Google insists ablama is an American state, and my friends think it is a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd… In reality, it is neither. So Google had better get its facts right. Ablama is a variation on koussa mihchi, the better known stuffed Lebanese zucchinis, which are filled with a rice, meat, tomato filling and cooked in a tomato broth. This version is more carnivorous, with the filling being mainly meat, and the flavours are fuller and stronger.
Abu Hachem, my Dulwich Hill based Lebanese grocer had some fantastic young zucchinis, perfect for ablama, which requires the smaller, finger sized zucchinis. So I bought some, and decided to treat myself to this traditional Lebanese dish. This is a bit more of a demanding recipe, so make sure you have the time, and rest assured, the results are worth it.
The cored zucchinis, with the nakoora, the traditional corer
First, you start by coring the zucchinis. For this, you will need the Middle Eastern corer, or nakoora, which you should be able to find at any Middle Eastern store. To core a zucchini takes practice and patience, and I’m not there yet myself, but this recipe is tolerant to some cracks and holes, no problem. To use the corer, push the blade into the zucchini repeatedly, attempting to reach the end without piercing it, trying to draw a circle with your blade. Then holding the zucchini in one hand, your thumb pointing away from you and the corer safely inside, start turning the zucchini on your palm. This will remove the centre if done well. Preserve the insides for an omelet.
Wash and put the zucchinis aside, and start preparing the filling. Finely chop 4 large onions, and fry in the biggest pan you can find, with plenty of vegetable oil and salt. When nice and well caramelised, add 1 kilo of beef mince, bit by bit, making sure you fry the meat. That means, you shouldn’t put all the meat in one go. Also, make sure the meat is at room temperature, since it doesn’t require to be heated too much, thereby frying better. Add 1 heaped teaspoon of cinnamon and 2 and a half of fine ground black pepper (not cracked!). Fry the meat well and then decanter into a bowl. When the meat cools down enough to handle, pour the oil back into the fry pan. Add as many golden fried pinenuts as you wish to the meat mixture and fill the zucchinis, pushing the meat down with your pinkie to ensure the zucchini is full.
Fry the zucchinis in the same pan you fried the meat in (don’t clean the pan) and turn them until they are a golden brown and wrinkly. Meanwhile, fry 2 cloves of garlic in a pot, add 4 tablespoons of tomato paste and 700 ml of boiling water. When the zucchinis are ready, take them out of the pot, deglaze with some of the tomato broth you just prepared, put the zucchinis back in and top with the remaining broth and the remaining meat filling. Cover the pan and simmer for 15 minutes. You can have this as it is, or with some rice and goat’s yoghurt.