One day it appeared. Spring. A warm breeze gently breathed through the windows, comfy tendrils of air wrapping themselves around bare arms. Carpets of green appearing where brown was two days earlier. Pollen flying willy nilly through the air, digging deep into the sinuses of many an allergy sufferer, causing a spike in the stock of facial tissue suppliers. So one fine day in the fresh light of spring, I decided it was time for lamb. Deciding to cook up a young, fresh animal may seem a macabre reaction, but there are some rituals of ancient times that require a lamb sacrifice. A sacrificial lamb, offered up so the seductively balmy breezes wafting through the window would be assured for a few months more. Granted, far from being a sacrificer, I was getting this from a small supplier, neatly ground and packaged, but surely that is a modern device for the old tradition of a sacrificial lamb? Surely?
This was no thought out recipe. There were no careful notations in notebooks. There was merely the heady rush of experimentation as ingredients were pulled hectically out of the fridge, making what was initially to be a simple preparation far more elaborate. A pound of ground lamb. A fistful of fresh parsley and mint. An onion, half slivered for sauteeing, the other half chopped for pureeing. A plump, heavy lemon, promising an extra burst of sun in citrus form. Parsley, mint, onion, and lemon zest were whirled in the magical food processor with a touch of olive oil until a verdant puree was made. The puree was added to the ground lamb, the whole slowly and thoroughly mixed with bare hands, herbaceous fresh scents drifting up with every knead of the hand. Meatballs so wet they were on the verge of falling apart were formed and carefully laid out on a greased cooking rack. They slid into the oven, in the ways of meatballs I have become so obsessed with. This would later prove to be problematic, but we’ll get there later. For now the rush of experimentation was overriding any form of common sense.
Cumin and coriander, toasted in a small pan and ground, releasing the most delicious aromas.
A single red pepper, slowly roasted until the skin bubbled and burst, then tucked away under cover to steam the charred bits away, leaving the silky sweetness only a roasted pepper can give. Pungent kalamata olives were pitted and sliced. The sliced onion was slowly reduced in olive oil to a pungently sweet stew. A pound of mushrooms were cleaned, sliced, and dropped in, salted so as to call forth their juices. The ground cumin and coriander were dropped in, making the whole pan release the smell of spice markets in far away lands. Pearl couscous was set to boil with a touch of onion and bay leaf.
It was at this point the reverie was disturbed, for you see… if you did not already know it, lamb is quite the fatty little meat. I don’t mean that in any sort of denigrating way. I love fat. Used well, it tends to make the whole world taste delicious. But when you have lamb meatballs in a 400 degree oven, releasing their grease onto the hot pan below, so much that it begins to smoke intensely, you start to get billows of smoke coming out of the vent of your oven. And if you live in an apartment, you have no such thing as a hood or any sort of ventilation. You are generally lucky to have a stove from this century. The whole apartment was a little smoky, my glasses ever so slightly glazed with a film of smoky grease. Windows were thrown open, the smell of smoking fat, which is not actually that pleasant, growing larger and larger. The meatballs were left to finish, and notably shrank to half of their original size. A hesitant nibble at one of these brave explorers revealed that it had not actually absorbed any of the fatty lamby smoke that had been issuing forth earlier. It did take 12 hours to get it out of my lungs. Totally worth it, even though it took two scrubbings later on to clean the oven, that had been entirely coated in the intense spatter of the sputtering lamb fat.
After the lamb meatballs were spoken for, the rest came together swiftly. The couscous was tossed with the red peppers and kalamata olives into the skillet with the onions and mushrooms, along with a little extra of the cooking water that would hopefully help pull things together as it simmered down. An entire lemon was squeezed over the couscous and left to simmer for just a moment, just until the liquid disappeared. At the very last moment, another fistful of chopped parsley and mint were thrown in and the whole tossed about, the toasted spices mingling with the fresh green, the sharp olives getting entangled with the sweet red peppers, the venerable onions and mushrooms carrying it all. A dish was procured, a generous pile of the couscous ladled in, followed by a few choice meatballs and a few more sprinkles of freshly chopped mint. It was delicious. Especially the next day after the smoke had cleared out of my apartment and lungs.
I don’t really have a recipe for this. It really was experimentation, and I really need to figure out how to cook those lamb meatballs without smoking myself out of the apartment. If you take away the meatballs, this was totally vegan. So what can I give you? A rough approximation of what I did:
1 lb. ground lamb
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 c. parsley, chopped
1/4 c. mint, chopped
zest of one lemon
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Use food processor to combine everything but the lamb into a fair paste, mix the paste into the lamb by hand, form roughly 1 1/2″ diameter meatballs, place on a greased cooling rack that is sitting on top of a cookie sheet lined with tin foil to catch the fat that drips off. Perhaps tenting this over with foil is the answer for next time, or using a lesser temperature and a longer roasting time. In this case, it was 30 minutes in a 425 degree oven.
1 red pepper, roasted and cut into thin strips
the other 1/2 of the onion, slivered
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. cremini mushrooms, sliced thick
1 Tbsp. whole coriander & 1 Tbsp. whole cumin, toasted then ground together
1/2 c. kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 c. parsley, chopped
1/4 c. mint, chopped
1 lemon (the one you zested)
1 c. pearl couscous
2 c. water
a bay leaf
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium and add in the onions, cooking until they start to go translucent. Add in the mushrooms and sprinkle some salt over them, continue to cook the whole mass. In a saucepan, pour another quick splash of olive oil and add in the pearl couscous. Cook just until the grains of couscous begin to brown, then add in the water and the bay leaf. Pull a few bits of onion out of your skillet and add them in. I usually bring the water to a boil, let it boil for five minutes, then slap the cover on and remove from the heat and let sit for ten minutes. In the meantime, check the onions and mushrooms. Have things started to brown? Good. Once the mushrooms are cooked through, add in the spices, stirring them completely in, and cook for another few minutes, stirring constantly. Add in the roasted red pepper and olives and let cook for a couple more minutes. Once the couscous has cooked, add it into the skillet, along with a bit of excess cooking water. Turn up the burner to medium high and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid starts to disappear. Squeeze in the better part of the lemon. Cook a minute more until that liquid starts to disappear. It will never go dry, we just want some of it to get soaked up into the whole. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, toss in the freshly chopped parsley and mint, dish out as you will, perch a couple of meatballs on it (if you are going that way), maybe try to get one more squeeze of lemon over the top, and hope that the gods have looked kindly upon this and continue a run of spring for a little longer before smacking us over the head with summer.