26 April 2011

Fakhda bil Furn: Roast Leg of Lamb

I hope everyone had a happy Easter (or Passover) holiday. I've been spending a lot of time following the recent events in Syria and wondering what I should say here in this space. Some good friends of mine traveled to Syria in early March, before any hint of crisis, and sent me the most wonderful letter. In it he writes,

"and then the men's club always loud with talk as the men play backgammon or cards in clouds of cigarette smoke on wooden tables in wooden chairs. It is the same quality sound I heard outside a Czech men's bar before the wall fell, hearty unabashed civilized man buzz, a beautiful song of comradery, and I'm not talking NFL fanny patting."

It is such a beautiful letter, and that image, the image of Syria like East Germany before the wall fell, is one that rings true for me now. I've been closely following blogs and facebook, checking in with my Syrian friends, reading the nuanced reporting of Anthony Shadid and Cal Perry. I have much to say, perhaps too much to say, but all I will say now is that I hope all the Syrians I've known, kind, generous, welcoming people, are staying safe and out of harms way.


For Easter (or really any holiday), we have a very festive dish called fakhda bil furn, which translates to leg of lamb in the oven. The lamb is very simple, marinated with garlic and spices and roasted in the oven until just done. But it's the pilaf that accompanies the lamb that makes this a full dish. Here I've made the pilaf with freekia (roast green wheat) but it is often made with rice. The pilaf is studded with ground meat and onions and not. Often, this dish is a meat festival, the pilaf packed with pounds of ground meat. But I like to make the meat merely an accent in my pilaf, letting the spices and nuts come through as well (and also making the dish a tad lighter!).


The carving job we did in these photos is atrocious, but this can really be a beautiful dish. Present the carved lamb on top of the pilaf and toss some sauteed almonds and pistachios on top.

Fakhda bil Furn Roast Leg of Lamb with Pilaf

for roasting:
1 6-pound bone-in leg of lamb
2 carrots, roughly chopped
6-8 pearl onions, peeled

2 garlic cloves
pinch salt
2 tbl olive oil
2 tbl white vinegar (or lemon juice)
1 tbl oregano
1/2 tsp each allspice, cinnamon, cumin
a few grinds of fresh black pepper

2 tablespoons butter
2 cups freekia or rice
1 large onion, diced
1/2 lb ground lamb
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
12 teaspoon cumin
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup blanched pistachios
salt to taste

1. Trim all visible fat from the leg of lamb. Crush the garlic in a mortar and pestle with the salt. Mix in the remaining marinade ingredients and rub over lamb. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 425F. Straddle a large roasting pan over two burners. Sear the lamb on medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Transfer to the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 325F, add the carrots and onions, and roast for an additional 45-60 minutes. The lamb should read about 130F on an instant-read thermometer for medium rare. (Time will vary depending on weight of lamb). Remove, tent with foil, and let rest before carving.
3. While the lamb is cooking make the pilaf. In a large pot, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent, then add the ground lamb and saute, breaking up into bits, until nicely brown. Add the freekia and spices and stir for a minute to toast. Add 4 cups of water, bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and cook on low heat. Cook until freekia (or rice) is tender, about 20-25 minutes.
4. In a small pan, melt the remaining butter, add the nuts and toast until golden.
5. Carve the lamb. Arrange the pilaf on a platter, place the lamb over top, arrange the roast carrots and onions around the lamb. Sprinkle the toasted nuts over the top and serve.

15 April 2011

Chickpeas with Date Masala

This blog is named for my love of dates, which often don't make it into a recipe because I'm busy gobbling them all up. However, I've made this chickpea and date recipe several times recently, including for two dinner parties. People rave about it every time.

The recipe is from the New York Times, but being me, I've completely altered it. I moved the spices around a bit for a warmer less sharply spicy feel, and I've increased the masala-to-chickpea ratio. Most of my Levantine Arab friends hate Indian food, a trend I've observed widely, and which I haven't quite figured out. They don't like things that are spicy hot and for some reason the Indian style of cooking doesn't appeal to them (if anyone wants to explain this to me, I'm all ears). But in this recipe I think I've something to appeal to anyone, the dates melt into a luscious thick sauce and the spices are warm and comforting. It's also a snap to make.


Chickpeas with Date Masala

Serves two very hungry people for lunch, or 4 as a side dish.

3 cups cooked chickpeas (from 2 15-oz cans or cooked from scratch)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
2½ tablespoons tomato paste
12 medjool dates, pitted and chopped (or another soft sweet variety, like deglet noor)
1/4 teaspoon ground black cardamom
4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 whole star anise

1. Drain chickpeas and set aside. Combine all spices (cardamom through star anise) in a small bowl.

2. In a medium pot set over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it begins to shimmer. Add the onions and sauté for a few minutes, until they have softened and started to brown. Reduce heat to medium and stir in the tomato paste. Add the spice mixture and allow to toast for a minute or two.

3. Add the chickpeas, dates, and ½ cup or more of water, enough to make them less than dry. Simmer the mixture for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to incorporate the flavors, until the dates have fallen apart and the chickpeas are very tender, you may have to add a splash of water if the pan gets dry. Serve warm.

09 April 2011

Home-Style Schwarma

I have been traveling a lot recently, and while I have always thought of travel as a great culinary experience, I've come to realize it can also be the complete opposite. It can be stuck on the tarmac in a snow-delayed flight with 2 screaming infants and no breakfast in sight, it can be hours of driving across wasteland where even fast food is hard to find, it can be places so unsanitary you are taking your life in your hands by eating.


Schwarma stands are ubiquitous in the Middle East, tall cones of fat and meat dripping and glistening in the light, eaten after a late night of drinking or as a quick meal. I've never been super-excited about schwarma (also called a gyro), but this past week a good schwarma stand was the most exciting part of my week, which was otherwise dominated by hours of work fortified by Cliff bars.

Restaurant-style schwarma is not something to be made at home (it involves layering chunks of fat, marinated meat, and seasoning on a giant stick and cooking it on a rotating spit). However, many Arab cooks make a homestyle version of schwarma made with thinly sliced lamb or beef broiled in the oven. It makes a great sandwich, and I can picture making a large batch of this and having sandwiches everyday for lunch. I like mine with tomatoes, mint, lettuce and tahini sauce.


Home-Style Schwarma

The meat will appear very greasy when you take it out of the oven- that's exactly how it should be. Adapted from Maria Khalife.

2 lb sirloin steak, cut into julianne strips
1/4 tsp ground mastic (optional, available at Middle Eastern shops)
1/8 tsp each cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and black pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
4 tbl finely minced fat (optional)
2 garlic cloves, minced

for sandwiches
: flatbreads, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, mint, tahini sauce

1. Combine all ingredients except minced fat, cover, and marinate overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 400 F. Place meat and marinade into a baking dish, add fat if using, bake for 30 minutes until most of the excess liquid is evaporated and the meat is nicely browned. Serve warm.