Top Cook: Sieedah Abdellah

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Sieedah Abdellah prepares her dish "Dad's Salmon" at her home kitchen in Overbrook Farms.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Sieedah Abdellah prepares her dish "Dad's Salmon" at her home kitchen in Overbrook Farms.
Posted: September 20, 2013

HALAL trucks can be found all over our city these days. For most of us, these are a delicious foray into foods from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries. For Muslims in Philadelphia, halal signifies that animals used in the dishes were sacrificed according to Islamic law.

When Sieedah Abdellah converted to Islam more than 20 years ago, halal meat wasn't as accessible as it is today. "At first, I had a long drive to find it, but now, because of the growing population, even supermarkets are offering meat that is certified halal," Abdellah, who lives in Overbrook Farms, said. "There are even halal turkeys available for Thanksgiving!"

Although the practice goes back thousands of years, many of the principles are valued today even by non-Muslim cooks, because the way the animal is raised and slaughtered ensures a high-quality product.

Abdellah noted that the word "halal" is Arabic for "lawful and permissible." The basic tenets are that the animal is treated with respect and is well-cared for, and that the kill is quick and as painless as possible. No blood should remain in the meat or be consumed. Animals that eat prey are forbidden, as is pork.

The butcher can be Muslim, Jewish or Christian - as long as the name of God is spoken over the animal as a sign of blessing for the sacrifice. Kosher meat can be used when halal meat is not available. Fish does not follow the same restrictions as chicken, beef or lamb.

"Once you get the meat home, there are no further rules to follow," Abdellah said. "My kitchen didn't change when I began the practice."

While halal is often associated with Middle Eastern cuisine, since Abdellah did not grow up in the culture, many of her go-to dishes are American favorites.

Abdellah enjoys cooking and rarely follows a recipe. For example, she adds strawberry preserves or marmalade to beef or chicken barbecue for a sweet and hot taste.

Much of her inspiration comes from her parents, whom she called "amazing cooks." A favorite trick is her father's method of making gravy.

"He takes a jar with a tight-fitting lid and adds about a cup and half of water, " she said. "Then he'll put in two tablespoons of flour and shake it vigorously until it looks like milk. That gets added to the chicken or turkey stock and simmered for a smooth, lump-less gravy."

She also enjoys making her own, from-scratch version of her Dad's Glorified Chicken, a common recipe that uses canned mushroom soup to make a sauce. Instead, Abdellah makes a white sauce and adds sautéed mushrooms halfway through baking the chicken.

Abdellah also noted that because of the careful way that halal meat is butchered, the final result in all her meat dishes is tender, moist and flavorful.

Although fatta can be made any time during the year, it is often connected to Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, and its tradition of slaughtering lamb and distributing a greater portion of the meat to the needy.

The holiday, observed this year on Oct. 14, is centered around the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, and commemorates the prophet Ibrahim's obedience and submission to God by offering to sacrifice his son; a voice from heaven told him to sacrifice a ram instead.


For the lamb:

1 large, whole onion, peeled

2 to 3 pounds lamb shoulder or leg, bone-in

5 to 6 whole cardamom pods, cracked

Salt and pepper to taste

For the layers:

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup basmati rice

1 3/4 cups water

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

2 to 3 pita breads, toasted and cut into pieces

For the garnish:

3 cups garlicky tomato sauce

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Place the lamb in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and add whole onion, cardamom, salt and pepper.

Simmer slowly until the meat is tender and falling from the bone, about 90 minutes to two hours.

Remove the meat from the bone and return to the stock.

In the meantime, make the rice layer by sautéing the chopped onion in the oil until golden brown. Add the rice, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to simmer. Cook until rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

To assemble: Place pita bread pieces on the bottom of a serving dish. Cover the pita with the rice mixture and top with the lamb and some of the stock to moisten the bread. Garnish with tomato sauce and toasted pine nuts. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

Source: Sieedah Abdellah, inspired by a recipe from Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Sieedah Abdellah likes to serve this with brown rice mixed with some of the pan juices. She adds a salad to complete the menu.


1 whole chicken, cut up

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil or butter

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

3-4 tablespoons shredded, fresh ginger

1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan, over medium high heat, brown chicken pieces in oil.

Transfer chicken pieces to roasting pan. Mix garlic and ginger together to make a paste and rub over the chicken. Add 1 cup water to pan. Cover and bake for one hour.

Remove lid and continue cooking for about 20 to 30 minutes more or until the chicken browns and crisps up. Serves 4.

Source: Sieedah Abdellah

This recipe can go in a variety of directions. Add some pesto and serve over linguine as you would clams; add ginger and soy, or fish sauce, and serve over rice or soba noodles for an Asian dish.

Leftover fresh cooked salmon can be used in place of canned; throw in some leftover vegetables, such as spinach, too.


One 15-ounce can good-quality Alaskan pink salmon, drained

1 tablespoons olive oil, or half butter, half olive oil

1/2 small onion, diced (about 1/3 cup)

1 stalk celery, diced

2 eggs, well beaten

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, sauté onions and celery until translucent.

Remove the skin from the salmon and mash or remove any large bones. Add the salmon in chunks to the onion/celery mixture. Add 3/4-cup water and bring to simmer.

Slowly add the beaten eggs, stirring constantly until the sauce is the desired thickness. (The idea is not to scramble the eggs, but rather have the eggs make a thick sauce.) Serve over rice or noodles. Serves 4.

Source: Sieedah Abdellah

On the third Thursday monthly, "Top Cooks" spotlights a home-cooking whiz and one of their recipes. To nominate a cook, email or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number. Featured cooks receive a cookbook. And, yes, you can nominate yourself, too.

Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.

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