Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Sumac Navajo Leg of Lamb with Onion Sauce

As the Navajo (Dine) chef and author, Freddie Bitsoie recounts the Navajo story, "there was a thick fog for four days. No one could see their hand in front of their faces, and people were growing worried and scared. But, when the fog lifted, little cloud puffs were left behind: the sheep."

Sheep are not indigenous to the North American continent. The "fog" that brought the sheep there were Spanish conquistadors and colonizers. The person credited with bringing sheep to the area where the Navajo lived is Don Juan Onate, a conquistador who would later become governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico. He brought 2,900 hundred sheep with him and Spanish settlers, who continued to raise those sheep on ranches throughout the province. Apart from bringing sheep to the region, Onate is known for his massacre of indigenous people of the Acoma Pueblo. 

Onate embodies the reason why the Navajo were worried and scared of that fog of colonization (as history has shown, see books like Sundberg, Dinetah and Denetdale, The Long Walk). When the fog lifted, the Navajo found themselves on a reservation that spans an area larger than West Virginia. That reservation covers a hot, arid region that crosses over the political boundaries that separate Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico 

Nevertheless, the Navajo accepted in those "little cloud puffs." The Navajo Churro sheep are descendants from the original stock brought to the new world by the Spanish. The Navajo obtained the sheep from the Spanish, whether by trade with the Spanish or raids on their settlements.  The Navajo had great success in raising these sheep, which grew in numbers until they were more than 574,000 in the 1930s. 

Navajo Churro Sheep (Source: Nikyle Begay)

However, the drought conditions at the time led the United States to engage in a forced reduction. The reduction resulted in a loss of about 30% of a household's livestock, including sheep, cattle and horses. For the Navajo, the forced reduction was as painful as the Long Walk. The stocks of Navajo Churro continued to decrease until the point that they faced extinction. Efforts were made to revive the numbers of sheep, which have been largely successful. 

Although not an animal native to North America, the Navajo Churro has nevertheless assumed an important place within Navajo culture. The stocks may have declined, but Navajo have continued to raise the sheep throughout the years. They have also used the wool, spinning it and dyeing it to produce fibers that make their way into clothing, blankets, rugs and decorative arts. 

In addition to the wool, the Navajo have used the meat of the lamb and sheep in various dishes. Recipes have been developed over generations, and indeed centuries, that feature this protein. One common recipe is Navajo Lamb Stew. This recipe combines mutton with carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbage for a dish that is ideal on cool to cold nights.

Another recipe is this Sumac Navajo Leg of Lamb with Onion Sauce. The recipe is an inspiration of Chef Bitsoie, drawing from his memory of his grandfather, who would roast lamb over a fire and then serve it with a sauce made out of chopped onion. His grandfather did not necessarily use sumac, but Chef Bitsoie thought that the flavor of the sumac worked well with the lamb. (He is correct.)  He used juniper berries and rosemary in the onion sauce because he believed that his grandfather would have foraged those ingredients while he was herding the cattle and sheep in the mountains. 

The use of sumac drew my attention to this recipe. It pairs a non-indigenous protein with a very indigenous little sumac berry. There are 14 species of sumac that grow only in North America. The range of these species runs from southern Quebec across to southern British Columbia, and then south to northern Florida and across to northern Arizona. 

The sumac berry is known for providing a lemony element to dishes, which was part of the overall balance to this dish. The slightly bitter, lemon flavor brought by the sumac berry complements not only the rich taste from the leg of lamb, but also the sweetness of the onion sauce. That balance makes this dish one of the best leg of lamb dishes that I have made in a very long time. 


Recipe adapted from Washington Post

Serves 6-8

Ingredients (for the lamb):

  •  One three pound leg of lamb or tied lamb roast
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup (1 1/2 ounces) ground sumac
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil

Ingredients (for the onion sauce):

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 spring fresh rosemary
  • 5 dried huniper berries
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • Water, as needed
  • 2 cups chicken stock


1. Prepare the lamb: Heat the oven or a grill to 375 degrees (or heat a smoker to about 275 degrees, and smoke some oak or mesquite wood chunks for about 1 hour). Season the lamb on all sides with salt and pepper, then coat the lamb on all sides with the sumac.

2. Brown the lamb: If you are going to roast the lamb, heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the meat and sear on all sides until evenly browned, about 8 minutes. If the lamb is going on the grill or into a smoker, then skip this step. 

3. Roast/Grill/Smoke the lamb. Transfer to the oven to roast for about 40 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into the center reaches 145 degrees for medium-rare. Depending upon the size of the lamb roast, it may take longer to reach that temperature. If using a grill or smoker, place the lamb on the grill and cover. Grill or smoke the lamb until it reaches 145 degrees.

