There's a well-known divide between people who spend time in the kitchen: there are those who like to cook, and those who like to bake. Bakers are scientific, precise people; I am, well, not. I gravitate toward cooking because it allows me to experiment, adding a handful of chopped fresh herbs here, substituting peanut oil for the canola there.
But even experimentation has its limits. Take, for example, meat-based dishes: sometimes, it's not all that easy to strip the meat from the recipe and still maintain the character of the finished dish. Coq au vin without the coq? That's just a sauce studded with pearl onions and mushrooms. Baked beans without the smoky bacon? An excessively sweet mess.
But when I first prepared maqluba—a fragrant, layered dish of seared chicken thighs, fluffy basmati rice, fried cauliflower and eggplant, and fresh tomatoes that I found in my treasured copy of Jerusalem—I knew I could drop the meat, no problem. This meal is so flavorful, so complex, and so filling that adding chicken is like gilding the lily.
So I messed around with Ottolenghi and Tamimi's recipe just a little bit, streamlining it by roasting, not frying, the vegetables; using a prepared vegetable stock in lieu of the homemade chicken broth called for in the original recipe; and, yes, eliminating the chicken altogether. The finished dish is still a showstopper: a tall, golden savory cake filled to bursting with tender vegetables and crowned with yielding rounds of tomatoes. This, my friends, is an experiment that succeeded.