Welcome to the first official installment of Cooking Column! This is going to be a recipe week. But more than that, we’re going to be looking at a whole meal--main course, sides, desert, the works--and we’re going to be centering that around a traditional Moroccan dish; a lamb meshoui.
This is a fairly diverse dish, mixing a bunch of different flavors and elements into a whole that should be able to please or impress just about any group of diners. It also has the extra bonus of being kind of showy without actually being complicated to make.
Before we begin in earnest, let’s take a rundown of the dishes we’ll be preparing and the bits that we’ll need to put those together:
- Lamb and Stewing Vegetables:
- Lamb Shanks (One shank per person served is a decent rule of thumb, though you can easily split a large shank between two people)
- Six large carrots
- One large, yellow onion
- Six stalks celery
- Three to five cloves of garlic
- Ground Coriander
- Ten-count fresh Cardamom seed pods
- Half-dozen Bay Leaves
- Three tablespoons butter
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One to two cups uncooked couscous (a cup of couscous can, in general, comfortably feed four people)
- Saffron strands (ten to fifteen fresh strands should do nicely without overpowering the dish)
- Two or three Cinnamon sticks
- Two or three Bay Leaves
- Two teaspoons olive oil
- five-count fresh Cardamom seed pods
- Toasted Pine Nuts (about five per serving is good)
- A vegetable of the cook’s choice, usually selected in regard to those who feel like they need something green at a meal. Peas are a good choice to compliment this meal.
- Associated paraphernalia for the vegetable chosen.
- One bottle blueberry wine
- One half-bottle pomegranate wine
- One large orange
- One large apple
- Sugar cookie dough (you can make your own if you want, but a package of premade Pillsbury dough will be more than fine)
- Three teaspoons Common Anise Seeds
- One package fresh strawberries (other berries or light fruit will be fine)
- Four ounces heavy cream
- Four ounces whipping cream
- Five tablespoons sugar
Naturally, this is a pretty daunting materials list. Keep in mind though that a lot of items listed are spices and seasonings, so that takes a pretty big chunk of the legwork out of your trip to the store. This is also intended to be a large, party sort of meal so it’s a little bit more grandiose than a lot of the food I’ll be talking about here in the future.
All told, the expense for this meal was about one-hundred dollars, including the cost of already owned spices. I was cooking for five but could have handily fed eight. In the long run, this isn’t a great everyday meal, but it’s fantastic and easy for special dinner occasions.
SECTION TWO: The Main Course
So you’re ready to cook something. Great! The first and most obvious step to preparing a meal is to step into the kitchen. If you don’t have access to a kitchen and are planning on cooking this anyway, then you have my respect because you’re obviously some kind of damn wizard. Rock on, Gandalf.
Once you’ve decided not to mail in that application to Hogwarts and have stepped into the kitchen, take stock again. Make sure that you have everything that you’re going to need. Running out to the store to pick up something that you forgot while you’ve got something in the oven can be a serious disaster, and while improvisation is at the heart of cooking, it’s usually best done on your own time. Experiment on yourself; not on your dinner guests.
But let’s begin. I chose lamb shanks for this meal because they’re generally nice cuts of meat. They’re fairly easy to find most of the time, have a nice long grain to them and a lot of good meat, and are usually not too fatty while also remaining tender. They can be expensive sometimes, but usually I can find them for no more than the equivalent per-pound price of a middling cut of beef. As such, they’re an all around nice piece of meat to work with, though they often take a good amount of cooking time to be prepared properly.
The first thing you’re going to want to do once you unwrap your meat is rinse it in cool water, clearing off any congealed or otherwise sticky butcher-shop crap that can accumulate between when you buy the meat and cook it. Lightly pat the meat dry with a paper towel and set it aside for the time being. You’ll also want to take out your chunk of butter and set it aside on the counter to soften a bit. Preheat your oven to three-hundred-and-twenty-five degrees and then move on to your stewing vegetables.
In a single pot meal like this, it’s important to prepare your vegetables properly. Personal preference has a say, but in a dish that can need to cook for up to five hours, the size of your carrot chunks can mean the difference between crisp-yet-cooked and completely soggy.
For the sake of consistency, I cut the carrots and celery into inch long chunks, and cut the onion from the top into inch-wide crescents. Things like celery and onion are pretty much guaranteed to turn to mush in a long term cooking environment, but thankfully they’re mostly there to provide flavor and extra moisture for the meat. In the end, the two elements complement the rest of the meal with their flavor and people are pretty accepting of their being limp and kind of gross.
