spring lamb: feeding a crowd

 

spiced slow roasted leg of lamb with tarator

Spring is a pretty special season. Not only is it prime time for asparagus and artichokes, it is a time for reawakening from the cold of winter, for dappled daffodils and more importantly, it is the time for little lambs to be frolicking in the fields. As I’ve mentioned before, lamb is pretty much my favourite meat. While shanks are my cut of choice for the winter months, come spring time there’s nothing quite like a slow roasted spiced leg.

Growing up on a sheep farm, I never realised how lucky I was to be eating prime grass fed well loved lamb. It just seemed so unexotic and everyday, but after having had the pleasure of living in the UK and US where the lamb tends to be imported, fiendishly expensive, and far less flavoursome, I have come to treasure our home grown lamb as something special. It is the perfect thing to serve when you are having company.

The other reason for my love of lamb is that it is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. So when I was planning a menu to cook in my mum’s spacious country kitchen for some dear family friends, it was only natural that I chose to build a meal around a leg of lamb marinated in the fragrant Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout. Turkey provided the inspiration for the sauce to serve with the lamb in the form of the zesty walnut sauce known as tarator. It is a traditional accompaniment to fish or vegetables but in this case it worked really well with the rich fragrant lamb.

For some reason I had sweet potato on my mind so decided to give the family favourite potato bake a bit of a Middle Eastern twist by substituting in the orange coloured cousin and adding a touch of the exotic Lebanese spice blend, baharat. Chickpeas are another thing that gets me excited. I love their slightly nutty flavour that goes so well with lamb. Spinach is something else that I love with lamb ever since I discovered the fabulous Indian lamb and spinach curry: saag gosht – a double dose of iron as it were, so a chickpea and spinach salad was definitely on the cards.

For the beginning I find that when feeding a crowd it is much easier to have something shared in the middle of the table. It also keeps things more informal and lends some interactivity to the meal. In the Middle East they have this down pat with their mezze, little plates served with a generous quantity of bread. 

The famous smoky aubergine based dip babaghanoush is always a winner. Our family friends Michael and Jane told a great story about how when they lived in Perth they were discovering Lebanese food and became convinced that ‘Barbara Ganoush’, or Babs to her friends, was the incarnation of the perfect Lebanese woman and the creator of that great dish. They were kind enough to say that they thought Babs would approve of my version.

For the other starter, I had a vision of salmon kibbeh but the results were a little disappointing. Being mindful that my Dad would never consider eating raw fish, I chickened out and used cooked ocean trout. OK but nowhere near as good as it could be with delicate glossily pink fresh fish.

For dessert I had planned on wowing everyone with my new blowtorch by adding a crunchy brulee topping to lusciously creamy but not particularly Middle Eastern lemon posset. But unfortunately I had a packing malfunction and forgot to pack said blowtorch. So I had to resort to plan B of serving them with a few slices of almonds on top and a side of crunchy almond bread for a textural contrast….all good things.

a middle eastern spring lamb feast
ocean trout kibbeh
babaghanoush
turkish bread
spiced slow roasted leg of lamb with tarator
sweet potato bake
chickpea and spinach salad
lemon posset with almond bread

ocean trout kibbeh
serves 10 as a starter

Kibbeh are a Middle Eastern specialty that are generally made from lamb and eaten raw, although they are cooked in some instances. While it can be hard to convince people to eat raw lamb, most people will give sushi a go so salmon or ocean trout make for a delicious substitution. On this occasion I used cooked ocean trout because there’s no way I would have been able to convince my Dad that raw fish wasn’t going to cause a slow and painful death. The results were OK but I much prefer the delicate flavour and shimmering pink colour of the raw fish.

This recipe was adapted from a Sunday Life recipe by good old Karen Martini.

