Monday, March 9, 2020

Harissa Spiced Lamb Chops with Carrots, Dates, Feta & Fresh Herbs

I have been a bit behind lately in coming up with ideas…and consequently syllabi…for my cooking classes.  Recently I scheduled a wine pairing class with nothing but a title (A Late Winter Menu with Wine).  It was gratifying that the class filled anyway.  Unfortunately this allowed me to push coming up with a menu until the last minute.  Testing recipes at the last minute was a little stressful—but a good thing for the class because I taught from a perspective of fresh inspiration.  Several regulars commented afterwards that they thought the menu was exceptional.   

I decided to prepare lamb for the main course.  I found my inspiration in Diana Henry’s delightful cookbook Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors.  I picked this book up a couple of years ago and have not really had the time to spend in it that I would like.  I remember making a delicious baked pasta with chestnuts and cream when I was looking for some fresh ideas for chestnuts…but that’s about it.  While preparing for this class I spent a little bit more time in my perusal…and will definitely be returning to the book.  “Effortless Food, Big Flavors,” is a truly appropriate title. 

It was the bold flavors of this Mediterranean-style lamb dish that attracted me:  Spicy lamb…  tangy yogurt…  salty Feta… soft, sweet dates… and loads of fresh herbs.  Basically a flavor party on a plate.   I used all of these great contrasting flavors in the dish I ultimately taught…with a few touches of my own. 

The first thing that struck me as I considered the original recipe was that Harissa would have been a perfect condiment.  I didn’t have any Harissa on hand…and because I was in a bit of a rush I didn’t want to make any.  Instead, I augmented Henry’s cumin and cayenne spice rub with coriander, caraway and paprika (basically making my own harissa spice blend).

I also decided to add a few carrots, roasted with this spice mix, to the plate.  I always want more vegetables.  As a bonus, the carrots add great color—and they are delicious with dates. 

I served it all with a simple farro pilaf. Call me old-fashioned, but I always like to include a starch of some kind with an entrée.  Henry suggests olive oil roasted potatoes, bulgur, or couscous as go-withs.  And I think any of these would be good…but I was particularly pleased with how the farro added a subtle nutty and sweet earthiness to the whole dish.  I will probably always serve it with the farro.

As an aside, the farro recipe I made yields a bit more than you will probably need to go with the lamb.  But this is not a bad thing.  I always love having extra cooked grains on hand since I then have an excellent foundation for a quick lunch.  While testing the recipes for this class I used it for just that, topping the leftover farro with a poached egg and some Harissa roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots (an excellent combination).

Since we are heading into spring…and my class menu was planted firmly in  winter in terms of ingredients…I will probably wait until next fall or winter to post the appetizer and salad (both of which were delicious).  The dessert doesn't really need its own post (at least not for the near future (it was the banana cake from my last post...baked in layers, filled with salted butter caramel, frosted with white chocolate cream cheese frosting and garnished with candied pecans).   But I wanted to go ahead and post the lamb entrée now.  Doing so allows me to present it with the fresh enthusiasm that was, I think, so appealing in the class.  Plus, I tend to eat lamb more during the spring and summer months, and I think this particular dish would be wonderful during the early part of the growing season when young carrots and soft, fresh herbs are available.  When the weather warms up, this lamb will be fantastic prepared on the grill.

Harissa Spiced Lamb Chops with Carrots, Dates, Feta & Fresh Herbs

4 lamb loin chops (see notes)
2 T. Olive oil
2 t. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 t. Harissa spice (see below)

1 lb. carrots, trimmed and peeled
2 T. olive oil
2 t. Harissa spice (see below)

1/2 c. (125 g.) Greek Yogurt, preferably full fat (5%)—see notes
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice (more or less, to taste)
1 clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
4 t. olive oil
3 to 4 t. water                                                                                         

3 to 4 oz. Feta in brine, drained and broken into small and medium chunks
6 to 8 Medjool dates, pitted and cut into 6 strips each
1/2 c. of very coarsely chopped fresh herbs—a mix of Italian Parsley, Mint, and Dill (if the leaves are small, you may leave them whole)
1 T. finely sliced chives

If possible, salt the lamb 12 to 24 hours ahead.  Up to two hours before cooking, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and harissa in a shallow dish.  Add the lamb, turning the chops to coat with the marinade.  If cooking within half an hour, leave at room temperature.  Otherwise refrigerate until a half hour prior to cooking.

