‘Electric’ would be an understatement as to how I feel at being asked to participate in John and Sally McKenna’s Theatre of Food at the Electric Picnic this year. Thank-you both very much for asking me, but more for everything you do for the community of Irish Food. There isn’t a foodie in Ireland that hasn’t benefited from your work. Personally, I thank you a million times over.
When I first came to Ireland in 1979, this country didn’t have a food culture. It had very good, basic food ingredients, but it was no where near what it needed to be to sate the cravings and tastebuds of a person like me!! I’ve watched it grow, relished and marveled in it. Your wonderful words, support and positive feedback has helped every producer, restaurant, food shop and consumer to enjoy what is now an oasis of production and simply, ‘goodies’ that abound in every corner of the country. You are both legends!
When Sally contacted me a few months ago, asking if I would cook for the Electric Picnic I was, needless to say, thrilled. The theme this year is Africa, and she asked me how my African cooking was? I responded with ‘tagines are good….fish head soup, not SO good’!! So it was decided that I would be cooking a Lamb Tagine, and an accompanying Burghul dish, which I usually do instead of the traditional cous cous. My Middle Eastern influence almost always takes a peek in somewhere in my making of casserole dishes, for that is what a tagine is really. The word ‘tagine’ refers to the clay pot with cylindrical lid traditionally used to cook a tagine. I personally prefer a pot, so that is what I use. And this is slow food, which I also love. Comfort food at it’s best.
Anyone familiar with my Moroccan Gold hummus, knows I love to use spices. Spices calm me, and they liven me up. They can warm my heart, or cool my temper. A simple inhalation of a magical blend of spices can ground me and change a bad day. So when I’m giving my talk about the Lamb Tagine and Bulghar (incidentally Burghul is Bulghar, and I often change from one spelling to the next…neither of which the spell-check on my computer like!!), I will also be demonstrating the building of spice blends. I actually use 2 spice blends while making my Tagine…1 is the Moroccan spice, Ras-el-hanout, which means ‘top of the shop’….and it IS!! The second is actually a Lebanese spice blend, Baharaat. It is sometimes called Lebanese Spice, or Lebanese 7 spice, but it rarely is only 7 spices. And the funny thing about these spice blends is they have so many things in common and then tip the balance by adding one or two other spices, flowers or seasonings to completely transform them. The blend of ‘mixed spice’ that we commonly use in Europe for festive cake baking, for example, isn’t far off of a baharaat, ..but add cumin and paprika…then it’s a different story. As I say, I will be building a blend at Electric Picnic and everyone can experience the result…so come along if you’re going to be there.
I usually buy most of my spice blends from Shortis Wong delicatessen on John Street in Kilkenny, but *cough* sometimes he doesn’t have them in stock (don’t mention the *cough* war). Even when he does, (I do love you , Chris), I still tweek and add to make my own personal blend. You may want to take note here of a certain kitchen arrangement I have that shocks the daylights out of most people (especially the lovely man that built most of my kitchen, Eddie). He freaks out when he comes over to do a job around the house for me when he sees how I make use of these commonly arranged set of 4 drawers (he’s usually looking for a teaspoon for his cup of tea, or a knife for his infamous tomato sandwiches!) Most people have them. Top drawer usually cutlery?…uhm, no…here’s my top drawer …and here’s my 3rd drawer…and here’s the fourth for when the 1st and 3rd run out!..so, yes, I do like my spices, and they are fresh when I get to them. A lot of my ‘magic’ lies within this space, but don’t despair, we do use cutlery…I do allow the 2nd drawer for such things!!
For those of you who do attend the Picnic and want to have a go at making the tagine, the ingredients for the ras-el-hanout are :coriander, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, allspice, galangal, mace, nutmeg, cardamon, cloves, lavender flowers and rose petals. There is an art to mixing these spices and everyone’s tastebuds are different, but I would use the above in decreasing order so that first listed has the most in the blend. For the baharaat, I would use more equal quantities of Allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, and then add lesser quantities of cumin, smoked paprika and ground lime.
Start preparing for your dish at least 24 hours ahead of serving. Begin by making the labneh, which is simply strained yoghurt. Line a sieve with a double layer of muslin (leaving excess muslin over the edges of the strainer. Place the strainer over a bowl that will hold it comfortably without falling out. Spoon thick ,Greek-style yoghurt ,into the muslin and bring up the ends to cover the yoghurt. Refrigerate. Every few hours, empty the liquid that has collected in the bowl. In 24 hours you will have the most luscious, creamy labneh. I then grate a large clove of garlic into the labneh and season with salt and pepper.
Because the theme this year is Africa, and because they do a lot of barbecuing in Africa, I decided that I would barbecue the lamb and the aubergines for the tagine. But, first I marinated the lamb in a rub of the above spices along with 4 Tablespoons of extra virgin Olive oil, the juice of 2 limes, some sea salt and several cloves of chopped garlic.
