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Give the lamb a name before you eat it

Its springtime in the Rockies.

For many folks, the arrival of spring provides for meditations on budding flowers, on the wonder of the lively seasons — spring, summer, fall.

Others dig out their camping gear, preparing to do whatever it is they do out there under the sun and among the insects. It’s a mystery to me.

For some, the nearness of gardening season is enough to shake them with spasms of joy.

Me, I think about eating small, lovable animals.

Lambs, in particular. Adorable, furry little creatures with big eyes. You can give them a name before you eat them; they gambol across the pasture when you call them.

And the thought of devouring the cute tykes leads me to considerations of history — little-known tidbits of Colorado history, and personal history.

I think of Syrians. More precisely, Syrian-Americans.

The history of the Front Range mining towns is ethnic history.

And when you get to the coal mining towns at the southern end of the Front Range in the state, that history involves Mexican Americans, Italians and Slavs.

But, tucked away in Walsenburg, in the heart of coal mining country, was a group of Syrians. They owned businesses in Walsenburg, including bars and restaurants.

One of those Walsenburg Syrians lived with my family when I was young. Her name was Helen Habib.

She taught me to make kibbeh.

She taught me to eat lamb.

To a 6-year-old chubby guy like me, Helen was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She had coal-black hair and an almond-shaped face with large dark eyes.

Better yet, she paid attention to me.

She let me do exercises with her in the front room (the “bicycle” was a particular favorite — Helen in her pedalpushers, legs flying oh so graceful, me struggling to keep my stubby little legs off the floor) — and she let me watch her cook.

Several years later, when Helen moved out, she married a guy named Eddie. He was a lout who hung out at taverns, wore bowling shoes and drove used Buicks. Helen’s hair turned white at a very early age.

It was that rat, Eddie.

I digress; its the kibbeh that’s important.

One of the best things about making Kibbeh was the trip to the market.

The biggest and best market in Denver for a long time was the International Market, and it was a circus for the senses.

The market was in a huge building, the space long and dimly lit. Each nationality had its own aisle: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Indian and Pakistani, North African, Middle Eastern (subdivided into Israeli, Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian).

Each aisle had its own smells, with bins of spices and spice mixtures and leaking packages of stuff with names like “murb,” “harissa,” and “garam masala.” There were tubs in which bricks of odd-looking stuff floated in murky water. There were brightly labeled jars on the shelves — many of which oozed dark substances and emitted alarming odors. I later discovered this was regarded as a good sign by the customers.

At the back of the store was an old-fashioned butcher shop fronted by immense display cases. And in those cases were sights to turn all but the most dedicated carnivores to a vegetarian regimen.

A variety of faces stared at you — albeit somewhat blankly — from the display cases at the back of the market. The cases were lined with lambs’ heads, the heads of pigs and cows, slabs of flesh, and a plethora of whole (plucked and unplucked) birds of many kinds.

Whew.

It was a dramatic lesson about the food chain. (We’re the last link in that chain … as far as we know.)

This is where we got the meat for the kibbeh.

Lamb. (Not mutton. Steer clear of the mutton at all costs!). Ground.

And the market was where we got the three other key ingredients for the dish: pinon nuts, bulghur wheat and mint.

To make kibbeh, you also need white onion and high grade olive oil — none of that 10W40 junk the chain stores try to pass off as olive oil. If you can’t procure some Syrian, Spanish or Greek oil, at least get the Extra Virgin — a name, incidentally, that was given to my friend Chas until that fateful day after the state spelling bee. But, that’s another story.

What I remember most about Helen’s kibbeh is the smell in the kitchen when it baked.

And eating it cold the next day.

Kathy refuses to eat lamb (it is among the 600 foods she dislikes or is allergic to) so, if I were to make kibbeh, I’d have to lie and make up a story about “grass-fed beef.”

But, I refuse to give you a compromise recipe.

Go to the market and procure a couple packs of ground lamb (the day is long gone when there is an actual butcher stationed at the market who can grind the lamb, using leg or shoulder meat, keeping it moderately lean and removing any “silver” from the meat prior to grinding).

Take a couple of cups of Bulghur wheat and put it in a bowl. Add boiling water to about 1/2 inch above the top of the wheat. Cover and let the bulgher stand for half an hour or so. Drain and squeeze the excess water out of the wheat.

Mince the onion. Mash two or three cloves of garlic. Mix the meat, the onion and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Add enough of the Bulghur to firm up the meat — enough so you notice there is wheat in the mix.

Mince several tablespoons of mint and add two eggs, beaten. Mix with the meat.

Take a heavy baking pan (9×13 will do). Oil the bottom and sides of the pan with a heroic measure of olive oil. Spread a layer of meat mixture, approximately 1-inch deep, in the bottom of the pan. Cover the meat with pinon nuts. Cover with another layer of meat. Deeply score the meat in a diamond-shaped pattern. Slick the top of the meat with oil.

Bake uncovered at 350 degrees until done — about one hour.

Eat the kibbeh with mashed potatoes, peas and a simple green salad dressed with a vinaigrette. (If, like my brother, Kurt, when a lad, and my wife, you pollute the kibbeh with ketchup, do not tell me. This is an offense to the lamb that gave its life for your eating pleasure.)

Make a kibbeh sandwich the next day, or just nail a couple of diamonds in the rough.

Right before you hit the living room floor to do the bicycle.

This story was posted on April 25, 2013.