Dinner with the Mustafa Family

Island Epicure


Summer in Syria is a time of plenty. The farm the Mustafas left behind is harvesting tomatoes and small squash, much of which will be dried for winter cooking. People are sleeping outside in the orchard or on the roof in summer, and cook over wood fires. I asked Mustafa “What is one of your favorite things to cook outside?”

Mustafa’s eyes smiled. “Mashi. We cook a big pot of mashi.” He showed me pictures of large pots with legs to put over the fire. “All the neighbors come to eat with us. You must come to my house and eat Mashi!” Of course, I accepted with joy.

I arrived early to see how mashi is made. Mustafa and Jamila had already cut a 1” diameter core out of each summer squash in a mound on the table. Jamila was stuffing these with a mixture of ground lamb and raw rice, while Mustafa cored some long skinny eggplant, potatoes, and green pumpkin (about 3-4” in diameter). “You can stuff anything, even cucumber, and you can use any ground meat” Mustafa told me.

“Sometimes we put something special inside, a small red pepper, a clove of garlic, anything,” Jamila laughed. “The person who finds it, we tease, ‘you are going to get married!’”
Jamila put several pieces of chicken in a large pressure cooker, “for flavor,” she told me. She put in all the stuffed vegetables. Once the pot was on the stove, she added 1 ½ cans of tomato sauce. “We made our own on the farm.” she informed me. She added two large pitchers of water and two tablespoons of salt, and fastened on the lid.

“This would take 1 ½ hours to cook in a pot, but in the pressure cooker it only takes about 30 minutes once you hear it steam,” she told me.

When the mashi was ready, we sat down to a feast! Each vegetable was served in a different dish, sprinkled with the chicken. The tasty cooking broth made a warm reddish soup, while dolma (stuffed grape leaves) and home made pickled string beans and cucumber added a brighter green accent. If your stomach still had an empty corner, there was hummus and Arab bread to fill it.

The Mustafas are accustomed to cooking for a crowd, but most of us are feeding fewer people. Try this recipe for a family of 4:
Cut the center out of 4-6 zucchini or squash, 2” or more in diameter
¼ # of ground beef or lamb
½ half cup raw rice or quinoa
¼ cup tomato or marinara sauce
1 tsp dried mint
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced

Put the stuffing in the zucchini and place them over several pieces of chicken in a large pan
Add 1 quart water and ½ cup tomato sauce or Marinara sauce

salt to taste, bring to a boil
Cook on medium heat about 45 minutes or until zucchini is tender to the fork.

Serve with salad and bread or with Arab bread, hummus, and dolma. In winter people like to get warm with lentil soup with the mashi.