Spring is finally here after a very tough winter, and I am ready for the food on my plate to reflect this joyful season of rebirth.
Spinach is the first of the local greens to appear and is at its tender and vibrant best. Lamb, the most flavorful of meats, is associated with spring in many cultures. In earlier times, this season marked a return to abundance after winter food supplies were running low. Little wonder that the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean made lamb the centerpiece of the Easter feast, and that paschal lamb was served at Passover.
Our gatherings will likely be much smaller this year, but we need to celebrate more than ever, and with this in mind I am featuring a hearty one-pot meal which is uncomplicated and easy to prepare. The lamb, vegetables and seasonings can be assembled ahead before spending a long slow braise in the oven. The accompanying spinach salad, dressed with mint and honey, brings the fresh green of spring to the table. Enjoy your celebrations and the warmer days ahead!
Traditionally this dish would be made of lamb neck fillet, which is hard to find. I purchased meaty lamb shoulder chops, which are flavorful and easily available. You could also use boneless leg of lamb. The recipe calls for one full tablespoon of ground cumin, but once all the elements melt into the dish, the harsher notes of the spice disappear, leaving a warm, mellow flavor enhanced by the paprika and cinnamon. I have specified hothouse tomatoes, which at this time of year are sweeter and more flavorful than Florida or California field tomatoes. Adding rice is an unusual touch that adds depth to the dish and thickens the sauce.
*1¾ lbs. lamb cut from lamb shoulder chops into two-inch chunks
1½ lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1½ red onions peeled and cut into thin wedges
*2 Tbsp. cumin seeds (Recipe uses 1 Tbsp. when ground)
1 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. tomato puree
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
6 hothouse tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/3 cup basmati or long grain rice
1¾ cups hot chicken broth
3 bay fresh bay leaves
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
Fine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
*3¼ lbs. of lamb shoulder chops yielded 1¾ lbs. of meat. Leave some of the fat on for extra flavor
*If using ready-ground cumin, be sure to purchase a fresh jar
Heat a heavy skillet on medium heat and add the cumin seeds. Toast for a couple of minutes until lightly browned and fragrant, being careful they do not burn. Cool the seeds before grinding in a heavy pestle and mortar or electric grinder.
Mix one Tbsp. of the ground cumin with the cinnamon and paprika.
To a large earthenware dish or other non-metal ovenproof dish, add the lamb, potatoes, onions, spice mix, tomato puree, two tsp. of olive oil and one teaspoon of salt, using your hands to make sure all the pieces are coated with the seasoning.
Add the tomatoes, rice and half of the parsley and a few twists of fresh black pepper and gently mix in. Tuck in the bay leaves before pouring in the hot chicken broth. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or lid and place in a 340-degree oven.
After one hour, check to make sure that the mixture does not look too dry. You can add a little more stock or water if necessary.
Cook for a further one hour and 15 minutes, checking a couple of times to make sure it does not need more liquid. Remove from the oven and uncover. Drizzle over the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil and return to oven for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned. Set aside to cool slightly for five minutes, before sprinkling over the remaining parsley and serving.
Spinach Salad with Honey Mint Dressing
I only eat raw spinach in the spring when the local crop is at its tender best. It pairs well with the mint and honey dressing and red onion. The feta and walnuts make it hearty enough to serve with good bread as a light lunch.
4 cups tender local spinach
¼ small red onion sliced into slivers
½ cup walnut pieces
2 oz. block Greek feta
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tsp. honey
½ tsp. clear honey
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic peeled
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. lemon juice
Fine sea salt and black pepper
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Make the dressing at least 30 minutes before serving the salad. Place the honey, vinegar, lemon juice and mustard into a small bowl and stir together. Using a micro plane, grate the garlic into the bowl before whisking in the olive oil. Add the mint and whisk thoroughly, pressing the mint against the sides of the bowl to release the essential oils. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Store for up to four hours at room temperature.
Place the red onion slivers in a small bowl of iced water and set aside for 10 minutes. This will remove any bitterness. Place the walnut pieces on a baking tray and place in a preheated 350-degree oven to toast for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a plate.
Thoroughly wash and dry the spinach and remove any tough stalks. Drain the red onion and dry on paper towels. Place the spinach in a bowl together with the onion. Add the mint dressing and toss thoroughly. Add salt to taste and let the flavors blend for five minutes, before crumbling in the feta and sprinkling the walnuts on top.