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On my last trip to my lovely local butcher, they had some exciting looking bits of lamb loin – not the big roasting cut you most often see in the UK, but more like a pork loin; just the very tender central strip of meat. When I asked about it, the butcher told me they were from this season’s spring lambs. Yes, admittedly, these are those super adorable little lambs that go sproing all across the South Downs. So cute and so tasty. I generally prefer meat with a bit more flavour than a loin but at this time of year, it’s really worth making the most of the delicacy and super-soft texture of spring lamb. In the spirit of terroir, I decided to cook the meat with the local Sussex peas that are also coming into the shops at this time of year, and to finish the dish I picked up some sheep’s milk yoghurt. I grant you, there’s something slightly perverse about the combination. It seems a bit like those Asian ‘mother and child’ dishes of eggs stuffed back into the bodies of their roasting mothers, or maybe it’s just that it’s so very treyf. Regardless, I liked the idea of using tangy sheep’s milk yoghurt alongside sweet peas and pan-roasted lamb. Read the rest of this entry »

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My old roommate N is a fan of garlic. I haven’t lived with her for over ten years, since we were in graduate school together, but I remember vividly the image of her crushing garlic and salt with a huge butcher’s knife, and folding little mountains of garlic paste into caesar salad dressing, soup, or skordalia. She is also a real northern Californian foodie, serious about the kind of high-quality fresh ingredients that are second nature in West Coast farmers’ markets. When we lived together, her mother (a professional food writer) actually FedExed tomatoes to the East Coast, which I thought was kind of crazy until I tasted them.

So when a conference brought N to visit me, I immediately considered what I would cook for her. We don’t have California levels of beautiful produce here but we do have some lovely local food in the summer. I figured that what would make her happiest would be the simplest presentation of Sussex foods…with a healthy dose of young garlic to keep things interesting. I got a lovely rolled lamb shoulder from the butcher and slathered it generously with a mixture of olive oil, salt, and a head of young garlic pounded to a paste. There are lots of nooks and crannies in a rolled shoulder that you can stuff garlic paste into. I roasted it for an hour and then sliced it and topped with mint salsa.

The salsa was pretty simple too: I just chopped a bunch of spring onions, two long green chilies, four tomatoes, a small handful of cilantro and a big handful of mint. Mix together, salt generously, and squeeze over the juice of a lime. It’s a simple summer foil to the roast lamb.

To round out the meal, I added local chard wilted with a little agrodolce, and Jersey royal potatoes tossed in butter and mint.

N and I had a great time catching up, sharing photos and hanging out on the beach. This super casual meal – so casual none of it really calls for a recipe – isn’t the most complicated thing I’ve ever cooked but it was definitely reflective of laid-back British summer eating. Now, if we could just arrange for the sun to come back…?

It’s been a busy week at work with sadly little time for cooking. I did manage a trip to London to see David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing, which somewhat made up for missing his Hamlet. (I had a ticket, procured after much pathetic begging from my Hollywood contacts, and then he went and hurt his back. Bah!) This time all went well, the play was hilarious and David was gorgeous in a white naval uniform. Check out my fellow theatre-goer Thrifty Gal’s post for photographic evidence. And, since no trip to London is complete without Asian food, I even managed a quick trip to C&R Café for a Singapore laksa and a Malaysian tea before the show.

But a girl can’t live on hot men in uniform alone (sadly) and come the end of the week I was ready for a different type of sensual pleasure. My friends JD and M gave me a lovely Moghul cookbook for my last birthday, and I’ve been meaning to test out some of its more complex dishes. It’s not a style of cooking I know a lot about: Moghul cuisine is associated with royalty, richness and opulence, and I’m more drawn to peasant food that draws deep flavour out of not a lot. That said, I need to learn a lot more about regional Indian cuisines and I am very interested in the connections between Moghul India and Persian foodways. So, in at the deep end, I decided to try out Shahi Rojan Josh, or royal red meat, a luxurious dish that uses 14 different spices just in its masala. It begins by soaking quite a lot of saffron in warm milk and this decadent opening gambit really sets the tone for the dish. Despite the complex masala, the saffron taste comes through as a sultry back note almost like a shaving of truffle in pasta. It wasn’t terribly red despite the name, and I wonder if it needed more dried chilies. Next time I will play around with the proportions, although I wouldn’t want to overwhelm the sweet perfume of saffron or throw off the delicate masala. The refinement of Moghul cuisine is certainly a challenge to the novice, but for now I am more than happy to appreciate some of its beauties. Read the rest of this entry »

When I visited Ukraine last summer, I found the food to be mostly ho hum: some nice soups and dumplings, but nothing really memorable. The exception was an amazing meal at a Georgian restaurant that I took my friends on a rather extensive tour of Kiev to find. By the time we were passing the crumbling abandoned parking lot part of town, I think some of them were rethinking their committment to food discovery, but hey, I got to test out my crappy high school Russian asking directions. And besides, don’t the best meals always require getting lost in a strange city? So, we found the restaurant eventually, and were confronted by an extensive and mostly incomprehensible menu. They kind of had an English version, but many of the translations were less than helpful and the place wasn’t really set up for tourists. Nonetheless, the meal was fantastic: kidney bean with walnut sauce, khachapuri, which is delicious cheese-stuffed bread, aubergine salad with fresh cheese, and a range of succulent grilled meats. Unlike the Ukrainian food, which was too plain for my tastes, Georgian cuisine has strong echoes of Persia and Turkey, with its use of nuts, vinegar, fruit and spices. My favourite plate was pork stuffed with pomegranate, garlic and onion and served with a thick pomegranate sauce. Everyone at the table kept going back to the jug of that sauce, pouring it over everything. Even almost a year later, I still remember it clearly.

