23 April 2009

not 'too German'

Goodness gracious.

How comes that, when you plan on taking a few days off, all sort of s**t hits the fan? The last weeks went by in a flurry, and looking back now, I can hardly remember what all the fuss was about.

That is to say: I am on holiday now for a few days, and I am absolutely thrilled by the fact. We're not planning on going anywhere, we're just going to stay at home, work in the garden and at the house, cook, eat, write and generally plan on having a wonderful time.

Which actually is coming along quite perfectly, for just in time with my days off, spring has taken a solid hold in my corner of the world.

buttercups and sunshine at the little creek in our garden

We have tadpoles in the pond, flowers everywhere, and the birds are singing their little hearts out. And spring wouldn't be spring without new potatoes, asparagus and, of course, lamb.

We had a wonderful lambshank for easter sunday, a riff on my lemon chicken, actually. And as lovely as the lamb was on the first day (see recipe below) the real stunner was what we did with the leftovers the next day.

I was baking ciabattini anyway, so I turned a few of them into two large, airy flatbreads. I cut the remaining lamb as fine as I could and fried it with a generous dose of oregano. Some green salad, a few onions, some yoghurt with mint (yes, the very same stuff you use for tea, mixed into rich yoghurt) and assembled all of this at the table - voila, the poshest döner pide ever.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this, but it was just as delicious as it was messy and a real feast. And damn, was it messy. There's still some yoghurt on the paving outside underneath the table...

But, back to the original lamb. My wife wanted lamb, but it shouldn't taste 'too German', whatever that is supposed to mean exactly.

So I took the lemon chicken recipe and added more cinnamon, something I learned from the Lady my mother worked for as an au-pair who originally came from Greece. Lamb and cinnamon may sound unusual companions, but they go along perfectly well. Together with a lot of lemon and olive oil, they make a wonderfully fragrant, light and summery dish that is both exotic and familar.

And defintely not 'too German'.

lemon lamb with cinnamon
(generously serves four)

for the lamb
1 lamb shank, deboned
1 large lemon
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary, dried and ground
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 tablespoon sea salt
some olive oil
a pinch of chilli

for the potaoes
1,5 kg of potatoes
1 large lemon
200 ml olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon thyme (or more, if you like. I do.)
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
chili to taste

If necessary, clean the meat, cut off all sinews and skin.
When using a deboned shank, I prefer to cut the meat in a way that it comes to lay like a flat rectangle, instead of bundling it up again into its original shape. This way, I feel, I get more surface, meaning more crust, more taste, and a better distribuion of the spices. And of course, it's done much faster.

Cut the zest off the lemon, chop it very finely. Juice the remaining lemon and keep the juice for the potatoes.
Only use the yellow peel of the lemon, with none of the white stuff as it gets bitter. I think it is easiest to get off the lemon with a really sharp potato-peeler.

Mix the spices and the lemon zest with salt and honey; add some olive oil so the rub will be moist but not too runny.
If you have a mortar and pestle, this is the moment to use it, especially to get the fragrant lemon oils out of the zest. Probably a food processor will do just as well.

Rub the meat all around with the spice mix, using all of it.
Use the entire rub, if some falls off, it’ll just spice the potatoes.

Leave the meat to rest.
Half an hour is fine, two hours or three is better.

Meanwhile, clean the potatoes if necessary, and cut (unpeeled) into wedges.
Try to keep the smallest diameter of the wedges approximately the same, so they will all be done at the same time. I usually quarter them along their longest side.

Mix the lemon juice of both lemons, the olive oil, spices, honey and salt.
Spice with a little chilli if you like, but normally the lemon alone will have enough zing to keep things interesting.
I usually add the second lemon’s zest to the rub, but you can also add the lemon peel to the potatoes for added scent. Just warn your guests that it is decoration and not very tasty…

Put the potatoes in a big bowl and toss with the dressing until they are evenly coated.

Pour the potaoes onto a high-rimmed baking tray (or into a large oven dish), the lamb on a gridiron above them and put into the oven at about 180°C. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes (depending on the weight of the meat), and turn the potatoes once or twice so they have a chance to brown evenly on all sides.
There should be hardly any liquid left among the potatoes, and they should be crisp outside and soft inside. Both the tray and the potatoes should be smudged with a fine, brow layer of caramelized, partially burned lemon juice. Actually, you might want to line the tray or the dish with non-stick paper, as the lovely, tasty stuff is close to impossible to get off again.

Take out of the oven and leave to cool for a moment, then serve.
This is mostly to allow the juices recover a bit and resolve some of the caramelized lemon juice. And of course, the wedges are fragging hot inside, and we have had more than one unhappy accident with overeager eaters…

As a side, you can serve any green salad, and my mother-in-law and me especially like to have heavy, Greek-style yoghurt to go with it as a dip.

Leftovers make a perfect döner pide the next day, as mentioned.

05 April 2009

ever so slightly charred

So now it's official - winter is over.

Yesterday, we had the first official barbeque of the year. And damn, I have been missing this. The rest of the family insisted on sausages (we're Germans, after all), but I had been hungering for something else.

The meat skewers that were on my mind already when it was still snowing outside are called 'shashlik' here. I bet they have very little in common with their eastern original, apart from the fact that they are on skewers. They have some vaguely Hungarian connotations here, but I have never seen anything like this anywhere outside a German supermarket.

Yet the combination of marinated meat, bacon and vegetables isn't only extremely tasty, it's also something quite... archetypal. You know, one of those combinations that work just this one way, and click and fit together as if it had never been intended otherwise. I love shashlik, and in the rare cases we have some leftovers, I eat them cold the next day.

One thing I had to learn with these skewers is that they only taste real good once they are ever so slightly charred. It's quite inevitable anyway, with pointy vegetable corners peeking far into the fire, but still. Think of Italian antipasti, where the bell peppers have to be thorougly blackened before marinating. It would taste bland if not, and it's mostly the same here.

Try it, it is a great and unique addition to any barbeque repertoire. (And a great opportunity to get some vegetables into my otherwise strictly carnivorous wife...)

(Serves two to four, depending on how greedy your folks are. It's generously enough for my wife and me.)

400g lean beef (we use rumpsteak end cuts)
juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 slight teaspoon chili or cayenne pepper
some ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil

350g bacon (one chunk, not slices for frying)
2 bell peppers, one green, one red
2 medium onions

Cut the beef in chunks of about 5 by 5 centimetres.

In a bowl, mix the lemon juice, olive oil and spices, but no salt. Marinade the meat for a few hours, best over night.
There is no need to add salt to the marinade, as the bacon will be more than salty enough.

Once you've lit the coals, cut the bell peppers, the bacon and the onions in into chunks that are about as large as the pieces of meat and keep at hand. Take a look at the picture, you'll see what I mean about the sizes.

Start putting the ingredients onto skewers, beginning with bell peppers, then onion, meat, bacon, bell peppers, and so on. Try to end each skewer with a piece of bell pepper, as they'll hold best.
It may be pure superstition, but I try to get the meat always wedged in between some onion and some bacon, as those are the two ingredients adding some taste.

Once you are done, baste the skewers with the remaining marinade and set aside until the fire's ready.

Grill on direct heat, medium to hot, until the vegetables start charring. Serve immediately, with some bread and the condiment of your choice.
If you want, you can baste the skewers with some of the remaining marinade immediately after grilling for some extra juiciness.