Friday, December 2, 2011

Lamb Spiedini with Sicilian Couscous and Yogurt Sauce

Sicily has a long, interesting culinary history.  One of the most interesting periods in that history is the period of time in which the Saracens (Arabs) controlled a good part of the island.  The Saracens brought advanced irrigation techniques, which improved the ability to grow fruits and vegetables.  The Saracens also brought a wide arrange of foods and ingredients, including peaches, melons, dates, rice, sugar cane, oranges, lemons, and raisins.  They also brought cloves, cinnamon and saffron.  

However, the one of the most influential ingredients introduced by the Saracens during the time they controlled western Sicily is couscous.  Like many types of pasta, couscous is made from semolina.  Unlike those pastas, the semolina is not ground fine, but left coarse so that, when water is added bit by bit, little clusters begin to form.  The clusters ultimately become the couscous. 

Generally, couscous would be served as a primi or a first course.  However, in this dish, it is served alongside spiedini (skewers) of grilled lamb.  In many Italian regions, families could not afford or did not have access to beef.  For protein, they would raise lamb or pigs.  This recipe calls for the use of boneless leg of lamb, which is marinated for at least one hour or overnight (I chose overnight) in olive oil, basil, rosemary and garlic.  This marinade provided a lot of flavor to the lamb, as well as helping to curb the gaminess that turns off many people. 

Personally, I love lamb and I really liked this recipe, which comes from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita.  The lamb turned out very well and so did the couscous.  I made one alteration to the recipe.  Instead of using red and yellow bell peppers, I also used orange bell peppers.  The the color of peppers, along with the red onions, which actually had a purplish hue after cooking, provided a lot of color to the dish. And one last note: I forgot to make the yogurt sauce.  I guess I have to save something for the next time....

Recipe from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita at 178
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the lamb):
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 rosemary sprigs
3 basil sprigs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds of boneless leg of lamb, cut into 2 inch cubes
Kosher salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste

Ingredients (for the Sicilian Couscous):
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups of Israeli couscous
Kosher salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and sliced into 2 inch pieces

2 yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded and sliced into 2 inch pieces
1 red onion, cut into 1 inch dice
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 rosemary sprig
1 basil sprig
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained
Scant pinch of cayenne pepper
1 bunch basil, leaves removed and torn into pieces

Ingredients (for the Yogurt Sauce):
1 cup of plain yogurt
1 tablespoon of mint, chiffonade
Squeeze of lemon juice
Kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
Minced scallion or garlic

1.  Combine the garlic, rosemary, basil and olive oil in a shallow bowl.  Add the lamb, massaging the marinade into the meat.  Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

2.  To make the rosemary skewers, remove most of the leaves from each sprig, leaving 1 to 2 inches of leaves at the very top.  Cut off the very bottom of each sprig on an angle to create a sharp point.  Thread 4 to 5 cubes of lamb onto each skewer and set aside on a platter to come to room temperature.

3.  To prepare the couscous, combine the water and butter in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, toast the couscous in a large dry skillet over medium heat until nutty brown, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Transfer to a bowl.

4.  Prepare the grill.

5.  Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add the red and yellow bell peppers, onion, garlic, rosemary, basil and cinnamon.  Saute until the vegetables are soft and slightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.  Transfer to a bowl with the couscous and add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, chickpeas, cayenne and torn basil.  Toss well, then taste and adjust for seasoning. 

6.  Season the lamb spiedini with salt and pepper.  Grill, turning occasionally, for 6 to 7 minutes total for medium rare.  Transfer to rank to rest.

7.  Meanwhile, prepare the yogurt sauce by combining the yogurt, mint, lemon juice, salt to taste, and white pepper or Tabasco in a small bowl.  Transfer to a serving bow, and sprinkle with the scallions or garlic if desired.

8.  Spoon the couscous onto one side of the dish and place the skewered lamb on the other side, flanked by a bowl of the yogurt sauce.


For more about the culinary history of Sicily, as well as the role of couscous in that history, check out Foodmaven and Recipes4Us.

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