So, when I was thinking about what to cook for Passover, those Georgian flavours came to mind as an appealing alternative to traditional East European fare. Obviously pork was out and pomegranate somehow didn’t seem a great match for brisket, so I decided on lamb shanks. I don’t know exactly what was in the restaurant version but I remembered the flavours pretty well and, after reading a few other Georgian recipes (for example in Claudia Roden’s book The Book of Jewish Food and online) and some blog posts on the cuisine, I put together my own version of the dish. If anyone has a more authentic version, I’d be happy to hear about it, but this version came out pretty well for a first attempt.

Pomegranate braised lamb shanks

  • 6 lamb shanks
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 and 1/2 tbsp hot paprika
  • 1/2 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 2 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
  • 1 cup red wine
  • a head of garlic, cloves separated and lightly crushed
  • seeds of 1/2 a pomegranate

Heat the oven to gas mark 4/350 F/180 C. Mix the coriander, paprikas, fenugreek, cumin and salt with the oil to make a paste and rub it all over the shanks. Leave to marinade for a couple of hours. Next, brown the shanks all over in a large ovenproof pot, using plenty of oil and being very careful not to burn the spices. Remove the meat to a plate.

In the same pot, sauté the onions until they are very soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic cloves and fry for a minute till fragrant. Add the shanks back into the pot and pour in the pomegranate juice and wine. The liquid should come quite far up the meat but there should be room for more liquid, as the shanks will give out quite a bit of fat. Cover and put in the oven for 3 to 3 and 1/2 hours, turning occasionally.

Once cooked, put the shanks and liquid in separate containers and refrigerate overnight. (You don’t have to do this stage, but it does give the opportunity to remove a lot of the fat and makes the sauce better.) The next day, skim the solidified fat off the surface of the sauce and reduce it by about two thirds over high heat. You’ll know it’s done when it becomes glossy and thickens a little. Heat the shanks up in the sauce, turning often. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

Serves 6

Yesterday’s dinner was a locavore’s  delight. Now that spring is in full flight, it feels not just possible but pleasurable to cook from the local produce that’s turning up in the shops. I started off in our local butcher, which is the kind of fantastic place that not only stocks locally sourced, organic meat, but where the butchers will happily go and cut you just what you need, and offer advice on how to cook what you’ve bought. I was drawn to the lamb, which all comes from small producers in the South Downs. It’s toward the end of the Spring lamb season so the meat has now been hung for longer and has a really sweet meaty flavour. I like it that way, as it lends itself to long slow cooking, so I bought a half a shoulder. The butcher suggested roasting it for four hours over potatoes and herbs…so this recipe is really his.

With meat and recipe suggestion in hand, I crossed over to the greengrocer where they had lovely new Jersey Royal potatoes and Sussex asparagus. I can’t resist asparagus in season, and besides, there are only a couple of weeks of overlap between the South Downs lamb and asparagus seasons, so it only makes sense to enjoy them together while you can. Sadly, I can’t bring myself to love the greengrocer as much as the butcher. While the butcher gives good value and often throws in a bit extra, the greengrocer charges exorbitant prices for ordinary produce and the staff are sullen. Oh well, I suppose I’m lucky to have them locally even if they’re not very nice.

As regular readers will have gathered, I’m not really a meat and potatoes kind of cook, but I make the occasional exception for fantastic local meat that you can pop in the oven and ignore. My butcher’s recipe reminded me of the  recipe for Roman Spring lamb in the Silver Spoon cookbook, so I’ve kind of Italian-ised it. I can’t be expected to roast meat without large amounts of garlic after all…

Roast Spring lamb with rosemary and potatoes

  • half a shoulder of lamb
  • a head of new season garlic
  • several branches of rosemary
  • 1/2 kilo of new potatoes
  • a glass of white wine
  • olive oil

Slice the potatoes thickly lengthwise and layer on the bottom of a lasagna pan. Scatter garlic cloves and rosemary stalks on top and add the wine and a cup or so of water. Rub olive oil over the lamb, sprinkle generously with sea salt and place on top of the potatoes. Cook at a low heat (gas mark 3, or 160 C) for 3 and 1/2 to 4 hours, adding more water if necessary.

While the lamb rests, prepare vegetables: I just grilled the asparagus with more sea salt.

Serves 4.

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