Friday, June 26, 2015

Uyghur Lamb Kebabs

Cooking can open doors, even to places where you may never physically take a step.  Cooking can also open eyes, allowing one to learn about the cuisine and traditions of other cultures and peoples.  The educational aspect of cooking is what I love and what often propels my cooking.

A few weeks back, I came across a recipe for Uyghur Lamb Kebabs.  I am generally aware of the Uyghur people.  They are a Turkic nationality spread across central Asia, but principally concentrated in Xinjiang, one of the westernmost provinces of China.  The Uyghur share little in common with the (Han) Chinese. The Uyghur use a modified Arabic alphabet and they are predominantly Sunni Muslim. These facts more closely align the Uyghur people with the Turkic peoples of the neighboring 'Stans, like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Long before it became Xinjiang or part of China, the area inhabited by the Uyghur people was a Khanganate and, later, a series of other kingdoms and khanates.  (That story is better left for a history blog.)  Although they lived in the desert, that desert sat in the middle of the Silk Road.  The Uyghur peoples, perhaps with the help of the Persians, were able to able to transform parts of the harsh land into oases with a series of irrigation systems.  These oases allowed for the cultivation of wheat, vegetables and fruit.  It also allowed for the raising of livestock, such as chicken, lamb and mutton.

Those meats, and even camel (bactrian only), are featured in Uyghur dishes. Cooks often use spices such as cumin and red peppers, as well as other flavorings like raisins and animal fats.  Other interesting aspects to the cuisine include the use of certain spices, such as cumin, and local ingredients like pomegranates.  

Uyghur Lamb Kebabs is a street dish that features some of the intriguing aspects of this cuisine.  The lamb is marinated in a mixture of onion, garlic and pomegranate juice.  The latter ingredient adds a little tartness to the flavor of the lamb.  While the ideal way to cook these kebabs would be over a charcoal grill, that lack of such a grill should not stop you.  The kebabs are still very delicious when prepared using a gas grill or even a broiler.   The final touch is a cumin salt, which, according to the source for this recipe, is the way these kebabs are finished in Xinjiang.  

In the end, this is a delicious recipe ... and I am not saying that because I am a big fan of kebabs.  The use of pomegranate juice presents an interesting twist to the preparation of the dish.  The slight dusting of cumin salt helps to add complexity to the flavor of this dish.  This is one that I will definitely keep on list of recurring recipes, even though the price of pomegranate juice can be expensive.  

Serves 4

1 pound of boneless leg of lamb or shoulder, cut into 
     approximately 1 inch squares, with some fat kept on
1/2 yellow onion
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
Cumin salt (1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt and 1 teaspoon of ground cumin)

1.  Prepare the lamb. Process the onion into a paste in a food processor.  Add the pomegranate juice, garlic, oil salt and pepper to the onion paste and mix together.  Add the chunks of lamb in a bowl and cover with the marinade.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator at least 2 hours to marinate.

2.  Grill the lamb.  Soak wooden skewers for about 30 minutes.  Thread the pieces of lamb onto wooden skewers, leaving enough space between them so the meat browns..  Heat the grill on medium high.  Grill for about 2 minutes on the first side then turn, cooking for 7-8 minutes more, turning the skewers so that they get an even color.

3. Finish the dish.  Combine the salt and cumin together.  Once the kebabs are cooked, sprinkle the cumin salt immediately on the kebabs as they come off the grill.  Serve with rice and flatbread.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Clams Calabria

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "We found some large clams ... which the storm had torn up from the bottom, and cast ashore.  I selected one of the largest ....  I kindled a fire with a match and some paper, and cooked my clam on the embers for my dinner."  Once cooked, Thoreau remarked, "I found it sweet and savory, and at the whole with a relish."

That is the ideal way of finding claims ... strolling along the beach and finding them just waiting to be collected and eaten.  Henry David Thoreau lived from 1817 to 1862, when that was perhaps one of the more common ways one could find a clam.  He also had the blessing of being near a beach where clams could be washed ashore.

Alas, for me (and you), it is not the nineteenth century and my proximity to a beach (and I am guessing that yours) is way beyond walking distance.  It is much closer and much easier to simply walk the aisles of the local grocery store and give thanks for the fact that about 150 years after Henry David Thoreau, the modern distribution system enables those stores to provide large clams.

Recently, the local grocery store had cherrystone clams, which are a relatively large clam.  As an aside, clams are categorized by name.  The smallest are referred to as "countnecks," increasing in size with names as "littlenecks," and "topnecks."  Larger clams are referred to as cherrystone clams and, if you still want to go bigger, then there are the quohog clams and chowder clams.  Most stores carry littleneck clams, and, everyone once in a while, they also carry cherrystones.

When I saw those clams sitting in ice, my mind immediately began thinking of recipes.  It has been a long time since I cooked with clams.  My thoughts immediately turned to chowder.  However, it is June.  The hot weather is not exactly chowder weather.  Then I thought about taking the ingredients in a chowder - potatoes, onions, and bacon - for a topping that could be put on the clams.  At that point, I saw a display with dried sausages, including a hot Calabrian-style sausage.  Substitute that sausage for the bacon and I had a recipe ready to be made.

This recipe is relatively simple ... borrowing from my days cooking in a seafood restaurant.  The clams are steamed in a pilsner beer, although white wine and even water will work fine.  I just happened to have a bottle of beer handy for this dish.  As the clams steam, which takes a while due to their large size, I sauteed the onions, potatoes and some garlic.  I added some paprika and oregano for flavoring.  Once the topping was cooked, I added the sausage.

This was an easy dish to make, and, the topping is quite good.  However, as much as I liked this recipe, I have to admit that nothing is better than a perfectly steamed cherrystone clam by itself.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2

6 cherrystone clams
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup of potatoes, finely diced
1/2 cup of sweet onions, finely diced
1/4 cup of dry Calabrian sausage
2 cloves of garlic finely diced
1 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bottle of pilsner beer or 12 ounces of white wine

1.  Prepare the topping.  Heat the olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the onions and potatoes.  Saute until the onions are soft, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, paprika, oregano, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Saute for 1 to 2 minutes more.  Turn down heat to low.

2.  Steam the clams.  While the onions and potatoes are sauteing, heat the beer or white wine over high heat in a pot with a cover.  Once the beer or wine begins to boil, add the clams and cover.  Steam the clams for about 5 to 7 minutes or until all clams have opened.  

3.  Finish the dish.  Remove the clams from the beer and wine, remove the top part of the shell.  Add the sausage to the onion and potato mixture.  Spoon the mixture over each clam with a slotted spoon to ensure that the least amount of oil is added to the clams.  Serve immediately.