It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and my bathrobe and hair already reek of garam masala — burnt garam masala, to be exact. Who'd have known that the key to this Indian-Pakistani recipe for lamb biryani would be the French cooking mantra of mise-en-place? Or that the minute it takes for the pile of spices to get "aromatic" in hot oil is not nearly long enough to both measure and photograph them before they turn to ashes?
More important, why am I taking my first stab at this recipe on a Sunday morning, with my coffee growing cold while I scurry around my spice-infused kitchen?
Blame it on the lamb.
One of the members of our weekly "home group," about a dozen people from our church gathering for a meal and Bible study, announced that his Pennsylvania parents raise lamb. Our food-minded group couldn't resist. His parents have the lamb butchered once a year and freeze the meat for sale year-round, nearly giving it away at about $5 a pound.
We put in an order and, a couple of weeks later, my freezer was teeming with the goods. Chops, legs, ribs and the ground variety — it was more than enough inspiration for a month's worth of Sunday meals.
Our group divvies up the cooking labor and is full of adventurous gastronomes. (When one of our members snagged a deer with his new crossbow — we are in Virginia — we gladly worked venison chili onto the menu.)
I hoped the lamb would incorporate each family's culinary background, especially the Kumars'. But despite her husband's Indian descent and her experience with Indian cuisine, Marsha Kumar wanted to make the pastitsio (a Greek noodle casserole layered with bechamel sauce and ground lamb). This left me with the biryani, a complex rice- and spice-based dish that reminded me yet again not to cut hot peppers before I put in my contact lenses.
Christi, who grinds grain to make her own bread each week, raised her hand for the first meal: spice-crusted lamb chops with a tangy yogurt sauce, accompanied by the roast vegetables the rest of us would bring. And I planned to make a simple roast leg of lamb and ribs as the piece de resistance and final meal.
After discovering my love of lamb via Greek and Indian restaurants, I was surprised to find out later that some people don't have a taste for it, although everyone in our group does.
The protein that is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern dishes is less common in American cuisine. That is, until Easter, when lamb and ham battle it out for which will be the centerpiece of the holiday meal. There is a seasonal price dip about this time of year, so it's a good time to experiment.
Some people confuse lamb with its less-tender relative, mutton (older sheep), which is even more of an acquired taste. Others don't like the somewhat gamey aroma lamb gives off under fire.
But layer in the right mix of flavors — and a bechamel sauce never hurts — and lamb has a way of absorbing, altering and making a meal out of the spices that go into a dish.
To me, it's the epitome of comfort food as the weather begins to thaw into spring.
Perhaps the best part about our group's lamb-centric meals, besides having a connection to the people who raised the meat, was the way they fostered community as only a true sit-down sort of feast can (even if it's followed by a communal food coma). We collaborated on recipes, complimented one another's handiwork and ate — a lot.
It was a splendid precursor to the spring season, when lamb will get the recognition it deserves on more than a few Easter Sunday tables.
We adapted this recipe from The Sophisticated Gourmet blog and replaced some traditional Middle Eastern spices, like sumac, with easy-to-find ingredients. We used the small lamb chops we were provided and suggest adjusting cooking times to the size of your chops. Assemble and measure all the ingredients, and the rest is simple.
Makes 6 servings
6 lamb chops (about 3/4-inch thick)
Fine grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons lemon zest
Seeds from 3 green cardamom pods, pulverized into a fine powder
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Juice of 1/2 lime (1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pistachio And Mint Topping
2/3 cup unshelled pistachios
2/3 cup mint
1/3 cup cilantro
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup Greek yogurt
1/3 cup mint, finely chopped
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Generously season each lamb chop (both sides) with salt and pepper.
In a bowl, mix all of the ingredients for the spice rub. Set aside.
In a food processor, chop all of the ingredients for the pistachio and mint topping. Process the mixture until it is coarsely ground, not pureed. Set the mixture aside.
Put all of the yogurt-mint sauce ingredients into a bowl and stir. Keep refrigerated.
Place the chops in a glass baking dish or on a baking sheet (with a lip), and gently massage the lamb chops with the spice rub.
Generously douse with olive oil. Allow the lamb chops to sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes, while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet or large saute pan on medium-high heat.
Once the pan has heated, carefully plop the lamb chops into the hot pan and cook for about 2 minutes on each side to brown. Once the chops are the color of roasted chestnuts, remove the pan from the heat and put back on the baking sheet. Layer each lamb chop with the pistachio and mint topping.
