Rockin’ Moroccan

I hosted my monthly book club this past Sunday night and, as it’s the host’s duty to provides some nosh, I spent a couple days prior scouring my cookbooks for ideas. It’s a very forgiving group of gals so there was no real pressure except what I imposed upon myself, but I still wanted to make something delicious and impressive.

The book du mois was “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese (an AWESOME read). Now, when I host the group, I sorta like to theme my snacks and appetizers around the book in some way. However, this story took place mostly in Ethiopia. Not being very familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, although I have eaten it a time or two, I was at a loss. To turn up the heat even more, one of the book club members has actually lived in Africa in Tanzania, so I knew she would have some idea whether the food actually tasted authentic or not.

After much deliberation, I finally decided I would make a lamb tagine, which is a meat or vegetable stew with dried fruit, olives and preserved lemons. Granted, this is really considered a North African dish more than Ethiopian, but I figured just being on the same continent would earn me some credibility. Technically, tagines takes their name from the domed clay cooking vessel they’re prepared in. The closest thing I had was a crock pot. C’est la vie.

The recipe came to me from my old trusty electronic files. Several years ago on a trip to Ireland, I happened to catch an episode of a BBC show called “Two Hairy Bikers.” (You think I’m joking. See for yourself — This is a travel/cooking show that follows these two hirsute gentlemen around on their motorcycles to foreign lands where they introduce viewers to the regional cuisine. I had flagged a recipe for something called “Sultan’s Delight” that was sort of like what I had in mind, although upon closer examination, it was actually a Turkish dish. Dang. Can’t win for losing. At this point, my time for waffling was running out and I decided it would have to do.

As it turned out, the stew was darn tasty. Not all that different from a good beef stew, but the lamb gave it a richer, gamier flavor and the seasonings were more distinctive with cinnamon, cumin and allspice. I took a few liberties, as I usually do with recipes like this, and threw some chickpeas and chopped figs into the mix. They proved good additions, but as the figs cooked down and disintegrated, the seeds gave the whole dish a slightly grainy texture that I could have done without. The flavor, though, was delicious.

lamb tagine with creamed eggplant

On the side, the Hairy Bikers served their stew with creamed eggplant (or aubergines, if you want to explore your British side). And who am I to argue with the wisdom of a Hairy Biker?

I don’t know about you, but I’d eat an old shoe if it’s topped with cream and some cheese. This dish is really just roasted eggplant that’s been peeled, smushed and stirred into a béchamel sauce. I threw mine into a small Corning Ware casserole dish, topped it with breadcrumbs, browned it under the broiler and served it with crunchy pita chips as a warm dip. Yummy. One of my friends (the one who’d lived in Africa!) liked it so much, she said she could have sucked it up through a straw. I’d say I can safely chalk that up as a win!

The good shepherd

Hubby, a native of Ireland, and I have talked about making shepherd’s pie for ages. Tonight, we decided, was the night to tackle just such a feat.

The only time I have ever eaten shepherd’s pie was the last time we were in Ireland. After begging my mother-in-law to show me how to make it, she finally agreed. It’s a fairly straightforward dish – a mixture of hamburger or ground lamb (or “mince,” as you’d say in Ireland), carrots and onions in a tomatoe-y sauce; poured into a casserole dish; topped off with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and baked in the oven until bubbly and browned. How could THAT be bad? I’ve yet to meet a mashed potato I didn’t like.

Hubby came across a shepherd’s pie demo this week while watching an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word” on BBC America. For those of you who’ve only watched Gordon on Hell’s Kitchen, it might surprise you to see him in the F Word light. He’s a kinder, gentler Gordon; not so intent on being a dick, as I’m sure he amps up for ratings on Hell’s Kitchen. Seriously, does he really need to scream “I’ve had ENOUGH, you donkeys!” in every single episode?

Believe it or not, Gordon does have an actual soul, and in the F Word, you get to see glimpses of him outside the kitchen. For instance, you might see him visiting the homes of lucky viewers to teach them to prepare a dish they want to learn to make, or even hanging out with his kids and pet sheep in the spacious backyard of his spacious home. There’s still plenty of kitchen action as well; Gordon occasionally even takes it on the chin when he goes head-to-head with visiting cooks competing with him to make the tastiest version of a given dish.

Anyway, hubby saw Gordon whip up a scrumptious-looking shepherd’s pie that didn’t look too terribly difficult to make, and we were thus inspired to try it out for tonight’s dinner. We took a spin through Marsh for the ingredients, where I was happy (and slightly surprised) to find very fresh ground lamb in the butcher’s case. Gordon’s recipe calls for minced lamb, but I’m sure my mother-in-law made hers with ground beef and I remember it being perfectly delicious. Of course, Gordon’s recipe also calls for grated onion, which, as you can imagine, was duly omitted in tonight’s effort.

The cooking was a team effort — hubby peeled, boiled and made the mashed potatoes (a rich and creamy version with butter, egg yolks and Parmesan cheese) and I handled the lamb. It was pretty easy – you just brown and drain the meat, add carrot, garlic, red wine, tomato paste and chicken stock. Not much different from the base for a boeuf bourguignon or Guinness beef stew. Then you cook it down until the sauce reduces and thickens, dump it all into the casserole dish and spread the mashed potatoes on top. Twenty minutes in the oven, and the top of the potatoes gets all golden brown and crusty. It looked and smelled GORGEOUS. We could hardly wait to dig in. I served it up with some steamed green beans and slices of delicious Irish brown bread that my hubby threw together this afternoon, and it was PERFECT.

Next time you’re in a meat-and-potatoes mood, I urge you to give this dish a try.

Gordon can shepherd me anytime.

tonight's dinner - shepherd's pie, green beans, Irish brown bread and red wine

tonight's dinner - shepherd's pie, green beans, Irish brown bread and red wine

my plate, for the first serving of shepherd's pie

my plate, for the first serving of shepherd's pie