is the last time it’s shoulder surgery. If you know someone from another country who cooks, email me at lindsay@lindsaysterling.com, and we can celebrate his or her favorite dish here.

Click at right for for the rice and fattoush recipes.