In late summer, when zucchini and tomatoes are bursting from their vines, I crave kousa mihshi, one of the great Middle Eastern stuffed vegetable traditions that’s long been treasured across the Levant, and one that I grew up preparing with my mother in our Lebanese American home. We’d hollow out the mildly bitter zucchini (“kousa mihshi” means “stuffed squash” in Arabic), fill it with a mixture of spiced rice and lamb, and slowly braise it in tomato sauce until the meat was succulent and the rice tender. A drizzle of olive oil and a spoonful of cooling yogurt completed the ensemble: a vibrant mix of flavors, textures, and temperatures that to me epitomizes all that is special about Lebanese cooking.
In many households, these “delectable pockets of nourishment and care,” as my Aunty Karen calls them, are reserved for special occasions. My mother also made kousa mihshi for Sunday brunch, presenting it to family at our backyard picnic table in a gleaming copper pot.
Inheriting a Love of Lebanese Cooking
Author Dominique Khoury began assisting her mother, Lee-Ann, in the kitchen at a young age. At right, she practices filling grape leaves with rice and lamb hashweh. Below, she’s pictured with her Sittoo (grandmother) Margaret, another great cook in the family. Dominique is the creator of a Lebanese American pop-up restaurant, bakery, and lifestyle cooking channel called Looqma (meaning “bite” or “morsel” in Arabic) based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
All the women on my mother’s side prepare the squash using a recipe that dates to my Lebanese-born great-great-grandmother. I’ve tweaked that basic approach, incorporating tips from my family as well as innovations of my own, careful to keep it tasting as it has for generations. The sauce must be layered with the flavors of fruity fresh tomatoes, warm cinnamon, and peppery olive oil. The squash should be tender and intact and the filling rich but light in texture and flecked with fluffy grains of rice. Not least of all, every bite must taste balanced and cohesive.
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How to Make the Hashweh
To make the stuffing, called “hashweh” in Arabic, most recipes start by rinsing the rice. I prefer to rinse it and then soak it in water for 10 minutes before combining it with the lamb, which helps the grains plump evenly and shaves minutes off the cooking time—all the better for ensuring that the zucchini doesn’t overcook. The hashweh is usually left raw, but I brown mine, breaking it up as it cooks to create small, distinct pieces that pack more lightly into the squash.
A Stuffing That Doubles as a Meal
The hashweh (filling) for kousa mihshi is the same stuffing of warm‑spiced rice and minced lamb (or beef) that’s rolled into grape leaves and spooned into numerous fruits, vegetables, and proteins in Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines. But many cooks make it for its own sake, too, often bejeweling it with dried fruit and toasted nuts. My mother is one of these cooks: She serves hashweh warmed in a bowl with yogurt, mint, and toasted almonds or folds it into creamy scrambled eggs with herbs.
How to Make the Sauce
Lebanese cooks often lay the stuffed squash atop lamb bones and simmer it in tomato broth. My family makes a thicker, brighter-tasting sauce, but to get that same meaty underpinning that’s critical for uniting all the flavors, I sauté onion and garlic (seasoned with more spices) in the fatty juices drained from cooking the lamb. Then I puree those lamby-tasting alliums in a blender with a couple pounds of farmers’ market tomatoes, tomato paste to bolster their fresh flavor, and cider vinegar for extra brightness.
As the sauce bubbles in the skillet, I core the squashes, replacing the squatter Lebanese variety that’s sometimes called grey zucchini with the conventional kind sold in the United States. Coring is easily done with an apple corer and a melon baller (though my grandfather once resorted to using his drill to core dozens of zucchini for a big family gathering—a story I love, as it demonstrates the lengths Lebanese cooks will go to feed the people they love). Filling them is a simple matter of dropping spoonfuls of stuffing into their cavities and periodically tapping each zucchini gently on the counter to encourage the hashweh to settle lightly on the bottom.
3 Simple Steps to Coring the Zucchini
1. CORE the zucchini with an apple corer, pressing it into the squash as far down as it will go.
2. SCOOP out more pieces of core with a melon baller until the hollow is 1/2 inch from the bottom.
3. RINSE the cavity to remove seeds and debris clinging to the walls, and drain on a dish towel.
To cook the kousa mihshi, I arrange them on their sides in the skillet, which allows some of the filling’s meaty juices to trickle into the ruddy sauce, further enriching and unifying its flavors. After 40 minutes of braising, this beautiful symbol of Lebanese hospitality is ready to serve.