Cut the carrots on the bias in 1/3-inch thick slices.  Cut these slices lengthwise into two or three strips (approx. 1/3-inch wide).  The carrots should look like quills (or penne pasta).  Toss with olive oil and the harissa spice mix.  Spread on a rimmed sheet pan and roast in a 400° oven until tender and nicely caramelized—about 25 minutes. (If serving with farro, it works well to add the water to the farro when the carrots go into the oven).

While the carrots roast, make the sauce:  In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, water and a good pinch of salt.  The consistency should be like regular plain yogurt—add more water or olive oil if it is too thick.  Taste and correct the acidity with lemon (the sauce should be very tangy).  Check the seasoning and correct as necessary. (The sauce may be made ahead.)

When the carrots are almost done, heat a cast iron skillet over high heat.  When the pan is hot, add the lamb chops (there should be enough oil on the chops…but if the pan seems dry, add a bit of oil).  Allow the chops to cook until they are nicely caramelized on the first side before turning them over (2 or 3 minutes).  Cook in a similar fashion on the second side, regulating the heat to prevent scorching.  When the chops are well browned, tip them on their sides to quickly sear (on all sides).  Check the temperature of the lamb so you’ll have an idea of how close it is to your preferred doneness (see temperature guide in the notes below).  If necessary, transfer the pan to the oven to continue cooking until they are the way you like them.  For small chops, even if you like them well done, this won’t be much longer than 7 or 8 minutes.  If you like your lamb rare, you may not need to put them in the oven at all. 

To serve, place a spoonful of sauce on one side of each plate, spreading it out into an arc.  Place a small mound of farro next to it (on the other side of the plate)…or a mound of couscous, or roasted potatoes, etc.  Scatter half of the carrots, dates and herbs over the sauce.  Place the chop on top (leaning against the farro), followed by the remaining carrots and dates.  Scatter the Feta and the remaining herbs over all.  Drizzle with olive oil if you like.  Serves 4

(Recipe inspired by a recipe in Simple by Diana Henry)

  • I have written the recipe assuming one loin chop per person. Many would consider this to be a very small portion. Recipes frequently give quantities assuming 2 per person. In my experience loin chops weigh about 4 to 5 oz. You should prepare as many as you like. Simply adjust the quantity of marinade to cover the number of chops you will be preparing.
  • You may use lamb rib chops (cut from the rack) in place of the loin chops. As with the loin chops, you should prepare as many as you like, depending on appetites. When I use rib chops I think 2 is a nice portion. But as for the loin chops, many people would prefer 3 or 4.
  • I have made this recipe using both commercial Greek yogurt and my own homemade Labneh. Since my homemade yogurt is quite tangy, it didn’t require near as much lemon juice. You should add lemon juice to taste, remembering that the sauce needs to be very tangy.
  • Lamb temperature guide (remember that the temperature will continue to go up a few degrees after the lamb is out of the oven/pan): Rare—120°F; Medium Rare—125°F; Medium—130°F; Medium Well—135°F; Well Done—140°F.
  • Substitute a few halved Brussels sprouts for some of the carrots.

Farro Pilaf

2 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 medium shallots, peeled and finely diced
1 c. pearled farro, rinsed
1 T. picked thyme, roughly chopped
2 1/2 c. water

Warm the olive oil in a medium sauce pan set over moderate heat.  Add the shallot along with a pinch of salt.  Sweat until the shallot is tender—about 5 minutes.  Add the farro and thyme and continue to cook and stir until the farro is well-coated in the fat, lightly toasted and hot through—about 3 minutes.

Add the water, along with some salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until the farro is tender but still has texture (al dente)—about 25 minutes. Let the farro rest, covered, off of the heat for a few minutes.  Drain and return to the pan to keep warm.  To serve, taste and correct the seasoning.   Drizzle with a bit of olive oil (for flavor and moisture) if you like. Serves 4 generously (I always have some left over—which I love having to make a grain bowl or a salad for lunch).

Harissa Spice

4 t. cumin seed
2 t. coriander seed
2 t. caraway seed
1 t. cayenne
4 t. paprika

Pound the cumin, coriander and caraway until fine using a mortar & pestle—or grind in a spice grinder.  Add the cayenne and paprika.  Recipe makes a generous quarter cup of blended spice.

  • If you prefer, you may substitute pre-ground cumin, coriander and caraway, but the flavor will not be as vibrant.
  • Harissa should have some heat. I find this mix to be sufficiently spicy, but if you like a lot of heat, feel free to increase the cayenne. Conversely, if this is too hot for you, simply decrease the cayenne.

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