4. Prepare the onion sauce. While the lamb is roasting/grilling/smoking, in a medium saute pan over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion, thyme, rosemary, juniper berries, salt and pepper. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring often until the onions are soft and brown, about 20 minutes. If the onions begin to stick,  or darken in any places, stir in a splash of water and adjust theheat. Once browned, add the stock and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the herb stems and juniper berries.

5. Finish the dish. When the lamb is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve warm, with the onion sauce on the side. 


Sunday, September 10, 2023

Defending Against the Blue Crab Invasion

If you find your waters have been invaded by blue crabs, do what we do and soon they will be an endangered species.

- Anonymous

I have found myself intrigued by the recent stories about how blue crabs have invaded the waters of the Mediterranean sea. Having lived near the waters of the Chesapeake Bay for decades, I am very familiar with the small, bluish-green crustacean.

For a period spanning three summers, I worked at a crab house. My principal responsibility was to stuff crab pots for steaming. Each pot was stuffed with a particular size of crab: small, medium, large, extra large and jumbo. As each pot was stuffed, one alternated between layers of crabs and crab spice. There were bushels of blue crabs, in various state of agitation, and barrels of crab spice. It was not an easy job working for hours in a one-hundred degree kitchen for low pay. It even killed my interest in cooking for years.

As long-time followers of this blog know, it was not until approximately 10 to 12 years later until I revived my interest in cooking. That revival occurred during a trip to Italy. I fell in love with the cuisine, starting with the two regions that I visited: Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.  I then began to explore other Italian regions and eventually other countries, which has led to this globally-inspired cooking blog. 

Artist: Albert Kallis
Yet, it was a recent story in Nature.com about the invasion of blue crabs caught my attention. The story talked about how the species was threatening the northern Adriatic Sea, including the Po River where it is threatening the local clam harvests. Blue crabs can be voracious eaters of clams, mussels and oysters. They also reproduce in large numbers and, if left unchecked, can quickly overtake a local ecosystem, turning into what some describe as an underwater desert. The crabs are also difficult to catch, being able to use their sharp claws to cut through nets. To a region with a long, venerated culinary history and traditions, the appearance of blue crabs may seem very threatening. Kind of like a old horror movie.

I should note that the recent events in the north Adriatic are not the first blue crab invasion in the Mediterranean Sea - or even the Adriatic Sea. There are reports of blue crabs invading the river deltas of Croatia in 2020, the shores and lagoons of Albania in 2021, as well as shorelines of France and Spain and Gibraltar. In each case, the blue crab was able to take over an area, creating a threat not only to the local molluscs, but also the fish and even the plant life.

Source: Kim Cover

As voracious as the blue crab may be, they have a natural predator that can be just as insatiable - us. For those of us who live around the Chesapeake Bay, we know the troubled history of the blue crab in our waters. Overfishing and consumption, combined with poor regulations and the introduction of the crab pot - led to significant declines in blue crab populations. The population declines have been worsened by runoff from farms, whose pollution has affected not only the blue crabs, but the environs around which they live. From the mid-1990s until 2004, the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay fell from 900 million to about 300 million. The population fell to its lowest level in 2022, as determined by 33 years of surveys.  

Quite ironically, where Italy has dedicated nearly $3 million Euros to reducing the numbers of crabs in its waters, the U.S. government - along with the governments of Maryland and Virginia - are taking various steps -- such as improving water quality and restoring oyster reefs -- to protect the species and grow its numbers. 

For this post, I thought I would do my part to help those along the shores of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas suffering from an "invasion" of one of my favorite foods to eat. I am reproducing my all-time favorite (as of right now) blue crab recipe below, as well as links to other very good recipes that one can find on this blog.



Recipe from the Smithsonian Institution

Serves 4


  • 1 cup long grain rice, uncooked
  • 2 cups water
  • Small pinch of salt
  • 2-3 strips of thick cut bacon, diced
  • 1 celery stalk diced
  • 1/2 bell pepper, any color, diced 
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 pound of crabmeat, cooked (preferably lump)
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Salt
  • Black pepper


1.  Prepare the rice. Rinse the dry rice under cool water 3 to 4 times and drain. Put the rinsed rice into a small pot, cover with 2 cups of water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot and let the rice cook undisturbed for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, crack the lid of the pot so the rice can stop cooking and set aside. 

2. Fry the bacon. In a small skillet, fry the bacon pieces over medium-low heat until all of the fat is rendered and the bacon is crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully remove the bacon pieces and set them aside. Reserve the rendered fat in the pan.

3. Fry the vegetables. Over medium heat, add celery, bell pepper and onion to the pan with the bacon fat and sauté until vegetables have softened and onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Then add crabmeat and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until crab has begun to crisp. 

4. Finish the dish. Add the cooked rice, bacon and seasonings to the pan with the vegetables. Incorporate all of the ingredients until evenly mixed, turn to low and let cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately. 


