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Robin Garr

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RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Robin Garr » Thu May 31, 2007 12:05 pm

Summer is a'cumin in

Summer is a'cumin in, so let's celebrate cumin, the exotic, aromatic spice that originated in Southwest Asia and that has spread its tasty culinary influence around the world. Cumin-scented dishes light up the cuisines of nations as far afield as North Africa, Spain and Portugal, India and China, Southeast Asia, and across the Atlantic to Mexico.

Cumin's aroma is elusive, difficult to describe, but you'll recognize it if you think of commercial curry blends or Mexican-influenced chili powder. It's a very intense scent, hence its popularity back to early times when spices were prized for their facility at disguising "off" flavors in meats too old to be palatable but too valuable to discard.

We hope that's not much of a problem nowadays, but cumin's flavor power still makes it a natural in spicy, bold dishes - not limited to curries and chili - that are bold enough to talk back. It's particularly fetching with lamb, playing a delightful counterpoint with the mildly gamey flavor of the meat.

A member of the parsley family, cumin is a tiny seed, similar in appearance to caraway seed but much more strongly flavored; the seeds are sometimes toasted, a process that oddly seems to both mellow and intensify the flavor. You'll also find cumin ground into a powder. As with all spices, it's best to keep your cumin tightly sealed in a glass bottle in a cool, dry place, and check it periodically, discarding older product when its characteristic aroma starts to fade.

Because it's so strong, cumin is generally used with discretion in Western kitchens, contributing a subtle melody in an orchestra of aroma.

Today's featured dish, however - a Western Chinese lamb dish - pushes cumin flavor to the extreme, and it's a revelation. I've run into it recently on the "authentic" Chinese menu at a couple of local Sichuanese spots. I gleaned a few basics in brief across-the-language-barrier conversations, followed by extensive Google searching, leading to the conclusion that this dish and the region it's from are delightfully obscure. I've found a few brief descriptive references in restaurant reviews of Sichuanese restaurants in the U.S., Britain and Australia, but no real recipes.

As best I can determine, the stir-fry rendition that I've sought to replicate here comes to us through the Sichuanese restaurant community, which picked it up from a grilled lamb dish of nomadic Muslim communities in the Xinjiang (Shengyan) province, now officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the high desert region on China's far northwestern corner, adjoining Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Tibet. Now, that's a long way from home.

The dish is surprisingly easy to make - essentially, it's as simple as stir-frying chopsticks-size bites of lamb with lots of slivered sweet onion and lengths of green onion, seasoned with more cumin than you might believe reasonable, plus black and red pepper to your personal taste for heat. The first taste is all about cumin, but then the other flavors come together in a startling way that's almost like discovering a new taste. And while so much aromatic spice can be wine-challenging, I lucked into an unexpected but almost inspired pairing. Read on ...

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

12-16 ounces lamb shoulder or leg without the bone
2 tablespoons (30g) ground cumin (or more to taste)
Salt
Black pepper
1 medium sweet onion, enough to make about 1 cup chopped
2-3 green onions (scallions)
2 tablespoons peanut oil (preferred) or vegetable oil
Dried red-pepper flakes
Water

PROCEDURE:

1. Trim most visible fat from the lamb and cut it into small (half-inch or 2.5cm) bite-size cubes. Sprinkle the lamb with 1 tablespoon of the cumin and salt and black pepper to taste, perhaps 1 teaspoon (5g) of each. Stir to distribute the spices evenly and set the seasoned meat aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.

2. Peel the onion and cut it in half along its equator, then cut each half vertically into thin slices. Chop the white portion of the scallions into thin rounds and the green portion into 1-inch lengths and keep them separate.

3. Put a wok or heavy skillet on a medium-high burner and heat until it's hot enough that a few drops of water sprinkled in will "dance" around briefly, then evaporate. Put in the peanut oil or vegetable oil and a healthy shake of dried red-pepper flakes; turn the wok to distribute the oil evenly, and when it's sizzling, stir-fry the onions and the chopped white portion of the scallions until they cook a bit and start to brown.

4. Add the seasoned lamb and continue stir-frying until it has lost its raw, red color. Lower heat to medium, add a bit of water to the wok if necessary to keep the food from sticking, and cook for about five minutes until the onions are soft and considerably reduced in size and the lamb cooked through. For the last minute or two of cooking, stir in the green portion of the scallions and the rest of the cumin.

Serve with plenty of steaming white rice and a salad.

<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> The strong cumin and spice flavors make this one a wine challenge. This might be an occasion for a cold beer, preferably a quality lighter-style lager or pale ale. Wine will work, though: An off-dry Riesling should be fine, or a modest bubbly - Prosecco or a decent Spanish Cava. I went a little more offbeat and was <i>very</i> happy with a good quality Australian Sparkling Shiraz, not a low-end sticky-sweet bottling though but the fine <B>Shingleback "Black Bubbles</B>," a bone-dry, full-bodied Shiraz that just happens to be bubbly. It was a great match.