150g fine burghul cracked wheat (see note)
400g ocean trout or salmon raw or cooked
3t sumac
1/2t ground allspice
4T olive oil
150g sour cream
75mL lemon juice
1 cloves garlic, finely chopped
for the salad:
½ bunch coriander, leaves picked
½ small red onion, very finely sliced
½ Lebanese cucumber
extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
lemon wedges, to serve
Turkish bread, to serve

Soak burghul in 3/4C hot water for ten minutes then place in a clean dry tea towel and squeeze to remove excess moisture. Place trout or salmon in a food processor and whiz until it forms a paste. Add spices, oil, sour cream, lemon juice and garlic and process until just combined. Transfer to a bowl and stir through drained burghul and season to taste. Press onto a serving platter and cover with cling wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve combine salad ingredients in a small bowl. Uncover fish mixture and drizzle with olive oil. Top with salad and serve with lemon wedges and Turkish bread.

note: Burghul is usually available in health food stores and some supermarkets. You could substitute couscous but reduce the amount to 100g and soak couscous for at least 20 minutes, covered with 3/4C boiling water. Fluff with a fork before using.

babaghanoush
makes approx 2 cups

This is one of my all time favourite dips: smoky creamy eggplanty goodness. It is great with bread as an appetiser but also works really well as an accompaniment to BBQed meats, especially lamb. I also love it on sandwiches with BBQ capsicum and zucchini.

The secret to great babaghanoush is to char the skin of the eggplant over an open flame. I usually remove the hotplate from the BBQ and use the gas flame directly.

2 medium eggplant (aubergines)
1 clove garlic, chopped
2T tahini
150g natural yoghurt
juice ½ lemon
1/4t baharat, optional
Extra pinch baharat or cumin to serve
Turkish bread, to serve

Char the eggplant all over until the skin is really blackened and the flesh is very soft and cooked through. Place eggplant in a colander or strainer over a bowl and allow to cool and the juices to drain out. When cool enough to handle remove the charred skin, leaving a few bits of burnt skin to enhance the smoky flavour. Process eggplant in a food processor until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and whiz until combined. Season to taste and serve at room temperature with a pinch of baharat or cumin for decoration and Turkish bread on the side.

spiced leg of lamb with tarator
serves 10-12

I pinched the idea for combining rosemary with ras el hanout in the marinade from Karen Martini. Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that literally translates as ‘top of the shop’ or the best spice blend in the house. It can contain up to twenty different ingredients including hashish and Spanish Fly. I like to use the blend prepared by my favourite spice nerd, Herbie, which sadly is hashish free. If you want to have a go at making your own I have included the recipe below. The marinade could also be used on lamb chops or fillets or chicken before BBQing.

Tarator is a classic Turkish nut and bread sauce that is great with lamb, other meats, or as a dip to serve with bread. My version was adapted from Claudia Roden’s latest book, Arabesque. Claudia recommends serving it with cold smoked mackerel, grilled fish or even with vegetables cooked in olive oil. Walnuts are the most commonly used nuts, however you could substitute almonds, hazelnuts or even pinenuts.

2kg leg lamb, trimmed of excess fat
4 large sprigs rosemary, leaves picked
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3T ras el hanout
1/4C extra virgin olive oil
2 large brown onions, each peeled and cut into 4 thick rounds
for the tarator:
250g walnuts
100g Turkish bread, torn
1 clove garlic
1/4C red wine vinegar
1/4C extra virgin olive oil
Approximately 1C water

Combine rosemary, garlic, ras el hanout and oil and smear all over the lamb. Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. Remove lamb from the fridge an hour before you are ready to start cooking. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and place onions in two rows in the centre of the tray to form a bed for the lamb to sit on. Place lamb on top of the onion ‘bed’. Bake at 150C for 3-4hours or until lamb is cooked to your liking. Cover with foil and allow to stand in a warm place for at least half an hour before carving.

For the sauce, place walnuts in a small saucepan. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer 10mins then drain. Whizz walnuts, bread, garlic and vinegar until it forms a chunky paste. With the motor running add oil and then enough water to make a thick sauce. Season well and serve at room temperature.

Serve carved lamb with the onion, drizzled with sauce, alongside sweet potato bake with chickpea and spinach salad and remaining sauce passed separately.

ras el hanout

This is the recipe included in Herbies informative and recently re-released book Spice Notes. As Herbies says it is the best example of the whole being far better than the sum of the parts. Herbie recommends adding half a teaspoon to a cup of rice or couscous while it is cooking for a beautifully coloured subtly spiced accompaniment.

