Cookbook #8: The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Adapted from Cookbook #8:  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (my edition is 2005, originally published in 1968)

Recipe:  Frakh Ma'amra (Mediterranean Pigeons or Squabs Stuffed with Couscous)

__________ is to Middle Eastern Food as Julia Child is to French Food:

Do you remember these from the SAT?  At least then you got a multiple choice selection.  But here the only name worthy of filling in that blank is truly Claudia Roden, who stands heads and shoulders above the rest (although I suppose doing so over the tall Ms. Child would be difficult.  Nonetheless.  You get the cliché). This cookbook was first printed in 1968 and has since undergone a new, updated overhaul.  The introduction in this book is a culinary historian's dream.  Roden discusses Muslim Spain, Court Cuisine in the 10th century, and the Sassanid influence on the Middle Eastern palate from the third through seventh century, among other historical tidbits.  Roden knows her history because it connects to the stories which are told over food, thus inextricably linking narrative and cuisine.  Just how I like it.  Something other than just food is being passed down to you.  This little Moroccan dish comes with a tale of a Casablancan woman who normally takes six hours to make a dish and of her Americanized daughter who insists that this dish--or any dish for that matter--should not take so long.  Thankfully, this one takes about an hour.

Let's learn a little about the pigeon, shall we?  Squab, or a young pigeon, has a rich tradition in Ancient Asian, Egyptian, Roman, and Medieval European traditions and is considered a delicacy of pharaohs, kings, and emperors.  While still very popular in the everyday cuisine of the Middle East, in the US, squab is considered haute cuisine served at fancy restaurants such as the French Laundry or as a staple in Chinese New Year traditions (served deep fried).  But it delights me to no end that in California there is a full blown association bringing you the joys of the pigeon.

Pigeons have been up there on my list of recipes I skip over when I thumb through a cookbook.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was not often offered pigeon for dinner.  And I admit, it is somewhat startling to know that I am eating a bird that is only about one month old, which has reached its adult size but has not yet flown (thus making it nice and tender).  And boy, did the husband pay through the nose to acquire our two little flightless birds: a full 22 dollars for the both--in part because we have purchased them, squab virgins that we are, out of season.  Summer is the season for squab.  With that price tag, though, I hope that squab doesn't show up on too many more pages 210.  Further, this evening I had to come to terms with the fact that I am not a vegetarian.  Squab come with their heads and feet attached.  I know that chickens have heads and feet.  I know that pigs do, too, but I admit, I do take perhaps too much comfort in not having to confront those facts when I cook either of them.  Not the case with squab.  And so, I had to acknowledge the head and feet of this bird, and then promptly chop them off.

Finally, let me digress:  I once had a pigeon land on my head in Trafalgar Square.  I was 20.  It was my first time in Europe.  I had just had my heart broken, and I could feel the talons of the bird on my scalp.  There is a picture of me laughing, my eyes lit up in a sort of tourist glow, a pink scarf wrapped around my face.  And it was on that trip I decided that I would not live in Ohio for the rest of my life.

There is great joy for me in the pigeon.

However, there is less joy in consuming the pigeon.  The pigeon is a gamey little bird; surprisingly so for its size and its lack of flight.  I spent the first 35 years of my life squabless.  I imagine that I will spend the next 35 squabless as well.  However, if you like game, it is fruity and big.  Which is good, seeing as the squab does not produce a lot of meat.  So dig in, game lovers.  This is the little bird for you.

4 servings

For the stuffing
2 cups quick-cooking couscous
1-2 tablespoons superfine sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons orange-blossom water
3 tablespoons raisin, soaking in warm water for 10 minutes
1 cup blanched almonds
2 tablespoons butter

For the birds
4 Mediterranean pigeons or squabs
3 tablespoons butter or sunflower oil
1 1/2 large onions, finely chopped or grates
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon saffron
salt and plenty of pepper
2 tablespoons honey


1.  To prepare the stuffing, moisten the couscous with 2 cups warm salted water.  Stir well, so that it is evenly absorbed.  After about 10 minutes, stir in the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the oil, the cinnamon, and the orange-blossom water, and rub between your hands so as to break up any lumps.  Add the drained raisins.  Fry the almonds in the remaining oil, coarsely chap them, and stir them into the couscous.

2.  Fill each pigeon or squab with about 3 tablespoons stuffing.  They should not be too tightly packed, or the stuffing may burst out.  Sew up the skin at both ends with cotton thread (or use toothpicks to secure), and reserve the remaining stuffing.

3.  In a wide and heavy saucepan, put the 3 tablespoons butter or oil, the onions, garlic, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and salt.  Add about 1 1/4 cups water and the stuffed pigeons or squabs.

4.  Simmer gently, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the birds are tender, adding more water if necessary and turning them over at least one, ending up breast down, so that they are well impregnated with sauce.  Lift one (to make a little room) and stir in the honey.  Then return to the pan and continue to cook until the flesh is tender.  [Seriously, how much do you love that Roden asks us to impregnate the pigeons!?  I love her almost florid writing.]

5.  At the same time, heat the remaining stuffing in a baking dish covered with foil in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  Then stir in the butter.

6.  To serve, make a mound of the stuffing and place the birds on top.


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