Two of these things will be seriously ratty looking by dinner time.
Once you’ve taken care and mauled your vegetables, turn your knife on those garlic cloves. De-husking can be an outright chore most of the time, and it’s one of those things that it’s best to learn early on in your cooking career. Having a good grasp on the concept can save you a lot of time and headache down the road. A lot of people like to crush the clove with the flat of their knife to loosen the husk and then peel it off, but my personal preference is to chop the clove length-wise and then pop the meat out with a light squeeze. No matter which way you find easier, you’re going to get the garlic clean and apply pressure to the meat, stirring up the volatile oils. Chop the garlic to a fine consistency and then place it in a large mixing bowl with the rest of your vegetables.
Interlude 01: Here’s Where I Talk About Garlic
You might have noticed that I’m having you chop your garlic last and are now wondering why. Then again, maybe you aren’t. Maybe you’re wondering how multi-vitamins are made, or how somebody can talk about garlic so much. Well get yourself sorted man, because there’s a reason for the way I recommend that you prepare your garlic.
The primary volatile element in garlic is an enzyme called allinaise. Like most volatile components in the foods we use for seasoning, allinaise is what gives garlic it’s distinctive smell and plays a big part in how we taste it. Like the sulphur compounds in onions, the more you bruise and cut the flesh of a garlic clove, the more allinaise you release. For our purposes, we’re chopping the garlic fairly fine because we’re cooking a large quantity of food and we want the flavor to come through. We also want a lot of flavor to come through because this is a dish that we’ll be cooking for a long time, and exposure to prolonged high temperatures will cause allinaise to break down.
Further, I’ve recommended that you chop your garlic last because garlic doesn’t sit all that well. Once you’ve prepared it, it needs to get cooking pretty quickly, because exposure to open air will cause the flesh to oxidize quickly. Take too long, and you’ll end up with garlic that is bitter instead of rich. If you have to let garlic sit for a while, covering it in a thin layer of olive oil will slow down the oxidation process.
Finally, garlic can be difficult to chop. It gets sticky as the oils are released, and will clump nastily to the cutting board, the knife, your hands, anything. To remedy this, sprinkle some sea salt on the cutting surface before you begin. As you begin to cut, the salt will absorb some of the oil; softening the garlic and breaking it down some. It should also stop the clumping and make the garlic easier to work with.
Okay, back to business. Once you’ve got all of your vegetables in a bowl, drizzle your olive oil over the mixture and add your Paprika, Bay Leaves and Coriander powder. Now get your hands in there and mix everything until all of the vegetables are lightly coated in the oil and spice mixture. If everything seems ready to go, dump the mixture into your tagine and form a mound with it. If you don’t have or aren’t using a tagine, then a large, oven-safe casserole dish will do nicely. In the case of your using a dish, make sure to position your vegetables in a mound-shaped line running lengthwise down the center of the dish.
With your vegetables taken care of, it’s time to return to the lamb. By now your lamb should have drained some and your butter should have softened a bit. Dry the lamb again if necessary and then vigorously rub the butter onto the meat. If it’s easier for you, you can also melt your butter completely in the microwave (twenty seconds should do) and apply it to the meat with a pastry brush. Since we’re roasting the meat for a prolonged period, the objective here is to create a sort of vapor barrier on the outside of the meat. By applying a thin layer of fat, we’re ensuring that a lot of liquid stays inside of the meat during the cooking process--keeping it moist and tender--and also causing the outer layer of skin and muscle to brown and crisp in a way that is visually appealing and adds extra texture to the meat. It’s sort of like faking the outside of a rotisserie chicken.
With your meat thoroughly buttered, arrange it in the tagine on top of the vegetables. Make sure that you leave enough room for air to flow between the meat and the top portion of the tagine. If you’re using a casserole dish, arrange the meat in a similar fashion, propping it up on your vegetable pile. Once you have your meat in position, sprinkle some coarse sea salt over the top of it and the ground up contents of your Cardamom pods.
Interlude 02: Some Things You Hopefully Didn’t Know About Cardamom
There are two types of Cardamom—-Green and Brown—-both of which are in the ginger family. Green Cardamom, which I am using here, is generally the more easily found in stores and is often more expensive than the brown variety. It is a fairly earthy seasoning and lends a slight eucalyptus taste to things that it is cooked with. As such, it’s usually used in teas and deserts and rice dishes.