If you want some more culinary ideas on how to control blue crab populations, I strongly suggest these possibilities: 

Blue Crabcake Algonquin: This recipe comes in a close second to the Carolina Crab Rice. This recipe comes a book called Renewing America's Food Traditions, which discusses endangered ingredients across the North American continent. This recipe is a very traditional and very delicious crabcake.

Steamed Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs: This is the traditional method of preparing crabs in along the bay. Just replace "Chesapeake Bay" with "Adriatic Sea" and you are good to go. Also, if you need a recipe for Old Bay seasoning, check out my attempt to recreate that iconic spice mixture.

Crab Flake Salad:
 This recipe could be found on the menus of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's dining cars. It is a very simple preparation that makes an amazing appetizer. A similar version of this dish hails from the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, which is known as West Indies Salad.

Fire Roasted Gazpacho with Maryland Lump Crab: This recipe combines perhaps my most favorite soup - Gazpacho - with one of my most favorite proteins, blue crab. The fire-roasting of the gazpacho ingredients is an idea of master griller Steven Raichlen.

Chesapeake Paella:
 This recipe utilizes blue crab in a seafood paella (also, if you happen to find some soft-shell blue crabs, then you can enjoy eating the entire crab - minus its face and gills, of course). This recipe provides a wonderful combination of Chesapeake and Valencian culinary influences.

These are just some of the blue crab recipes on the blog, but they are definitely among my favorites. I offer these suggestions as my part to help those living survive the invasion of blue crabs. Until next time ...


Friday, September 1, 2023

Guiji (Ghost Chicken)

Yunnan is one of the southernmost provinces of China; and, it borders Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Within the province's borders, one can find the Dai people. I previously blogged about the Dai and their cuisine when I prepared Dai Carrot Salad. As I did some research for that post, I kept coming across a completely different recipe. The dish is referred to as Guiji or, by its more fanciful nickname, "ghost chicken."

The dish is an excellent reflection of Dai cuisine. It draws upon three key ingredients: raw herbs such as culantro and fish mint root; chiles, such as the very piquant Thai bird's eye chiles; and an acidic element such as lime juice. 

Notwithstanding the use of traditional ingredients, the "star" of this recipe is the chicken itself. Guiji is prepared with a silkie chicken, which gets its name for its white, fluffy plummage (which is said to feel like silk to the touch). Indeed, the first recorded sighting of a silkie chicken comes from Marco Polo in the 13th century, who wrote about a "furry chicken" that he encountered during his travels through Asia. Indeed, the silkie chicken originated somewhere in China (although it is possible that it could have emerged elsewhere in Asia, such as as India or Java).  

Beneath the fluffy white feathers, a silkie has black skin, darker meat and black bones, which are well known to and prized by chefs, especially in Asia. Chinese chefs (including Dai chefs) use the meat of the chickens for a wide range of soups, while using the bones for stocks and broths. 

While researching Guiji, I worked under the assumption that the dish was representative of Dai cuisine. Most of the websites attributed the dish to the Dai people. However, I came across some interesting information that placed the dish within the cuisine of another ethnic group, the Jingpo. The Jingpo live in the same region as the Dai, generally around the across the border between Myanmar (where they are known as the Jinghpaw) and China's Yunnan province. 

The link to the Jingpo also provided an interesting backstory to Guiji. There are Jingpo communities who practice a ritual of slaughtering chickens and offering them to departed family members and other souls, along with ancestral spirits or deities. The chickens would then be poached, which is a sign of respect for the dead. Once the chickens are cooked and have cooled down, the meat would be shredded. The shredded chicken is then combined with garlic, ginger and the key ingredients of Dai cuisine, that is, raw herbs, chiles, and lime juice. Hence, the Jingpo tradition may be where this dish gets its nickname, "Ghost Chicken." 


Recipe from Go Kunming

Serves 4


  • 1 whole silkie chicken (plucked and butchered)\
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, minced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 7-10 tablespoons culantro
  • 3-4 tablespoons fish mint root (optional)
  • 5-10 Thai bird's eye chiles, sliced thinly
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 pod dried red cardamom
  • 5 limes, juiced


1. Poach the chicken. Place the entire bird into the pot with just enough water to cover and the single pod of red cardamom. Season with a pinch of salt after the water begins to boil. Cover the pot with a lid, lower the flame, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the stove and allow the chicken to sit in the hot liquid for another 20 minutes to continue cooking. After 20 minutes have passed, drain the liquid, remove the cardamom and set the chicken aside to cool. 

2. Pull the chicken meat. Once the chicken has cooled, use your fingers to shred the meat into thin, uniform strips and discard the bones. This should yield about 4 cups of meat, including the skin (the traditional Yunnan way). 

3. Finish the dish. Toss the chicken with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl. Taste. If the flavor is not strong and piquant, add more lime juice, salt or fresh chiles as necessary. Serve cold.