Category Archives: Middle Eastern/North African

Easter Lamb

The magic number, my friends, is 118.

My first roast lamb, the main course for an Easter meal I cooked for thirty people in college, was woefully overcooked. It was the first meal I had ever cooked for more than four people, and I was more anxious about the lamb than any other part of the meal. Without a meat thermometer, I cooked the lamb to a perfect rosy-red by slicing into it at regular intervals. I then happened upon the brilliant idea of keeping the lamb warm in the warming compartment of the church kitchen’s oven. Unfortunately, over the course of two hours, the lamb changed from rosy-red to an unappetizing grey, and although the meat was perfectly tender (due to the low temperature of the warming compartment), it wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind.

My second roast lamb became my responsibility when my mother fell sick over Christmas several years ago, leaving most of the cooking for our dinner guests up to me. Between the stress of cooking dinner for ten people and convincing my mom to leave the kitchen and go back to bed, I just forgot how long the lamb had been in the oven. That particular lamb was not so tender. I tried to hold back tears as my parents’ dinner guests lied enthusiastically that they loved their lamb well done.

Eventually, I got better at lamb. Having a digital kitchen thermometer works wonders; no more blood letting to determine doneness. But the best thing I did both for my roast lambs and for my dinner guests was to read Judy Rogers’ recipe for roast lamb in The Zuni Café Cookbook. Like everything else in this cookbook, Judy’s instructions are detailed, meticulous, verbose, and a headache to follow the first time through. Like everything else in the cookbook, Judy’s instructions produce the perfect result:, tender, just-pink meat every time.

The biggest revelation was not in the technique, but in the cooking temperature. Unlike every other recipe which suggests 125 degrees for rare meat, Judy insists that a winter leg of lamb (between 6-8 pounds) should only cook to a temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. “Barely warmer than body temperature!” my dad protested when I floated this idea by him. After baking in the oven, the lamb rests under a tent of foil while its proteins relax and reabsorb the moisture and its internal temperature continues to rise to 140 degrees.

I followed Judy’s techniques for the first time over Christmas, and the result was the best lamb I’ve ever had. The meat was perfect medium-rare, tender and juicy, fragrant with garlic and rosemary. I repeated the procedure for Easter with the same results. And so I pass this recipe onto you: a hybrid of the family marinade and Judy’s guidelines for roast meat. Get yourself a digital thermometer and never stress about your roast again.

Roast Leg of Lamb

Winter legs of lamb are larger. If you have a smaller, spring leg of lamb, this method will not work. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, Easter is for all intents and purposes still winter, and the available legs of lamb from family farms are still enormous.

1 6-8 lb. leg of lamb
4-5 cloves garlic
2 branches rosemary
1 tsp. peppercorns
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tbsp capers
olive oil to moisten

The day before you plan to serve the lamb, make the marinade by crushing garlic, rosemary, pepper, salt and capers in a mortar and pestle. Drizzle enough olive oil to moisten (usually about a tablespoon). Untie leg of lamb, remove bone, and trim of fat. Rub marinade all over lamb and refridgerate overnight.

The day of the big feast, remove lamb from fridge four hours before you plan to put it in the oven. Without bone, tie tightly into a cylinder.

Preheat oven to 325. In a large frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel without wiping off the marinade. Lower heat to medium-high, and sear lamb on all sides until a medium brown. This should take 4-5 minutes per side.

Place lamb in a roasting pan and place in the preheated oven. Let roast undisturbed for one hour. At the end of the hour, take the temperature of the lamb, it should be about 100 degrees. Roast 10-15 minutes more until the lamb is 118 degrees (for medium-rare meat), 113 degrees for rare meat.

Let lamb rest in a warm place (your stove top is ideal) under a tent of foil for 20-30 minutes. Carve thinly against the grain.

