Ottolenghi's Lamb Shawarma

Summer. Summer. Summer.

Hello Summer. How I  love you. How I am delighted to meet you again after you have been away for a year. How I have plans for us. Big plans. Most of them involve books and napping, but still big plans. Some of my plans also include cooking. So much cooking. Stay tuned for pasta dishes, peanut butter shakes, ceviche, pastry cream. It looks like's going to have fun together, Summer.

One of my first plans was to make Yotam Ottolenghi's Lamb Shawarma. Shawarma is the Arabic fast food of choice that is closely related to the Greek gyro, the Turkish doner kebab, and the Armenian tarna. It is also big on heavenly goodness and is brought to you from Jerusalem via London from the dear, sweet, culinary mind of Ottolenghi.  What a good man.

From the Turkish word çevirme, which means turning, shawarma can be made from chicken, veal, goat, lamb, even fish. We're going to focus on the lamb--which Ottolenghi ensures will get us as close to authentic shawarma without having a vertically rotating spit in your home from which you can shave off a thin layer of meat whenever the fancy strikes you.

Ottolenghi assures us that we should not fret: the secret to good shawarma (and its distinction from the more mildly spiced and pork-based gyro) is all in the marinade anyway. And that secret boasts garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, paprika, nutmeg, cardamom--you name it. Once you master that secret, just wrap up the cooked meat in lavash, pita, or laffa, and you're got Arabic fast food.

Or you can spend the afternoon braising the lamb in your oven and serve it with potatoes roasted in the cooking juices of said lamb. Either way, you're going to be pleased.

When it came time to price the leg of lamb, I found that it was less expensive to buy a boneless haunch instead. (The logic there seemed a little messed up to me, but who am I to judge?) That threw everything off, given that Ottolenghi calls for bone-in lamb, and I had to really rethink how to make this dish.

Some websites suggest that you cook a boneless leg for about an hour and a half, but such cooking is done at a much higher temperature and supposes that you want your lamb to be medium or even medium rare. I wanted my lamb to be fully cooked, even on the well done side, and to be able to fall off the bone if it had one. Thus, a lower and longer cooking time was needed than those suggested, but not as long as Ottolenghi suggests with the bone-in leg. I have made adjustments below, but it took about 2 1/2 hours all told.  Thus, not quite as much time as I imagined when I set aside the day to do my cooking. 

No matter. I had books to read (people, I just finished The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and it was just downright breathtaking. More on that in an upcoming apricot-themed post), and we had people to fête, most notably one of the fathers-in-law (it being Father's Day and all) and one of the mothers-in-law (it being her birthday this month). All the more reason to set aside some time!

As for the dish itself, well, the spices were perfection, the meat was remarkably moist despite having been cooked to well-done (although I appreciated both the yogurt sauce and the reserved drippings that we served alongside the meat), and the taste was complex without being needlessly complicated. The in-laws brought two remarkable wines to have with dinner, which we ate outside until it got too dark and too cold. Then we came inside to blow out candles and to talk some more.

Side note: can we pause for some somewhat interesting facts about sheep?

Did you know that the sheep industry is accounts for only 1% of the agricultural industry in the United States. Sure, one would imagine that it would be big in Australia or New Zealand or Ireland.  However, the country with the highest total number of sheep is none other than China, followed by India. However, some 5.3 million head of sheep are raised in the top 10 sheep-raising states in the US. Texas comes in first, followed by California. But what I find most interesting here is that most sheep farmers own fewer than 100 total sheep. Yet, they comprise only 17% of the total sheep. In other words, it's most likely that when you eat domesticated lamb in the United States, you're eating lamb from very large agricultural ranches that dominate the market.

The number of small flocks are increasing in the Eastern half of the United States which is also the area of the US that consumes the most lamb. The peak of the market was in 1945, when the US boasted 56 million head of sheep. The lamb industry is growing, or at least it was in 2012, when this report from NPR came out--with growing immigration from the Middle East, where lamb and goat are highly favored, sheep farmers are growing the sizes of their flocks.

Further side note:  Sheep are mentioned over 500 times in the bible.

(Thank you for indulging me.)

Okay, back to the point.  Finally, a note on accompaniments:

One directly from Ottolenghi: "Take six individual pita pockets and liberally brush the insides with a spread made by mixing together 2/3 cup chopped tinned tomatoes, 2 teaspoons harissa paste, 4 teaspoons tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper. When the lamb is ready, warm the pitas in a hot, ridged griddle pan until they have nice char marks on both sides. Carve the warm lamb into slices, then cut these into 2/3-inch strips. Pile them high over each warm pita, spoon over some of the reduced roasting liquids from the pan, and finish with chopped onion, chopped parsley and a sprinkling of sumac." 

We, however, had a fresh cucumber and tomato salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and parsley, a side of warmed pita bread, and yogurt with cucumbers (1/2 pound of cucumber (thinly sliced), 2 cups yogurt, 1 clove garlic (crushed), 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint, juice of one lemon, and a pinch of cayenne, salt, and pepper each--all mixed together). The yogurt isn't typically served with shawarma because it is not kosher to mix meat and dairy (that's more akin to Greek gyros that are often served with tzatziki, but we are creatures of habit). We also put a few handfuls of small potatoes into the roasting pan about 1 hour into the cooking process.

Okay, people. Time to get braising.

Summer, my dear friend, I don't want you to waste away!


Lamb Shawarma

Adapted from  Ottolenghi's Jerusalem

8 servings

2 tsp black peppercorns
5 whole cloves
½ tsp cardamom pods
¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 star anise
½ cinnamon stick
½ whole nutmeg, grated
¼ tsp ground ginger 

1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp sumac
¾ tbsp Maldon sea salt
1 ounce fresh ginger, grated
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2/3 cup chopped cilantro, stems and leaves
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup peanut oil
1 bone-in leg of lamb, 5 1/2-6 1/2 pounds, or 1 boneless leg of lamb (2-3 pounds)

1 cup boiling water

1.  Put the first 8 ingredients in a cast-iron pan and dry-roast on medium–high heat for a minute or two, until the spices begin to release their aroma – take care not to burn them. Add the nutmeg, ginger and paprika, toss for a few seconds, just to heat them, then transfer to a spice grinder. Process the spices to a uniform powder, then transfer to a large bowl and stir in all the remaining ingredients, apart from the lamb.

2.  Use a small, sharp knife to score the leg of lamb in a few places, making 2/3-inch-deep slits through the fat and meat to allow the marinade to seep in. If using a bone-in leg of lamb, place the leg in a large roasting pan and rub the marinade all over; use your hands to massage the meat well. Cover the pan with foil and set aside for at least a couple of hours or, preferably, keep it in the refrigerator overnight.  If using a boneless leg of lamb, you can just add the lamb to the marinate in the bowl. Again, rub the marinade all over, including inside the cavity left by the bone. Cover the bowl with foil and set aside for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

3.  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

4.  Take the foil off the tray or bowl (reserve it for later). If you are using a boneless leg of lamb, truss the lamb (I used this youtube video to show me how).

5.  For both boneless and bone-in, put the lamb in a large roasting pan with its fatty side facing up. Roast for a total of about 4 1/2 hours (bone-in) or 2 1/2 hours (boneless), until the meat is completely tender and the interior reaches about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

6.  After 30 minutes of roasting, add the cup of boiling water to the pan and use this to baste the meat every hour or so. Add more water, as needed, making sure there is always about 1/4 inch in the bottom of the pan. For the last 3 hours of cooking, cover the lamb with the reserved foil to prevent the spices from burning.

7. Once cooked, remove the lamb from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving.


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