Sunday, June 12, 2011

Merguez, Memories

My obsession with lamb spans over my entire life, and I have strong reason to believe I've passed it on to the next generation. [Lulu wasn't walking when this picture was taken]

There is no meat like it - flavorful, delicate, versatile. It is native to Romania and, as luck would have it, native to Colorado. The best restaurants in the country from New York to San Francisco feature prominently Colorado lamb, often rack, proclaiming it the best. Which brings me to the puzzle my mind goes through every time I see New Zealand lamb at my local Whole Foods, but that is a story for another time.

Every Saturday from spring to fall, I head up to Boulder to the market. There is one stand I hit first - Leistikow Farms. And for good reason: they have lamb. Amazing, beautiful, flavorful, tender Colorado lamb. I stock up each week fearful that the next week they won't be here, or they won't have what I need, or I won't be able to make it, or there will be a Lambaggedon and no lamb will be out there available for consumption, all of which seem like a major tragedy.

Nearly a year ago, Tom Colicchio used lamb shoulder in a cooking demonstration at Aspen Food and Wine. He made merguez, and his recipe was shared in the Tasting Notes festival book. I made it, several times, and loved it. It is a classic, simple yet complex, a staple of Northern African cuisine that seems to transcend seasons- it just tastes great no matter when you make it. I made it now to soothe my absence from the incredible event that is Aspen Food and Wine. I'm a tad bitter to stay home,I won't lie. My money is on lamb to soothe me through the bitterness.

Merguez, a Tom Colicchio recipe, adapted.

Ingredients: 2 lbs boneless lamb shoulder; 8 ounces pork fatback; 4 teaspoons kosher salt; a healthy pinch of hot pepper flakes; 4 ounces piquillo peppers, drained and minced; 6 large garlic cloves, peeled and roasted; 2 teaspoons smoked paprika; 2 teaspoons dried oregano; 2 ounces harissa (you can buy it or make your own; plus more for serving); 2 ounces dry red wine; 2 ounces sherry vinegar. [Makes: a lot- enough to feed 4 easily.]

Cut the lamb shoulder and fatback into small cubes. Keep them as cold as possible. Grind them through a meat grinder adjusted to the largest setting. I would run it through the grinder twice and consider your preference for texture- if you like it less coarse, grind it finer.

Toss the ground mixture with the salt, pepper flakes, roasted garlic, piquillo peppers, smoked paprika, dried oregano, and harissa until combined.

Transfer the mixture to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and add the vinegar and wine. Whip the mixture until it is uniform in texture.

Form it into your desired shape- patties, balls, or sausage and roast or saute until cooked through. Serve alongside a healthy scoop of harissa, ideally with couscous or a homemade fresh flatbread.

Photography by Jennifer Olson [minus the blurry picture of my child]

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Big Change, Great Cocktail

I should have known something was not right when I developed a pita chip addiction. Every day, around 10 am, I took the elevator up two floors, turned two corners, and found myself in front of the vending machine, $1.25 in hand. I hit A6 and waited for the double metal ring to unwind around the bag of Stacey's Pita Chips that was soon make its way down. I was always nervous it would get stuck and I'd end up hopelessly trying to shake the immovable vending machine. I sat down in a booth in the cafeteria and crunched on my chips, savoring them one by one, slowly, while browsing the local newspaper. Then I went back two floors. I sat once more in front of my side-by-side computer screens, in my ergonomic office chair, under a gigantic double strip of neon lights, trying to fend off an ever-growing stack of legal documents while cuddling a portable heater that perennially lost the battle with the air conditioning.

Let's back up a little. At some point in my childhood, I announced my future: I was going to be a lawyer. (Should one allow a 6 year-old to issue such edicts?) I followed through and made good on my promise. I fought my way through setbacks, changes, transatlantic moves, grad school in a foreign language, and there I was - finishing law school. I had a baby, passed the bar, and worked three years in the legal world. And here I was now, in front of the vending machine, with my bag of pita chips. Was I even hungry?

Going up and down those two floors, I wasn't thinking of how to better write my next memo, where to find the next best research tool, or what order to arrange my argument in. No, other thoughts occupied my head, thoughts of braised beef cheeks, roasted beets, and the smooth asparagus soup, of farmers markets, wine dinners, and craft cocktails, of maldon salt, szechuan pepper buttons, and sweet pimenton. One step away from my desk, the thoughts of law vanished.

So the battle began. In my head, that is. It started with frustration over my lack of time to pursue that smooth asparagus soup. Then continued with the burden of twenty years of education aimed at one goal: being a lawyer. (I am still trying to erase thoughts of student loans, a bad subject). Back and forth went my thoughts between what I have invested my entire energy into for as long as I can remember and what happens to be my passion now. I cried. More than once. I tried to pretend the internal conflict did not exist. I tried to fix it, to fit it all in, to make the two competing worlds live together. I did not succeed. The lawyer me lost, the food-obsessed me won. At least for now.

What does that even mean? I decided to test out new waters, scary uncertain ones for a control freak like me: food, writing, cooking, freelancing in a a variety of new ways. It will take me time to accept, to transition, to change. I suck at change. The first step was the hardest. Breaking the news- to my boss, to my co-workers, to my mom, to the rest of my family, to friends, neighbors, acquaintances, to all the people who thought I was a lawyer -- and now to all of you: I quit my job. Yes, up and left (with considerable notice). I am not seeking or pursuing another legal job, at least for now, at least for a while. I will instead focus on cooking, writing, sharing what I know and learning more about food- working with it and around it in any way I can.

I am thrilled and mortified at the same time. I am cautiously ecstatic. I feel vulnerable, but at the same time am energized with what is coming my way- freedom to explore, to fail, to change, to attempt, and to succeed. I have a great support system in my life and for that I am thankful. I need it. And, of course,I need you. I need your help and your support on this new journey. I need you to come back, to tell me what you like and what you don't, to support my facebook page, to share my site with friends, to tell them about my writing, my recipes, and my cooking.

I want you to celebrate with me. Whether you remember or not, I am on a drinking kick. Not the getting-wasted-and-begging-for-salvation-during-a-monster-hangover kind, but the kind in which I try new drink recipes, from very talented drink-makers. Like this one- the Summer in the City. Not long ago, the badass talented (and intimidating - at least to me) Sean Kenyon mixed this up for me. For me, and for you of course because the goal was to create a post around it.

How to bring this recipe to you was the source of some debate in my head. I wanted to give Sean what Sean deserves, which is the full spotlight. I wanted to highlight him and the amazing crew at The Squeaky Bean. I wanted to tell you why they are my favorite people to share an evening with, to try to explain the magic they create there. Instead, I decided to be selfish and share my big news along with their drink. It makes it more special- to me at least. But if you are in Denver, do visit them until the 12th and don't miss the upcoming incarnation and rebuild of the Bean- The Occidental, coming up in July. They are genuinely amazing folks, and they will make you night (and day) a lot more pleasant.

Summer in the City, Sean Kenyon @TheSqueakyBean

Ingredients: two 1 by 1 inch cubes of fresh pineapple; 5 leaves fresh sage; 2 ounces Leopold gin; 1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon; 1/4 ounce agave nectar; 2 dashes agnostura bitters.

Muddle the pineapple, then tear 4 of the leaves into the glass. Add the remaining ingredients and shake with ice for a good minute. Pour over fresh ice and garnish with the remaining leaf.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.