By Chris Freeman
The decision not to raise lamb this season was a long and difficult one to make, made all the harder by how much we at Walpole Valley Farms love to eat those woolly fellas. Those of you who shop regularly in our farm store may have noticed that we have run out of lamb. Watching that last package of ground lamb cross the checkout counter was hard -- or, at least, it would have been hard were it not for the knowledge that I, like a dragon of a more carnal than numismatic bent, had been jealously guarding one solitary pound of the stuff in my lair-- I mean, my kitchen. Watch out for those runaway similes, kids.
I’d been saving this precious little meat brick for just the right recipe and occasion. A welcome home dinner for my friend Mark provided the excuse; all I needed now was an idea for a dish. A trip down memory lane to the early days of my college cooking proved to be just the inspiration I needed. It was right around my junior year that I was first introduced to tagines, the slow-cooked, heavily spiced stews hailing from North Africa -- Morocco, in particular. The generous seasoning used in the preparation of a tagine is enough to compensate for the taste of lower quality meats, which was a boon when I was living in an area where the only way to obtain quality lamb was under contract for my firstborn with Whole Foods. Preparing the same dish with meat from the lambs that I lovingly shepherded during my apprenticeship last summer, however, brought this dish to a loftier plane of gustatory delight.
There are many great recipes for lamb tagines floating around on the internet. I’ve probably even followed a few of them in the past. However, on this occasion, I wanted to “wow” my dinner guest by doing something a little different. I ended up settling on a fusion dish that brought together the traditional ingredients of a Moroccan tagine with some Italian-influenced ingredients, such as bell peppers and rosemary.
The key to success with this dish is getting the seasoning right. You’re going to want to prepare a Ras el Hanout spice mix. Ras el Hanout is Arabic for “head of the shop,” and generally describes a spice shop’s private label blend that incorporates many of its top shelf ingredients.. Accordingly, there is considerable variation in the ingredients and relative amounts from one Ras el Hanout to another. I personally find the Epicurious recipe to be a good starting point, though I usually make some to-taste adjustments, including an increase in the amount of cumin and cinnamon.
What you'll need:
Ras el Hanout
1.5 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon applewood smoked sea salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl using a whisk.
1 cup dried chickpeas, rinsed and soaked overnight
½ butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 pound of ground lamb
2-4 medium carrots
1 stalk celery
2 bell peppers (one yellow, one green)
2 cloves of garlic
1 small bunch of rosemary
Himalayan pink salt
Freshly ground black pepper, optional
Small bunch of cilantro
¼-½ cup home cultured yogurt, sour cream, or kefir
Add lard and/or butter to a large dutch oven over high heat. Crumble in ground lamb, season with a pinch of salt and optional black pepper, and cook until browned. Remove lamb from dutch oven and set aside. Drain any gratuitous fat (but not all of it! That’s where the flavor is!).
Add the carrots, onions, celery, and bell pepper and cook over medium heat until golden. Add the rosemary and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Deglaze with about a quarter cup of dry Marsala wine, then add the Ras el Hanout mixture and stir thoroughly to coat the sauteed vegetables.
Return the lamb to the dutch oven and add crushed tomatoes. Depending on how watery your tomatoes are, you may need to add some stock or water (see previous recipe on how to make stock. I would recommend lamb or beef). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook, stirring occasionally, for 1-2 hours.
In a separate pot, add chickpeas along with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until they reach a satisfactory consistency. Drain, stir in a large pat of butter, and season to taste with cumin and cayenne. At the same time, steam the cubed butternut squash above a pot of boiling water until it softens to the point where a fork is easily pushed into the larger pieces, 7-10 minutes.
Finely chop half of the cilantro and stir into your cultured dairy product, along with a pinch of sea salt and some cumin. To plate, pile up the butternut squash and chickpeas on the plate,
and top with the “bolognese.” Dress with a dollop of the seasoned yogurt/sour cream/kefir, and garnish with the remaining cilantro leaves.
I considered using spaghetti squash instead of butternut squash for this recipe. I think this would be an interesting interpretation of the Italian/North African fusion theme.