A Middle Eastern Culinary Adventure

About a month ago, knowing that spring was coming, I started giving thought to the meats I would be working with, being lamb and chicken. Chicken was going to be easy enough to come up with ample recipes but I knew lamb would be more of a challenge, not because it’s not versatile but because it’s not a mainstream meat in the US. That got me to thinking about where is lamb more common and my journey began.

Around the time I was giving thought to lamb recipes I happened to end up in a bookstore. While perusing the cookbooks I saw one that caught my eye. It was Taste of Persia. The vivid cover immediately grabbed me so I picked up the cookbook and thumbed through it. Taken with the array in which this book covered from both a cultural and culinary standpoint I knew I had to get it. I flipped to the index and looked up lamb and sure enough there was a plethora of recipes. So I ended up getting the book.

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When planning out my menus for the first few weeks of spring I was looking for a recipe that would use lamb but also still be more of a winter dish as it’s still cold and snowy here in northern Iowa. That’s when I came across Tart Lamb Stew with Fried Potatoes. At the end of the recipe it also recommend serving it with Basic Persian Rice and an Herb Plate. All of this sounded interesting, it used ingredients that I hadn’t worked with much, and it fit the bill of being a cold weather lamb dish.

The overall dish in the end was quite delicious and an aray of flavor. Getting there however was quite the adventure. This dinner requires you to make the stew, to fry the potatoes, and to make the rice. This doesn’t sound too hard but of all of what went into making this dish the rice ended up being the most involved and complicated recipe of the bunch. There was nothing “basic” about it.

Before I actually set out on making this meal it just so happened that Food 52’s cookbook contest, Piglet, had included this book. Being that it’s a “Bracket Contest” the book made it out of the first round and into the quarter finals before getting knocked out of the contest. However this did give me two different takes on the book. Along with that were reader comments that also clued me into more helpful information when going to work with this cookbook. The general vibe I got from everything I read was that the cookbook is a fantastic read about the culture it covers but the recipes are lacking. This lead me to understand that when I did get to the point of working with recipes from this book that I needed to feel free to make adjustments that made sense to me as an experienced home cook and do what works best for me. (This was VERY helpful to know when I got into the kitchen.)

What I found with the recipes is that the flavors and ingredients are fantastic but the instruction is sorely lacking and not well written for a home cook. I say that because of instructions such as when talking about cooking the black-eyed peas she says, “add about 3 cups of the water, and bring to a boil. Cook at a strong boil, half covered, for about an hour, until the peas are tender”. At face value this sounds straight forward enough but in actuality there’s a very important issue NOT addressed, the water. Water evaporates at different rates depending on the pot you use and the diameter. Cooking at a strong boil I was nearly out of water at around 45 minutes. This was OK as the peas were done but if I was following the recipe to the letter I would have burned the peas and had to start over. What needed to be mentioned in this step was the water level and keeping the water level at a certain point. I don’t necessarily fault the author for this. It could have been the editor but this could have all gone wrong very quickly.

The recipe then goes on to say “meanwhile” cook the onion until translucent and just beginning to brown, then add the spices and the lamb, add the tomato paste once all the lamb has a “touch of color”, and then add the peas. The issue with this is not only is it vague as to the timing but this takes nowhere as long as the peas so if you start this while the peas are cooking your timing will be way off. She then tells you to add some watering bring to a simmer. Then oddly, she tells you to transfer the whole thing from the skillet to a pot. Why not just do the whole thing in the pot? This is a stew. Then there’s a step when transferring the meat and onions to the pot where she says, “add a little hot water to the skillet, swirl around, and add to the pot, make sure no flavor is lost.” This is troubling if you’re not experienced in the kitchen. What she’s telling you to do is to deglaze the pan. Again. If you were doing this whole thing in the pot you were going to cook your stew in when you add the final portion of water you could easily scrape up any brown bits when stirring it before the final simmer.

I write about all of these tiny nuances in the recipe itself to bring up a very important point, that is, cookbooks and specifically recipes are written based on how that cook or chef makes the dish. It’s based on their oven, stove, types of pans and so on. I do the same thing when I post a recipe on here. I easily could have been upset and thought this was a bad cookbook but it all actuality it’s not. By following her recipe and adjusting the technique on my experience I was able to quickly whip up this stew. Was it perfect? No. Could I improve upon it to satisfy my personal tastes and still server something that is close to what the recipe intends? Absolutely. So, ultimately I enjoy this cookbook and the adventure it will take me on but now I know to read the recipe and rewrite it for how I cook and the experience I have to make it a more enjoyable process.

