Though some of us grill outdoors all year long, summer is the usual time for playing with fire.
It’s easy: Throw on a few steaks for a small family dinner, and the barbecue is your best friend when you need to feed a group. Everyone appreciates a flame-licked meal, even if it’s humble burgers and franks. Still, you can make it a bit more challenging, if you’re up for it.
A fancy grilling apparatus, by the way, isn’t required. I have cooked on any number of makeshift grills. A temporary U-shaped grill can be assembled in minutes, simply by stacking bricks or concrete blocks, and rigging up some sort of grate. But an outdoor meal doesn’t necessarily mean grilling. How about a spit?
For special occasions in Morocco, a whole lamb is turned slowly on a spit over hot glowing coals, until the meat is quite tender and the exterior is browned and crisp. This style is known as mechoui, which means roasted. Every so often the meat is swabbed with an aromatic mixture. Four to five hours later, the meal is ready. You can do that, too.
Or not. In her groundbreaking cookbook from 1973, “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco,” Paula Wolfert, the great American authority on Moroccan food, gives a slow-roasting method for achieving similar delicious results with a large shoulder of lamb, inside, in a home oven. Believe me, it is glorious.
Ask your butcher for a front quarter of lamb (also called a half bone-on chuck). It comprises the neck, shoulder, front shank and some ribs, all in one piece; basically, the front part of the lamb, cleaved in two. It weighs 10 to 12 pounds. You may have to order this a few days in advance. Alternatively, ask for two large bone-in shoulder roasts, which are more readily available.
Even this indoor method takes time – at least three hours, maybe more. Here are the rules: The meat must be at room temperature. You must trim the excess fat (or have your butcher do it), salt it and prick it with a knife here and there. And you must carefully baste it with butter and spices throughout the cooking process.
The lamb emerges succulent and fragrant, completely cooked and falling-off-the-bone tender. Traditionally it is eaten piping hot, torn straight from the bones with your fingers. You may wish to carve off large chunks and give them a rough chop.
I serve this mechoui with warm chickpeas, a bowl of cumin-flavored salt and a dab of spicy harissa.
Almost-Spit-Roasted Moroccan Lamb
1 front quarter of lamb, about 10 to 12 pounds, or two 5- to 6-pound bone-in lamb-shoulder roasts
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and finely ground
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, lightly toasted and finely ground
2 teaspoons paprika
ø teaspoon pimentón
6 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
Trim lamb of extraneous fat but leave a thin layer of fat covering the meat (or ask your butcher to do this). Use a sharp paring knife to cut slits all over the lamb. Lightly salt meat on both sides and place in a large roasting pan. Mix together butter, cumin, coriander, paprika, pimentón and garlic. Smear butter mixture over surface of meat. Allow meat to come to room temperature. Heat oven to 450 degrees.
Roast lamb, uncovered, for 30 minutes, until it shows signs of beginning to brown. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Continue roasting for 3 to 4 hours, basting generously every 15 minutes or so with buttery pan juices, until meat is soft and tender enough to pull away easily from bones and skin is crisp. If surface seems to be browning too quickly, tent loosely with foil and reduce heat slightly. In this case, remove foil, baste lamb and allow skin to crisp before removing from oven.
Transfer lamb to a large platter or cutting board and serve piping hot. Encourage guests to tear pieces of lamb with fingers; alternatively, carve meat from bones and chop into rough pieces. Serve with cumin-flavored salt, harissa and warm chickpeas if desired. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
– Adapted from “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco,” by Paula Wolfert
Chickpeas With Mint, Scallions and Cilantro
1 pound chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
1 onion, halved, with each half stuck with 2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons olive oil
ø teaspoon turmeric, or a small pinch of crumbled saffron
2 tablespoons chopped mint
¼ cup chopped scallions
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
Pour soaked chickpeas into a colander to drain and put in a medium-size soup pot. Add water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a boil. Add onion, bay leaves, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons salt. Skim off and discard any rising foam. Lower heat and simmer gently for about 45 minutes, until tender. (May prepare in advance and reheat).
Drain hot chickpeas (reserve broth for another purpose, such as soup) and discard onion and aromatics. Return chickpeas to pot and add olive oil and turmeric or saffron, stirring to distribute. Taste for salt and adjust.
Transfer to a warm serving bowl. Mix mint, scallions and cilantro together and sprinkle over top. Serve warm. Makes about 6 cups cooked chickpeas
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ cup medium-coarse or flaky sea salt
Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
Pinch cayenne or hot paprika (optional)
Toast cumin seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant and lightly colored, about 1 minute. Grind very coarsely in a mortar or spice mill. Combine in a bowl with salt and stir together. Add red pepper flakes or cayenne, if using. Makes about œ cup
3 tablespoons hot red pepper flakes
1 or 2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
ø teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 tablespoon hot paprika
ø teaspoon cumin, toasted and finely ground
2 tablespoons olive oil
Put pepper flakes in a small bowl. Cover with hot water for 5 minutes, then drain and return to bowl. Stir in garlic, caraway, hot paprika, cumin and olive oil. Store in small jar. Makes about œ cup.