Sunday, October 9, 2022

Desert Rose Lamb and Sour Cherry Tagine

It all started six years ago, after a dinner at my friend Ursila’s place. Ursila is an exceptional cook, one of the best I know. Her Indian fare is a journey into senses, a blast of colors, textures and flavors that, like a magic carpet, take you places. Imagine clay pots filled with aromatic curries and khormas, vegetables in thick creamy sauce, platters of fish dusted with spice, trays of crispy samosa... It’s hard to pick a winner when you dine at Ursila’s, but that night there was a simple dal dish – brownish and unpretentious -- that took my breath away.

“What's in this dish?” I remember asking. “It tastes like heaven.”

“Just dal,” said Ursila. “Does not get more basic than that.” But it was not 'just dal'; the flavors were deep and complicated, and the spices sang. There had to be a secret ingredient, I thought, something rare and out of ordinary, and I was determined to find it.

“Sweetie, don’t be silly,” Ursula laughed. “No secret ingredients, just a good old garam masala. I made it this morning. Here, take some home.” She took a small mason jar from the cupboard, wrapped it in a tissue paper, and stashed it in my purse.

That is how I got into spice blending.

Once I tried cooking with freshly ground spices, there was no coming back. The flavors were vibrant, electric almost; I rediscovered cumin, cardamon, and cloves. I made my first garam masala using a recipe from the internet. Then I moved to cookbooks. And back to internet. Being of a slightly obsessive kind, I made 17 garam masalas within one month, and tested them in different dishes. Spice blends are like perfumes, I realized; there is a base note, a middle note, and a top note; every spice you introduce has something to say. The quantities you apply also matter -- a sprinkle more, a sprinkle less, and the dish can go in an entirely new direction. Take garam masala for example, if you add more cinnamon or cloves, the mixture warms up and assumes on a velvety quality; it’s a garam masala you would use in a dish like dal makhani. If you increase cumin and coriander, the mixture cools down and becomes breezy; it’s a blend you would use in a lamb or eggplant dish. Once I got handle on garam masala, I moved to other blends: baharat, ras el hanout, advieh. For a while I stayed in the realm of known mixtures, but the realm began to stretch, further and further, until there was not realm anymore and I went into an uncharted territory. I began to create my own blends. And new dishes to go with.

My blends don’t belong to any particular cuisine or region – they are mine -- they tell stories I want to tell or retell events from my memory. They depict places I’ve been to, and places I would like to visit, places real and imaginary, my very own castles in the sky... Recently, I imagined an oasis in a desert, where garden roses bloom among fallen leaves, where winds are warm with kindness, and air is perfumed with honey, cherrystones, and lemony herbs.  And here it is...

Desert Rose Lamb and Sour Cherry Tagine

3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 11/2-inch pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
6 - 8 ounces dried sour cherries
1 large yellow onion (9 oz), minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated on a microplane
2 small garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
1 1/2 tablespoons Desert Rose spice blend (see recipe below)
zest of half lemon, grated on a microplane
2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided (1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon)
2 sprigs of fresh oregano
1 tablespoon light honey (optional)
1 teaspoon rosewater (I use Cortas), or 2 drops (literally, no more) of rose extract
2 dried Turkish bay leaves

to garnish: 

toasted almonds
chopped parsley, mint, or other fresh herbs
lemon wedges

In a large bowl, combine the lamb cubes and salt. Leave in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

In a small pot, bring the broth to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the sour cherries, and leave for at least 15 minutes, or until the cherries have softened.

Heat the oven to 325°F (300°F convection).

In a Dutch oven (or pot with a tight fitting lid) combine olive oil with the onions and set over medium heat (starting the onions in a cold oil will help release their flavor gradually and will give them a sweet, creamy taste). Simmer the onions for about 20 minutes, until very soft and deep yellow.

Add the grated ginger and garlic and continue to simmer for about two minutes, until fragrant.

Add the spices, lamb, lemon zest, lemon juice, rosewater, bay leaves, cherries, oregano, honey (if using), and broth. Bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with crumpled parchment paper, and then with the lid, and transfer into the oven. Cook in the oven for 2 to 2 ½ hours, until the lamb is very tender.

Remove the tagine from the oven. Add the remaining one tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Leave the tagine to rest at least two hours before serving. It is even better if prepared a day ahead.

To serve, warm the tagine over low heat. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter or individual bowls. Top with toasted almonds and herbs, and additional lemon wedges. Serve with flatbread, rice, couscous, or potatoes.

Desert Rose Spice Blend
from scratch

9 g rose petals
4 g whole nutmeg (about one small nutmeg)
4 g whole cloves
4 g Ceylon cinnamon (about one large stick)
3 g cumin seeds
3 g black peppercorns
3 g white Sarawak peppercorns

Heat a dry cast iron pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the cloves to the pan. To ensure that they toast evenly, stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or shake the pan. As soon as the cloves become fragrant, remove them from the pan and set aside to cool. (It should take only about 2 minutes, so keep an eye, if they are roasted too much, they will lose their flavor.) Repeat with the cumin. Let the cloves and cumin cool completely before grinding.

Crush the nutmeg in a mortar into several pieces.

Place all spices into a spice or coffee grinder. Grind to a fine powder. If needed, sieve the mixture, and grind the coarse particle one more time. Store in a jar in a dark, cool place.

yields enough to make three to four tagines

Desert Rose Spice Blend
with pre-ground spices

2 teaspoons rose petals
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

In a mortar, crush the rose petals into a fine powder. Combine with other spices.

yields enough for one tagine

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