Fresh Cardamom is a nice addition to many dishes, lending a slight sweetening effect, but it can be a real pain in the ass to prepare. Usually, the entire pod can be dropped into a broth for infusion and discarded later, but since this is an oven meal we need to remove the seeds from the pod. (Note: nobody who matters will actually think less of you if you just use powdered Cardamom)
To prepare fresh Cardamom, go back to what I said earlier about Garlic. Crush the pod under the flat of your blade to pop it open and then pull the seeds out. Make sure to remove the inner husk from the seeds (it will be off-white and kind of puffy) and then put the seeds through a couple of good grinds in a mortar and pestle. The result should look similar to course-ground peppercorns.
By now, your oven should be ready at temperature and you’re ready to put the main course on the backburner for four to five hours. Place the top on the tagine, making sure that it fits snuggly with the base, or take a long piece of tinfoil and tent it over the top of your casserole dish. Place it in the oven and get ready for a bit of a waiting game.
For the next several hours you’re going to have to stick pretty close to the kitchen. By no means should you obsess over the state of your meat, but stick close and keep yourself aware of any sudden changes in scent. You’d be surprised at how quickly you notice when something starts to burn.
While the meat and vegetables cook, it’s a good idea to check on it every half an hour or so. This shouldn’t be as big of a concern in the tagine, but there’s a lot of liquid that’s going to cook out of your food and pool in the bottom of your dish. Like a turkey or a baked chicken, you’re going to want to periodically baste the meal to make sure everything stays moist and cooks evenly.
If you run into a situation like I did where you have too much liquid and an overflow or submergence of the vegetables seems likely, don’t be afraid to suck out excess liquid with your baster. If you’re the kind of person who likes to plan for future meals, then this is a great opportunity to freeze the excess liquid in a Tupperware container for use as stock later. Just make sure that you let the liquid sit out for a while so it can cool and separate. You’ll want to skim the fat off of the stock before you freeze it to maintain it’s quality.
That’s really all there is to the main course. When the meal is ready to serve, I’d recommend separating the vegetables out for the sake of convenience and serving the meat in the tagine. It’s also probably a good idea to separate out the bay leaves before serving, but that isn’t strictly necessary.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the rest of the meal.
SECTION THREE: Your Couscous and You
Couscous is one of my favorite things ever. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s diverse. You can make it taste like just about anything you want and do so quickly, and that’s a fantastic asset if your kitchen is one where a lot of the cooking is done on the fly. It’s also one of those rare things that you can buy in bulk and actually have it keep, which is great because a little of this Berber rolled-grain goes a seriously long way.
For this meal, you can start on the couscous as soon as you put the main course in the oven. Take your cinnamon sticks and stick them in the toaster oven for several minutes. While they’re toasting, select a stove-top pot with a tight-fitting cover and fill it with water. Your package of couscous should have the necessary amount of water printed on it, but a good rule of thumb is one-and-a-quarter cups to every one cup of uncooked couscous. When you can smell the cinnamon from across the room, remove it from the toaster and put it in the water to soak along with your bay leaves.
You aren’t going to be doing much with the couscous for the next while. Because of how quickly it actually cooks, you don’t really want to touch it again until you’re about a half-hour away from taking the main course out of the oven.
When the time has come, prepare the remainder of your seasonings and ingredients. (pine nuts, Saffron, and Cardamom pods, remember?) When you’re using fresh or whole spices and seasonings, it’s generally a good idea to take the time to lightly toast them and stir up their volatile oils. This will generally enhance the flavor of the dish by drawing out the individual flavors of the spices, making them sharper and more distinct. Toast them in the same way that you did the cinnamon earlier, though keep a sharper eye on it this time. Your pine nuts should just start to brown when everything is ready.
Extract and prepare the Cardamom in the same way as before, (or try the infusion technique, the choice is yours), and then grind the Saffron to a fine powder. You don’t need to do anything else with the pine nuts as they are there more for added texture in the dish rather than flavor. Mix all of the seasonings into the standing water with the cinnamon and bay leaves, add your olive oil, and put the pot on the stove to boil.
Bring the seasoning mixture and the water to a rapid boil and then fish out the cinnamon sticks and the bay leaves. (and the Cardamom pods if you went the infusion route) By now they will have done their job and added a bit of subtle flavor to the water and the whole dish by association. Stir in your dry couscous and briefly return the whole mixture to heat. When it has begun to boil again, remove the pot from heat and cover it. The couscous should expand and absorb the water in five minutes or less.
It’s not often that you can literally watch your food cook.