3.5T mild paprika
2.5T each cumin and ginger
4t coriander
2t each cassia and tumeric
1.5t fennel seed
1.25t each allspice, green cardamom seed, dill seed, galangal, nutmeg, and orris root(see note)
0.5t each bay leaves, caraway seeds, cayenne pepper, cloves, mace (see note), cubeb pepper (see note) and brown cardamom
30 whole saffron stigmata

Combine the following ground spices and store in an airtight container.

note:
Orris root is derived from the bulb of the Florentine iris, a beautiful flower.  Apparently it has an aroma of violets and a floral yet bitter flavour.
Mace is the placenta that surrounds the nutmeg seed in the nutmeg fruit. It has a similar flavour to nutmeg but is fresher and much less intense.
Cubeb pepper is a cousin of standard black pepper that has a fresh peppery, piney, citrusey aroma and flavour.

sweet potato bake
serves 10

Potato bake or gratin is always a crowd pleaser but this version with sweet potato is sure to become a family favourite, however, you could always substitute regular potatoes for a more savoury version.

1.2kg sweet potato
150g sour cream
500mL chicken stock
1t baharat, optional

Peel sweet potato and cut into rounds approx 5mm thick. Place slices upright in a large baking dish. Warm stock until almost boiling. Stir through sour cream and pour over sweet potato. Sprinkle with baharat, season with salt and pepper and cover with foil.

Bake at 180C for 20mins then remove foil and continue to cook for another 20-30mins or until sweet potato is well cooked and browned on top and the stock has mostly evaporated. Serve hot.

chickpea and spinach salad
serves 12 as accompaniment

I am often lazy when it comes to chickpeas and tend to used the canned variety rather than soaking and cooking my own. Although you could substitute tinned chickpeas with this salad, I was really glad that I went to the extra effort. The flavour and texture of home cooked chickpeas is much much better, particularly when given a chance to absorb the fragrance of cinnamon as in this recipe.

Using the whole lemon cut into little triangles adds a lovely zesty flavour and interesting texture. Next time, I would make it with preserved lemon for some extra perfumey complexity. Adapted from a Karen Martini recipe that was published recently in Sunday Life.

500g chickpeas, soaked in plenty of cold water overnight
3 sticks cinnamon
2 medium red onions, halved and finely sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2C extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches English spinach, well washed and roughly chopped
2 lemons, juiced
1 lemon, thinly sliced and cut into small triangles, skin on
pinch grated nutmeg
½ bunch dill, finely chopped
½ bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and torn
lemon halves, to serve

Drain chickpeas and place in a large saucepan with the cinnamon. Bring to the boil and simmer for 45minutes or until chickpeas are tender. Drain and discard cinnamon. Heat oil in the large saucepan and cook onion over a medium low heat for approx ten minutes until soft. Add garlic and spinach and cook stirring until spinach is wilted. Add chickpeas, lemon juice, lemon triangles, nutmeg and herbs. Mix until well combined and season. Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon halves.

lemon posset with almond bread
serves 10

Lemon posset has to be one of the easiest desserts in the world. It has a lovely silky smooth texture balanced by the freshness of the lemon. I’ve also made a version with half lemon juice half passionfruit served with extra passionfruit that is to die for but unfortunately passionfruit were super expensive so we had to settle for lemon. Adapted from a recipe published years ago by Jill Dupleix when she was the food writer for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Almond bread is a great way to use up all those extra egg whites that tend to accumulate when you make a lot of icecream as I do. It isn’t very sweet and keeps for ages in an airtight container. This recipe was adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s kitchen essential The Cook’s Companion.

for the posset:
1.2L whipping cream (approx 35% milk fat with gelatine added – aka thickened cream)
300g sugar
175mL lemon juice
handful sliced almonds
for the almond bread:
4 egg whites
pinch salt
120g caster sugar
120g plain flour
120g whole almonds, skins on

To make the posset, place cream and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil stirring occasionally. Simmer for three minutes stirring constantly ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil over. Remove from the heat and stir through juice. Cool for ten minutes before dividing between 10 glasses or ramekins. Cover and refrigerate over night.

For the almond bread, preheat the oven to 180C. Oil a loaf pan and line with grease proof paper. Whip whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar and whip until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth and glossy. Fold in flour, being very gentle and then fold in almonds until just combined. Spoon mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 45-55mins or until golden brown and firm to touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Preheat oven to 120C and cut bread into very thin slices using a bread knife. Place in a single layer on a large baking tray lined with grease proof paper. Bake 45 to 60mins or until completely dry. Cool then store in an airtight container.

Top each posset with a few almonds and serve with a slice or two of almond bread and a teaspoon.

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