Put the pan of lamb chops in the oven for about 5 minutes, until medium-rare or your preferred doneness. If the lamb is medium-rare, it will give when you press the meat with your finger. If it doesn't give, it's well-done. Or you can use an instant-read meat thermometer to check for doneness. If the lamb is medium-rare, it will register 140-150 degrees. If the lamb is medium, it will register 160 degrees. And if it is well-done, the lamb should register 165 degrees and up.
When cooked to your likeness, place the lamb chops in aluminum foil, and allow the meat to rest for 5 to 6 minutes before serving. Serve with yogurt-mint sauce.
This recipe is adapted from one in a 2010 Saveur magazine. I chose it because I was eager to use my newly acquired green cardamom pods. The key is having the ingredients measured and ready beforehand. If you can get lamb meat already cut off the bone, that also saves time. We served this with a healthful version of Indian halwa, the dessertlike mixture of coconut milk-boiled carrots, raisins, spices and honey.
Makes 6 servings
1 cup canola oil
3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
18 black peppercorns
9 pods green cardamom
3 pods black cardamom
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 tomatoes, cored and minced
5 serrano chilies, stemmed and minced
1 piece of ginger, 1 1/2 inches long, peeled and minced
2 pounds trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup roughly chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
40 threads saffron, crushed (heaping 1/2 teaspoon)
2 1/2 cups white basmati rice, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, drained
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Rose water or kewra essence (optional)
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 5-quart skillet or pot over high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until dark brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Heat remaining oil in a 5-quart pot over high heat. Add garam masala, chili flakes, turmeric, 10 peppercorns, 5 green cardamom pods, 2 black cardamom pods and 1 cinnamon stick. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add garlic, tomatoes, chilies and ginger, and cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes. Add lamb, season with salt, and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium and cook until lamb is tender, about 1 hour.
Add fried onions, yogurt, 1/2 cup mint and 2 tablespoons cilantro. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes more. Set aside.
Put saffron into a bowl, cover with 1/2 cup hot water and set aside.
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a 5-quart saucepan. Add remaining peppercorns, green and black cardamom and cinnamon stick, along with the rice, cumin, cloves and bay leaves. Season with salt. Cook rice until al dente, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain rice and set aside.
Transfer half the lamb curry to a 5-quart pot. Top lamb with half the rice. Pour half the saffron mixture onto rice along with a few drops of rose water, and mix into rice with your fingers. Top with remaining lamb curry and remaining rice, drizzle with remaining saffron and mix. Cook, covered, on low heat until rice is tender, about 10 minutes. Garnish with remaining mint and cilantro.
The recipe for this Greek noodle casserole is adapted from a 2009 episode of Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cooking show. We substituted a good ground turkey for the ground beef, since the lamb lends more than enough fatty flavor to the dish.
Makes 8 servings
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound lean ground lamb
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 large cloves)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups whole milk (or lower fat)
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or Kasseri cheese
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup Greek-style yogurt
3/4 pound small pasta shells
For the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beef and lamb and saute over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until no longer pink, crumbling the meat with the back of a wooden spoon.
Drain off any excess liquid, add the wine and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the bechamel, heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until simmering.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Pour the warm milk and cream mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until smooth and thick. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in 3/4 cup of cheese and 1/2 cup of the tomato and meat sauce, and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the eggs and yogurt and set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Don't overcook because the pasta will later be baked. Drain and set aside.
Add the pasta to the meat and tomato sauce, and pour the mixture into a baking dish. Spread the bechamel evenly to cover the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 cup cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.
We adapted our recipe for our piece de resistance from Max and Eli Sussman's This Is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life (Olive Press, 2012). Eli Sussman cooks at NYC's Mile End Deli, and his brother Max is chef de cuisine at Roberta's. This recipe was simple and easily executed, though probably not ideal to be cooked at one home and transported to another. Our freezer had only a 2-pound leg of lamb, so I also marinated the lamb ribs (both overnight) with the same mixture and roasted them for a snack.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 bone-in leg of lamb, about 5 pounds
4 large garlic cloves, crushed but left whole
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
Zest of 2 lemons
Zest of 1 orange
Red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan. Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a bowl and stir to mix well. Rub the marinade evenly all over the lamb. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Remove the lamb from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature while the oven is heating. Discard the garlic.
Roast until the surface of the meat is beginning to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the lamb, but away from the bone, registers 135 degrees for medium-rare (30 to 45 minutes longer).
Transfer the lamb to a cutting board, cover with foil and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside the pan with the drippings (I suggest dipping bread in the drippings).
Carve the lamb, first slicing it from the bone in large pieces, as few as possible. Cut the meat on the diagonal against the grain into slices about 1/2-inch thick. Place a few slices on each plate, drizzle the pan juices over the top. Serve immediately.