When the couscous has absorbed the water, fluff it lightly with a fork and transfer it to a serving dish. The texture should be slightly sticky, but not visibly clumpy. If it is to your preference, add some garnish or extra seasoning, though a couple of pats of butter will usually do it for most people.
SECTION FOUR: Chef’s Choice
As I said in the first section, this side dish is really up to you as an individual cook. It isn’t strictly necessary, but if you’re stretching the main course for more diners or want to provide some extra variety, then it is entirely acceptable to add another vegetable.
My personal preference in this case was straight, old-fashioned peas. They’re easy and fairly flavor-neutral and they complement couscous nicely. If you need my help to boil a bag of frozen peas though, I’m going to have to come up with some remedial columns for hopeless cases.
Go ahead. Add your own touch to the meal. I’m cool with it. Seriously.
SECTION FIVE: Sangria, Bitches!
Sangria isn’t something that is always to my liking. I’m not much of a wine drinker in general, but this chilled fruit/wine combo drink is fairly light and refreshing and can be nice on a hot summer evening.
For this particular meal, I went with a couple of fruit wines. The blueberry wine has a lot of sweetness to it without being overpowering, and the pomegranate adds a tart touch. Mix your wines in a large carafe and leave it in the fridge or in a spot where the mix isn’t likely to get too warm.
Next, chop up your fruit. I went with a single apple and a single orange. You don’t really need a whole lot of fruit for something like this because your objective is to add flavor over time. Once you add the fruit to the wine, put it back in the refrigerator to keep it chilled for a couple of hours and let it breathe. If you think it is necessary, you can also add a couple of cups of orange juice to add volume and extra flavor. Also, for some added lightness, you can dump a couple of cans of cold Sprite into the mix just before serving.
It’s pretty straight forward really, and makes for a nice change of pace when served with a larger, heavier meal.
SECTION SIX: Like Strawberry Short-Cake, but Kind of Not
I’m pretty sure that you have to be sick of me by now, and, honestly, I wrote so much about garlic that I’m thinking of going and getting myself tested. This is the home stretch though, so we’d best just soldier on. Just lie back and think of England, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve reached the desert dish.
For the sake of variety, I went with something a little bit Mediterranean that was also readily identifiable by American diners. Aniseed, or Common Anise, is a slightly sweet spice that lends a licorice taste to whatever it is cooked in. Often baked into cakes and cookies, it also has some digestive properties which make it nice in herbal teas or in the desert that follows a heavy meal.
Since the meal has been fairly heavy thus far, I went with a large, thin cookie as the basis of the dish rather than a more traditional pound-cake or unflavored scone. Since we’re using a prepared cookie dough, just kneaded the Anise seeds into the dough and roll the whole thing out flat on the pan before cooking it to spec. The end result is a thin, brittle sugar cookie, flecked throughout with spots of solid black and brown. The sheet should break up nicely into sections roughly four to five inches across and less than a quarter of an inch thick.
With the cookies set aside to cool, turn your attention to your whipped cream. Combine your heavy cream and your whipping cream together in a large mixing bowl. As you begin to mix the components, slowly add in three tablespoons of sugar. Continue to mix until the cream solidifies tot eh point of peaking. The resulting cream should be light and fluffy, but not too heavily sweet.
Three or four minutes in a mixer should produce the desired peaks.(pictured right)
Next take your fruit and begin to slice it up. The choice of fruit is really a personal one. I would recommend keeping your choice in the berry family for the sake of consistency, but if you have something more exotic that you would rather use then by all means try it out. I went with strawberries mostly because they’re traditional and it’s hard to find someone who won’t eat them.
With your fruit prepared, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top of it and let it sit while you put out the base layer of cookie. Put down the berries over the cookie, and then a layer of cream. Cap each serving off with a second cookie and use the remaining cream to garnish. Serve cold.
SECTION SEVEN: Wrap Up
And that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this first installation of Cooking Column and can get some use out of it. Please leave any ideas, questions, or other comments in the comment section, and please join me next week for another--less labyrinthine--article.
If you like this recipe, please take it and enjoy it with my blessings. That’s what it’s here for. And if you’re on the fence about it, it really is more easy than the length of the article makes it seem. I’m being comprehensive for the sake of being comprehensive. Also: this meal actually produces relatively few dirty dishes, and ample opportunity to clean up as you go. And when cooking a large meal, that’s always exciting.
I leave you now with one last picture of the short-cakes, and my thanks for your readership. It’s appreciated, folks. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.