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Last edited by Robin Garr on Fri Jun 01, 2007 8:19 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Jennifer Rondeau

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Jennifer Rondeau » Thu May 31, 2007 1:38 pm

It's been way too long since I participated in the forums, but I had to reply to a piece of this post. The recipe looks utterly enticing -- it's on the plan for this weekend already.

But Robin, you really should know better than to repeat that old and long-discredited canard about spices having been used in the past to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. The folks who could afford spices -- rare and expensive commodities until very recently -- were exactly the same folks who could afford fresh meat -- also rare and expensive until very recently (and inexpensive even now only under industrial-style production). Online sources are too numerous to list here, but google "medieval spices meat" and you'll find lots o' good material if you're curious. I don't have my bibliography with me, but as I recall, books by Flandrin and Toussaint (as well as many others) make this point.

Jennifer the nit picker
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Robin Garr

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Robin Garr » Thu May 31, 2007 1:48 pm

Jennifer Rondeau wrote:But Robin, you really should know better than to repeat that old and long-discredited canard about spices having been used in the past to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. The folks who could afford spices -- rare and expensive commodities until very recently -- were exactly the same folks who could afford fresh meat -- also rare and expensive until very recently (and inexpensive even now only under industrial-style production).


Welcome back, Jennifer!

Thanks for the thoughts on medieval meat ... received with respect and taken under advisement. I'll do more research. Intuitively, though, I'm thinking that rich or poor, folks in medieval times lacked the benefits of refrigeration ...
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Jennifer Rondeau » Thu May 31, 2007 2:00 pm

Ok, just one more thing and then I promise I'll stop. Yep, lack of refrigeration is why the meat tended to be so fresh -- shipped (to the townspeople who could afford it) and then slaughtered, rather than the other way around as we tend to expect it. Of course, the gentry and landed aristocracy didn't have to worry about the shipping part ...
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Jenise » Thu May 31, 2007 3:43 pm

I've always understood that you're both right. Robin's right about why spicy foods are prevalent in hot areas. Take China--the hottest food in China is from the hottest area in China, and the mildest foods come from the mildest climates. Board a boat in Shanghai and sail east up the Yangzhe River 1300 miles into blazing hot central China, and you can literally watch both thermometers go up with every passing mile. The hot chiles and spices of this cuisine have always been the foods of peasants and emporers alike. Jennifer's argument pertains more to Europe. I think.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin

by Otto » Thu May 31, 2007 3:54 pm

Robin Garr wrote:Cumin's aroma is elusive, difficult to describe [...]


I've always thought that Pinotage often smells of Cumin!
I don't drink wine because of religious reasons ... only for other reasons.
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Linda R. (NC)

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Linda R. (NC) » Thu May 31, 2007 4:36 pm

Sounds simple, and simply yummy, Robin. I've got some lamb in the freezer. Now I know what to do with it. Thanks!
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Paul Winalski » Fri Jun 01, 2007 3:17 am

Thanks, Robin. This recipe is at the top of the to-try-out list, once the current crop of leftovers is gone.

-Paul W.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by MikeH » Tue Jun 05, 2007 12:33 am

Robin Garr wrote:Summer is a'cumin in



1. Trim most visible fat from the lamb and cut it into small (half-inch or 2.5cm) bite-size cubes. Sprinkle the lamb with 1 tablespoon of the cumin and salt and black pepper to taste, perhaps 1 teaspoon (5g) of each. Stir to distribute the spices evenly and set the seasoned meat aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.



I think the dimensions here are inconsistent. "Half-inch" and "2.5cm" are not the same size. One inch is equal to 2.54cm so a half-inch is 1.27cm.
Cheers!
Mike
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Bob Ross » Tue Jun 05, 2007 12:46 am

Thanks for the recipe, Robin, totally new to me, and we eat a great deal of lamb. We'll try it this summer for sure. :)
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Paul B. » Tue Jun 05, 2007 11:50 pm

This one's right up my alley, as I have a lamb curry that I make which calls for a hefty dose of both onions and cumin powder, among other ingredients.

Otto's mention of Pinotage is interesting because Pinotage is in fact my preferred wine to match with curried lamb. I think this started with the Below the Belt MoCool at Joel and Sally's back in 2000, where we had lovely curried sosaties (I guess you remember that, Robin?).

I have saved this recipe.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in (West China cumin lamb)

by Paul Winalski » Sun Jun 10, 2007 11:22 pm

I made this for dinner tonight. It came out delicious. Next time I think I'll put more green onions in. Thanks again for posting this recipe.

-Paul W.

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