Sources: My mom, Judy Rogers’ Zuni Café Cookbook, Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Meditterraen Kitchen

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Goals, Dreams, and Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

One day, hopefully in the not too distant future (but probably not in the near future, unfortunately), I will turn off my computer. I will rise up from my desk, and the dissertation will be done. And then, I will get myself on a plane, and I will go to Morocco. I will go to the land of olives and preserved lemons and taste the marvelous couscous and tagines for myself.

I can’t remember what is was that first made me fall in love with Moroccan food. Was it the abundance of olives? Or perhaps the meats, slow-cooked until they are fall off the bone tender? Or perhaps the couscous, piled high in a fluffy mound in the center of a large platter, surrounding by a comforting stew of vegetables? Or perhaps it was this very dish, tender, moist chicken flavored with the briny bite of preserved lemons and salty olives.

Moroccans are perhaps the original slow cooks. No wok-searing, flash-frying here. To conserve cooking fuel, a tagine pot can be stuck into the dying embers of a fire.  Flavor blooms with long, slow gentle heat. In contrast to the brazenness of South and Southeast Asian curries, the herbs and spices in Moroccan cuisine become just a warm, subtle backdrop, gently bathing the main meat or vegetable. In this dish, the lemons and olives wake the flavors: sour, bitter, earthy, warm. Tradition says to serve it with bread, but I love the combination of the slippery braised chicken in its unctuous sauce with jasmine rice.

I cook this chicken dish not out of any connection with my past, but to remind myself of my hopes and dreams for the future. I eat this my warming, slow-cooked chicken, and I can hope that it won’t be winter forever, I will make it through the semester, and I will finish my dissertation. And one day, I will eat this dish in Morocco. One day.

Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

I resisted making my own preserved lemons for a long time, but I couldn’t find a source for them in my neighborhood, and I didn’t have time to go looking. The next time I was at the store, organic lemons were on sale, so I grabbed a bunch and brined them in one of my Mason jars left over from pickling. They take a month to mature, so if you have a desperate hankering for this dish, check your local Middle Eastern grocer for the tiny pickled Egyptian lemons.

The original recipe is for a whole chicken, but I don’t like white meat.

4 chicken leg quarters, separated into legs and thighs
6 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
a pinch saffron
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp powdered ginger (don’t substitute fresh)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 c. canola or peanut oil

2 large yellow onions, grated and drained in a colander
1/4 c. packed chopped cilantro
1/4 c. packed chopped parsley
1/2-3/4 c. olives*
1 preserved lemon, peel only, sliced finely
juice of 1/2-1 lemon

*You may use any brine-cured olive green or black. Don’t use those flavorless canned American olives. Be sure you like the taste of your olive all by itself. If they are bitter, you may blanch them in boiling water and drain.

The day before, pound the garlic in the mortar and pestle with the other spices. Moisten mixture with the oil. Pull the skin off the chicken and rub with garlic paste. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, place chickens in a large, heavy pot, preferably enameled cast iron. Add grated onions, herbs and about 2 c. water. Bring to boil, cover and lower heat. Simmer 40 minutes.

When chicken is tender and falling off the bone, add olives and lemon peel. Continue cooking 10-15 minutes. When ready to serve, pull chicken and as many olives as you can out of the sauce and arrange on serving platter. Boil sauce vigorously until reduced and thickened. Taste and season with lemon juice and additional sauce if necessary. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

Preserved Lemons

Lemons (as many as will fit in your sterilized jar)
coarse salt
enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover lemons

Slice ends off of lemons, and cut lemons into quarters, but leave slices attached at the end. In other words, don’t slice all the way through lemons. Pack salt into the crevices of the cut lemons, and drop into sterilized jar. (Word of warning: I would start with a small jar.) Leave overnight, during which lemons will exude quite a bit of juice.

The next day, cover lemons with fresh lemon juice, seal and leave to ripen one month before use. These will keep indefinitely.