My tweaks on Tart Lamb Stew with Fried Potatoes.

In a small sauce pan add:

  • ½ cup (74 grams) Dried Black-eyed Peas
  • 24 fl ounces Water

Bring to a rapid boil. Using the lid cover halfway. Boil for 40-50 minutes until the water is about the depth of the peas and it resembles a thick starchy sauce. DO NOT stir! This will mash your peas as they will be VERY tender. Set aside until you’re ready to serve. Cover to keep warm. (In the original recipe she calls for the peas to be added to the meat mixture before the last simmer. Not only did the peas get lost in the stew but the got mashed up from the stirring. Instead I am going to make them separately and add to each bowl as I serve it.)

In a large 5-6 quart dutch oven over medium heat warm:

  • 2 tablespoons (28 grams) Olive Oil

Then add:

  • 2 medium Yellow Onions, chopped (The recipe calls for slicing the onion but this left me with long stringy bits when I didn’t like. When I make this again I will try a rough chop instead.)

Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to caramelize. Then add:

  • 1 teaspoon Ground Turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon Ground Black Pepper (the recipe called for ½ but I accidentally put in 1 and it was still barely noticeable.)
  • 1 pound Lamb, leg or shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes (bite sized pieces)

Give it all a good stir trying to evenly mix all of the spices and begin to brown the lamb. Then add:

  • 2 tablespoons Tomato Paste (Knowing this stew would be a golden color from the turmeric this finally gave me an opportunity to use my homemade yellow tomato paste! Red would work fine but it was fun to have a reason to use the other color I had made.)

Give it another good stir. Then add enough water to cover and bring to a simmer. Finally add:

  • 1 tablespoon Dried Lime Powder (Dried limes are a seasoning often used in middle easter dishes. It is referred to as “Limoo Omani“. I was only able to find these whole at my local international market but they pulverize surprisingly easily in a spice grinder.)
  • 2 Dried Limes
  • 2 ½ teaspoons Salt

Simmer, partially covered for 20 minutes. (My stew ended up way to thick. The next time I make it I am going to adjust the water after the simmer to get the consistency I am looking for.

While the last simmering is happening pan fry:

  • 3-4 Yukon Gold Potatoes, any waxy potato will do, cut into ½ inch cubes (The original recipe called for pealing the potatoes but I never understand why when all the nutrients are in the skin so I left the peels on.)

The recipe said to add a ¼ cup oil to a skillet and fry the potatoes until golden brown and crispy about 10 minutes and drain. I can’t vouch for this step as I opted to use my deep fryer instead. I did them the same way I do twice fried french fries. This is where you cook them for 4 minutes at 265º and then 5 minutes at 355º. I ended up with delightfully fried potatoes without all the splattering of pan frying.

To serve with this I asked my husband to make the Basic Persian Rice. Little did I know there was NOTHING “basic” about this rice.

The idea is this:

You rinse the rice until the water run clear. Then you par boil the rice in a large pot of heavily salted water. You then drain the rice and reserve 1 cup of the rice. In a separate bowl you mix together egg and plain yogurt and fold in the rice. You then put just a tad bit of water in a large pot, melt the ghee, then add the egg mixture and make a thin layer on the bottom of the pan, and top with the remaining rice. You then cook, essentially are steaming the par boiled rice while the egg layer cooks and crisps. When done you reserve a cup of the steamed white rice and mix it with saffron water. This all is to end up with three distinct and different textures and flavors of rice.

To be honest I don’t know what I think of it. The flavor was fine but the technique was super fussy and it doesn’t come out of the pan cleanly so presentation is tricky. The over all idea I really liked but I think I will play around with how to achieve the different components in a method that works for me.

To plate this all up I started with a bed of the plain white rice. That was topped with the stew. I then made a small mound of the saffron rice and the crispy egg rice on either side of the stew. I then topped with a little corse salt and fresh lemon zest. I then served it with fresh parsley, cilantro, and lemon wedges. The brightness of the lemon and the herbs helps balance all the complex flavors of the stew.

Tart Lamb Stew

All in all I really enjoyed this dish and was glad it was the first one I picked to do out of this cookbook so I can have a better understanding of how to approach future recipes.

 

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