As you can see, (sorry, but pictures of raw meat marinating aren’t exactly sexy, but trust me the end result is!!), I’ve also left the lamb (neck and neck fillet) in large pieces. The meat will retain its juices more and by the end of the cooking time, it will be delightfully tender and easily divide…with a fork for that matter 🙂 . I left that to marinate for 24 hours and then I lit the barbeque. Because I didn’t want to light 2 barbecues, I also cooked the aubergines at this point, and then let them cool and refrigerated them until I added them nearer the end of the cooking time. (BTW…they were TO DIE FOR! Vegetables on the bbq are totally rock-and-roll.) I wait for the barbecue to die down to having a good layer of grey ash on the coals, because I really want the smokey flavour to transfer to the meat and just lightly seal it.
For cooking the aubergines, I used my ‘holy pan’ (wouldn’t be without it now). Brush the aubergines with olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper first.
When the meat is sealed, transfer to a dish while you start the sauce. I forgot to mention that I was using quite a lot of meat in this recipe 4-5 lbs. For a more normal quantity of say 2.5 – 3 lbs. of lamb, Chop 2 large onions, and several cloves of garlic (yes, more…trust me). Sauté them in olive oil over a moderate heat, until they are soft. Grate or finely chop 1″ piece of fresh ginger and add to the pan. Finely chop a medium red chilli and add (optional). With a small sharp knife, or a good vegetable peeler, carefully remove the rind from 1 lemon and 1 orange (you don’t want the pith, just the rind). You can use preserved lemon if you like, but personally I prefer that with chicken tagines, and find that fresh rinds add more to the lamb and finish like preserved lemons in the end. Put the lamb, lemon and orange into the pan along with any juices plus any of the left-over marinade. Add 800 grams peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes, or two tins of chopped tomatoes. A glass of white wine usually accidentally drops itself into the pot, along with a cup or so of pitted black olives, a few sprigs of fresh oregano, a teaspoon or two of rosemary and a few bay leaves. Gently bring this up to the boil. I like to add pomegranate molasses to the tagine too to add to the sour element, so usually do it at this point (1 Tablespoon). Taste the sauce and season with sea salt, black pepper and honey. Don’t overseason as it will now cook for approx. 2 hours over a very low heat or ideally slowly in the oven, (150/160 C) and you can tweek it then.
While the lamb is cooking make the apricot, herb and nut garnish to scatter over the top. Toast some flaked almonds in a dry pan until golden in colour (don’t take your eyes off them, or they’ll burn). Transfer to a bowl. Finely chop some dried or fresh apricots and add. Chop as much flat leaf parsley as almonds you have used, add to the bowl. Half as much fresh coriander, and the same amount of fresh mint. You can use more freshly grated lemon rind here if you like.
For the oven roasted tomatoes, cut a dozen small-ish , but not cherry, vine tomatoes (plum are great for this) in half and place in a roasting tray , cut side up. In a small bowl combine 3 Tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar and 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, 2tsp. harissa (or less if you don’t like heat), 1/2 teaspoon sea salt , 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and 2 Tablespoons of soft brown sugar. Mix well with a fork and pour over the tomatoes. Roast in a medium-hot oven (180 C) until they are slightly wrinkled. Set aside to serve at room temperature on top of the bulghar.
When the lamb is beautifully tender, but still has a bite to it, remove from the oven and skim off any excess fat. Add the aubergines, previously barbecued. Taste and adjust seasonings again. This is a good time to add a bit more cumin if you like too. Some might want to remove the lemon and orange rind altogether at this point, but I like to julienne the softened rind and return it to the pan. Keep warm.
To make the bulghar: Heat 3 Tablespoons olive oil in a deep frying pan (one that has a tight fitting lid). Add 1 finely chopped onion, and sauté until soft. Add 3 finely chopped cloves of garlic, 3 dessertspoons finely grated fresh turmeric, a 1″ piece of garlic and 2 sticks of finely chopped celery. Measure out 8 fl. ounces of bulghar wheat and add it to the pan, stirring to make sure everything is coated in oil. You will need approximately 14 fluid oz. of liquid–either water, vegetable stock or chicken stock. To Whatever liquid you do choose, add a dessertspoon of pomegranate molasses. Add a ladle or 2 of stock to start with and incorporate into the contents of the pan while stirring. Add another ladle, then season with salt, pepper and a teaspoon each of ras-el-hanout and baharaat. Pour the remaining stock over the bulgar and place greens of your choice on top (either beans, spinach, chard or kale kind of thing), cover with a tight-fitting lid and put on lowest heat possible for approximately 7-10 minutes. When all the stock is absorbed, taste for tenderness, and seasoning..there should be a bite to it, but it shouldn’t be too hard on the tooth. Stir once, re-cover and leave in a warm place for another 5 minutes. Serve the bulghar dish with a few of the oven roasted tomatoes and a dollop or two of labneh either on top or on the side of the dish. Spoon some lamb tagine next to the bulghar and sprinkle with the apricot, almond and herb garnish. Or do as we did here with legendary Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery….put everything in the middle of the table and let people help themselves….always a fun, informal way of eating!
Hope to see you at Electric Picnic!!