Sources: Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Claudia Rodin’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

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Hybrid Cuisine: Mjaddarah travels

Mjaddarah with South Indian Spices

I have always been suspicious–some would say insufferable–about fusion-cooking, and after some of the things I’ve seen, I think I have good reason to be. At a fancy restaurant this weekend, I encountered a “Vanilla butter poached lobster with sweet onion risotto and a red curry reduction.” Seriously? Curry and vanilla? How could that possibly, possibly taste good? People in the know say that these kinds of lunatic flavor combos are indicative of the youth of Minneapolis’ culinary scene, but still.

A recent food blog kerfuffle over Pad Thai got me thinking more about authenticity, innovation and fusion. As much as I rail against such atrocities as vanilla flavored curry reductions, I’m not as much of a purist as I pretend; I do mix cultures and flavors in my kitchen and on my plate. I just hope that I can respect and understand my ingredients a little better than Chef Vanilla-Curry, who I doubt knows a curry (whatever that is) from a curry leaf.

I don’t know what Lebanese or Jordanian cooks would say about this spin on Mjaddarah, the Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions. I’ve adapted it by adding the holy trinity of mustard seed, curry leaves and dried red chile. I’ve also increased the proportion of rice to lentils, making this version a close cousin of the South Indian family of flavored rice dishes.

But I hope I’ve kept the essence of Mjaddarah: Thick wedges of onions, slowly simmered in a pool of fragrant, green olive oil. The onions caramelize over the course of half an hour, acquiring the sweet, deep, dark, rich flavor that only comes from slow, gentle heat. The result is a mild, subtly perfumed side dish that still manages to be richly luxurious (it’s all the olive oil). It’s heterodox origins make it compatible with almost everything: Grilled butternut squash, sauteed bitter greens, pan-roasted fish, tandoori chicken, or, as I did this week, with Paula Wolfert’s kefta. But for the love of God, don’t toss in any vanilla beans.

Heterodox Mjaddarah

Use good rice. Don’t skimp on the olive oil. Or if you do, don’t tell anyone you got the recipe from here.

1 c. basmati rice
1/3 c. green lentils (I use French Le Puy)
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 stick cinnamon, crumbled a bit
1 small handful curry leaves
1 dried red chile
2 med. yellow onions, sliced thickly

1. Soak basmati rice in water to cover. Set aside.
2. Boil green lentils in 2 1/4 cups water for 10-20 minutes. (Use the longer time if using French Le Puy lentils.)
3. While lentils are boiling, start the caramelized onions: Heat olive oil in wide, shallow pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Mustard seed should spit and crackle. Lower flame to medium and add cinnamon, curry leaves, and red chile. When aromatic, add onions. Lower flame to medium low and let onions simmer 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them, stir occasionally, and remove from heat if they get too dark.
4. Here’s where things get tricky. If you feel confident in your rice cooking abilities, drain rice and add to lentils. Add more water if you think it’s needed. If you aren’t used to eyeballing the rice/water proportion, drain lentils into a colander, reserving lentil cooking water. Measure cooking water and add or drain water as needed to make 2 cups of water total. Return lentils, rice, and water to pot.
5. Bring to boil, add 1 tsp of salt to rice. Cover, lower heat, and leave to cook for 20 minutes.
6. Remove rice from heat and let stand five minutes. Pour caramelized onions over rice, mix gently as not to break the rice grains, and taste for salt.

Sources: Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Vimala Maguire

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Feels like Home (almost)

Mezze

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of the summer, I lost the ability to cook. Everything I made was off in some way. I overbaked my clafoutis, I burned a batch of banana bread, I undercooked caramelized onions for Mujadrah so that they remained crunchy and harsh tasting. My new stove cooked flank steak to an unappetizing grey, the accompanying tomatillo sauce was bitter, and I ate the whole disaster with stale, tasteless corn tortillas from the corner Mexican grocer. Nothing tasted right; nothing felt right.

Pack up all your worldly possessions, move them across the country, and start life anew in a new city where you know no one and can’t find the grocery store without getting lost. No wonder I felt so dispossessed, no wonder the one pleasure I could always count on wasn’t available to me.

