spiced gurdthu with fresh figs

Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

When writing about Middle Eastern food, it's often impossible to assign particular dishes to particular cultures. For instance, baklawa, hummusgrape leaves, and labneh, (and many, many more) are central to many different cuisines throughout the region. But while there is a lot of overlap and influence, there are also some important differences and nuances, and each cuisine has its own specialties and unique creations.

That's all just to say that I often blog about dishes that Assyrian cuisine has in common with many other cultures (some are our own inventions that have become widespread, and some are dishes that we have adopted from the many nations we inhabit), but there are some things that we make that are unique to our culture. As far as I can tell, gurdthu is one of those things.

Yogurt and Rice

Gurdthu marries two of the most important staples of our cuisine, yogurt and rice, to create the creamiest rice porridge imaginable. To make very traditional gurdthu, we ferment yogurt from scratch, but we let it go extra long until it becomes very sour. Then we mix together the yogurt, rice, egg, and water and stir it constantly while bringing it to a simmer. Once it's simmering, we reduce the heat to low and let it cook until the rice becomes very soft and the whole thing thickens into a beautiful, rich, velvety custard.

cardamom, vanilla, bay leaves
Gurdthu

Gurdthu is delicious plain, but it's also traditionally served with a variety of toppings. If you tend to like sweet rice pudding, it's lovely with a drizzle of honey or date syrup. My favorite traditional gurdthu topping is melted butter, and swirling in both butter and honey makes this comfort food at its absolute best. Some people even like to eat gurdthu with Turkish coffee dusted on top, but that's just a little too efficient for my taste.

I'm currently working on a traditional gurdthu post, with homemade yogurt and the whole shebang, but for now I'll leave you with my current favorite, since I love finding new ways to enjoy gurdthu. Lately I've been steeping it with bay leaves, cardamom, and vanilla, and then drizzling honey on top and serving it with fresh figs, which are at their sweetest right now. Bay leaves seem to have become pigeon-holed in savory foods, but they can add flavor to a lot more things than a pot roast. They work perfectly with vanilla and cardamom, and give everything a floral flavor that's not too cloying. But the flavor of bay leaves is subtle, so it's important to make sure you're not using expired ones.

Figs
Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

spiced gurdthu with fresh figs

yield: 8 servings
total time: 40 minutes
active time: 20 minutes
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  • 4 cups plain whole milk yogurt (1 quart container of non-Greek yogurt or 1/4 of a homemade batch)

  • 1 1/2 cups water

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 beaten egg

  • 2/3 cup medium grain rice, rinsed (e.g., Calrose)

  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped

  • 1 large or 2 small bay leaves

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, plus more for sprinkling

  • Honey, for serving

  • 6 to 8 figs, cut into pieces (or another fruit if figs are not in season, such as berries or cherries).

  1. In a stock pot, whisk together the yogurt, water, and salt.

  2. Beat the egg in a small bowl and then whisk it into the yogurt mixture.

  3. Stir in the rice, vanilla bean pod and scrapings, bay leaves, and cardamom, and place the stockpot over medium heat. Stir constantly while you bring it to a simmer, about 10 to 15 minutes. Once it comes to a simmer, lower the heat until it is maintaining a bare simmer (low or medium-low heat).

  4. Continue to stir occasionally for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked through and the yogurt has thickened. Remove the bay leaves and vanilla pod once it is done.

  5. Serve it hot or let it cool to room temperature. Serve with a drizzle of honey, a pinch of cardamom, and a few fig pieces.

Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

pomegranate fig lamb shanks

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

I'm not a very outdoorsy person. I spend most days writing my dissertation and putting together blog posts. Occasionally I take my laptop over to the beach, but the glare makes it hard to be productive and I usually end up going home after about an hour to get some work done. But for someone who doesn't spend a lot of time outdoors, I do spend a lot of time looking at other people's beautiful, outdoorsy lives on Instagram. And this week, I noticed a wonderful thing: it's just about fig season again! Friends in warmer climates have been posting beautiful photos of everything from bright green kadotas—the sort of plantain of the fig family—to black mission figs, which are so sweet you don't need to do anything to them to enjoy.