But life continued, and things slowly improved. I ate dinner every night at a local South Indian restaurant where the food tastes as if it had come from an auntie’s kitchen. My pots, pans, and spices arrived from Boston, and in the act of putting things in their place, I made friends with my kitchen. My loneliness abated as I met people, and made a few friends. My neighbors, Kassie and CJ came by with a housewarming present, a dinner invitation, and advice on what to do in the not-entirely-unlikely event of finding a needle in my yard. They had a wealth of information on the many Minneapolis farmer’s markets, a good vegetable market, and a great meat market. With the routines of shopping, picking produce, meeting farmers and butchers, I began to put down roots, however shallow. The butchers at Clancy’s now know my name. I’m a familiar face at Farm in the Market and the Produce Exchange as well. And with knowing the people who have grown and raised my food comes a connection to this place that makes me food come alive. I’m not home yet, but I’m getting there.

Here are three ingredients that I used as the basis for mezze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of antipasti. They are certainly not indigenous Minnesotan foods, but I was very pleased to find all of them in my neighborhood.

1) Mâche. Who would have thought that you could find this French salad green at the MacheProduce Exchange? I couldn’t find it when I lived in Geneva last summer. It’s the the freshest, most spring-like taste you can imagine. I ate mâche by the shovelfuls in France, thinking I could never find it once I came home. Now I can eat it all summer long.

2) Egyptian Double Cream. Despite my interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, I had never heard of this rich, tangy cross between feta and cream cheese. I first tried it at the Holyland Deli, then found a more feta-like version at Bill’s. Both are delicious.

3) Giant Beans. I don’t know why this humble bean tastes so good; something about its meaty texture and full taste. I only know that it wasBill's Beans always worth paying $2.50 for a quarter cup of “Giant Bean Antipasto” at Whole Food Market. Whole Foods never carried the dried beans though, but I found them at Bill’s Imported Foods on Lake Street. I’ve remade this salad with harissa paste and lemon.

I’ve been eating these little snacks while on the run this week; I’ve been too busy and exhausted to cook, and they are great to have on hand for a quick tea time snack. I have these with whole wheat pita, a holdover from my health nut days, but I’ve grown to prefer the wholesome, nutty taste of the whole wheat over flatness of white.

Obviously, you don’t need to live in Minneapolis to make these dishes. You can substitute regular white beans (even from a can in a pinch—just be sure to rinse them), feta cheese and any salad green.

Mezze Table

Giant beans with harissa and lemon
Egyptian Double Cream Feta with Herbs
Mâche Salad
Olives
Whole Wheat Pita Bread

Giant beans with harissa and lemon

Be sure that the beans are completely soft before you salt them. Judi Rodgers recommends chilling one or two briefly in the freezer before checking for doneness. I try to mash one on the roof of my mouth with only my tongue.

1 c. dried giant beans

salt
2 tsp. harissa (recipe follows)
½ lemon
1 scallion, green part only, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
olive oil

1. Cover beans with water and soak overnight. The next day, bring beans and water to rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook beans for 1.5-2 hours. When beans are completely soft (you should be able to mash one on the roof of your mouth with only your tongue, when in doubt, cook longer), salt water generously and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.

2. Remove beans from heat, drain, let cool and mix with other ingredients. Drench with olive oil—this is not the time for a timid drizzle.
3. Let stand overnight in the refrigerator. It will allow the flavors of the dressing to better penetrate the thick bean. Let come to room temperature before serving.

Harissa

2 oz. dried red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground coriander
salt
Olive oil

Soak dried chiles in boiling water to cover for 1 hour. When rehydrated, process in blender with other ingredients, adding olive oil to facilitate grinding. Store in refrigerator, covered in olive oil.

Egyptian Double Cream Cheese with Herbs

½ lb. Egyptian Double Cream Cheese or Feta
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
2-3 tbsp. fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, sage, oregano, cilantro)
freshly ground black pepper

Process all in food processor. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sources: Claudia Roden, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Paula Wolfert, Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Judi Rodger, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

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