Figs
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

My all-time favorite way to enjoy figs is cut in half and served with a cheese tray. But if you have to cook with them (maybe you have your own fig tree and you're tired of eating them raw—lucky you!), this lamb shank braise is the way to go. My grandmother has a fig tree in her backyard in Arizona, which is where I got this beautiful homegrown haul. The figs on her tree (which I've never been able to identify, not for lack of trying but for lack of understanding nature) are most similar to kadota figs. They have a wonderfully subtle flavor and not too much sugar, so they're at their prime when braised with something syrupy. You can use sweeter table figs in this recipe, but if you do, you might want to hold back one or two tablespoons of the pomegranate molasses if you're worried about making this dish too sweet.

Figs
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

Since figs are one of those foods that taste like they would be fussy, but absolutely aren't, you simply nest them between and on top of the lamb shanks, and let them become syrupy, delicate, and soft as the lamb shanks tenderize and mellow. The pomegranate molasses sweetens everything, and after carefully skimming away most of the fat, proceeds to enrobe everything in a tangy Middle Eastern barbecue sauce. This recipe was strongly influenced by Deb Perelman's sweet and sour brisket from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. She includes a lot more red wine vinegar than I've ever seen in a braise, and it turns out to be just the thing. After all those hours of cooking and mellowing, a little brightness goes a very long way to transforming a drab braise into a pièce de résistance. Since pomegranate molasses is already quite tangy, I don't use quite as much red wine vinegar in my recipe (and if you have a particularly acidic pomegranate molasses, you can cut back even further).

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

yield: 6 servings
active time: 30 minutes
total time: 3 hours
download a PDF to print

  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds lamb shanks (about 3 to 4 shanks), preferably split at the shank end, as pictured *

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt for browning the lamb

  • 3/4 cup diced onion

  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

  • 1 1/4 cup stock (either beef, vegetable, or chicken)

  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (or more to taste) **

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon table-salt for the braising liquid (or to taste—first check how much salt is in your stock)

  • 6 fresh figs, halved ***

  • optional: 1 teaspoon minced parsley for garnish

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.

  2. Sprinkle the first 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt on both sides of the lamb shanks.

  3. Heat a large stockpot or dutch oven over high heat for a couple minutes. Once the pan is hot, add the lamb shanks with the fat-side facing the pan. Let the shanks sit undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes, until they develop a nice brown color on one side. Flip them and let the other side brown for another 3 to 5 minutes. Work in batches if you need to, and avoid crowding the pan.

  4. Once all of the lamb pieces are fully seared, reduce heat to low. Remove the shanks to a plate, pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat, and immediately add the onions. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. They will brown immediately, and then soften as they continue to cook.

  5. After 5 minutes, add 1/4 cup tomato paste to the onions and cook for no longer than 1 minute, stirring constantly.

  6. Deglaze the pan with the 1 1/4 cups stock, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

  7. Turn the heat up to medium and add the pomegranate molasses, crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, and second amount of salt.

  8. Add the seared lamb shanks to the braising liquid and try to get everything to fit as snugly as possible.

  9. Nest the fig halves in the gaps between and on top of the lamb shanks, wherever you can fit them.

  10. Cover and move to the oven for about 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender and pulls apart easily with a fork. It will get tough before getting tender.

  11. Once it's done, remove the lamb shanks and figs to a serving platter (keep it warm in the oven, if necessary) and skim the fat from the sauce with a fat separator or a spoon. **** Alternatively, you could refrigerate the whole thing overnight and then just scrape up the solidified fat. It will not diminish in flavor or quality (if anything it will be even tastier the next day).

  12. Reheat the sauce in the microwave if necessary, and spoon the sauce over the lamb shanks and figs. Garnish with parsley and serve.

* If the shanks are not split, and/or if you don't have a wide dutch oven, it'll be harder to fit them together in one even layer—you want to make sure that each piece of meat is submerged almost halfway in the sauce. If you can't get the lamb shanks to fit in one layer, the skinny ends can stick pretty far out of the braising liquid.
** Different brands of pomegranate molasses vary in sweetness and acidity. If yours is particularly tangy and sweet, use 1/4 cup. If it is on the mellower side, try as much as 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons.
*** If it's not fig season, feel free to omit them, adding an extra 2 tablespoons of stock to the liquid.
**** To use the spoon method, move the sauce to a bowl so that it's easier to work with. Place the spoon so that it is almost parallel to the sauce's surface, like a little raft at sea. Keeping it parallel to the surface, slowly let the spoon sink slightly into the liquid, allowing the fat to rush into the spoon's bowl. Be careful not to dip to low or on too much of an angle, or else you'll remove a lot of the sauce with the fat. Remove and repeat until you've skimmed most of the fat (it takes about 5 minutes). 

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks