Autumn is slowly approaching~! Not just according to the goods displayed on farmer’s markets and in stores, but in our tummies as well. Cravings for food and aromas of the „warmer“ variety are starting to build up after all the summery dishes we feasted upon for the last couple of months. Aromas bridging the gap between the spritzy and summery months in my kitchen to the truly warm and comforting winter dishes – combining a little bit of both, if you will.
One of my favourite spice blends, the Ras El Hanout, is one of those autumn’y things for me, combining summery lavender blossoms with warm and earthy aromas of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. While those ingredients might not be screaming „savoury“ at the top of their lungs, unless you’re familiar with North African cuisine, they are absolutely delicious once they come in contact with any type of red meat or game – lamb being one of my favorites in that scenario. Rather than going all out morrocan with our first taste of autumn, I ditched the obvious couscous in favor of a handful of fresh figs and artichokes and turned the whole thing into a fruity, yet spicy salad. How’s that for having the best of both seasons on one plate?
The Ras el Hanout
The arabic name „Ras el Hanout“, to the best of my knowledge, translates into „Head of the shop“ – or so one of the spice traders in Marrakesh told me all those years ago. He told me that this particular spice blend is supposed to be composed of the very best the shop in question has to offer, hence the name – and therefore some of the ingredients vary a lot between each and every region, spice shop and, well, the person who makes it, really – while the basic idea and ingredients stay the same. I had my fair share of tasting my way through different blends, and I can tell you, the good man wasn’t kidding. Not one of them tasted the same as the previous one! If you’ve found your „perfect“ Ras el Hanout already, stick to it and hope whoever made it doesn’t change his or her recipe, ever! Like with the Arabian Coffee Spice, I had finally settled on one particular brand and, sure enough, a short while later it wasn’t available anymore. So, once again, I had to get close and personal with my spice rack and my trusted pestle & mortar – and came up with this~!
As usual, I’m not listing the ingredients for the spice blend in spoons or cups or whatever, but in „Parts“ – that way you can adjust the amounts to your needs. For a first try, or for the sake of this particular dish, I’d suggest using tablespoons though.
2 Parts freshly ground Nutmeg
2 Parts ground Cinnamon
2 Parts Aniseeds
2 Parts ground Turmeric
1 Part dried Chillies – your chance to turn the heat up or down as you wish~ just use your favorites
1 Part dried Lavender Blossoms – if you can’t find them in the spice section of a “normal” store or a webby specialized in spices, ask for them at a florist’s shop.
1 Part Black Peppercorns
1 Part died, ground Cumin
1 Part Coriander Seeds
½ Part dried, ground Ginger
½ Part Cloves
½ Part Allspice Berries
½ Part Green Cardamom Pods
½ Part dried, ground Galangal
1) Place a small pan on medium-low heat.
2) Add the aniseeds, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cloves, allspice berries and cardamom pods to the pan and lightly toast them, shaking the pan from time to time, for around 3-5 mins until the aromas start wafting up to you.
3) Move them into your mortar or, if you’re one of the lucky ones with a spice mill, into that instead.
4) If you’re using a mortar, add a pinch of coarse salt and grind the whole spices into a fine and even powder. If you’re going with the spice mill, well… let it do it’s thing – no matter which method you use, aim for a grain-size that roughly matches your ready-ground spices.
5) Now add the ground spices, chillies and lavender blossoms to the pan and repeat the toasting process – this round only takes around 2-3 mins due to their powdery state.
6) Add them to your freshly ground spices and carefully – I recommend avoiding sudden movements and… don’t breathe too deeply – stir them together until the blend is well combined.
7) Taste and adjust the blend until you’re happy with it and move it into an airtight container.
Again, the outcome of the blend has its roots in the quality of the ingredients you’re putting together, so make sure to taste-test along the way and adjust the blend until you’re fully satisfied with it. These amounts are what I start with, usually there’s some component in need of being tweaked around a bit – most of the time that component are the lavender blossoms – one time too strong, turning the whole thing into a rather „soapy“ experience, too weak to break through the other heavyweights in the aroma department the next… Tasting this one works best with a few grains of couscous or a cube of red meat, lightly dusted with it and fried off.
1 – 2 Lemons
150ml Chicken Stock
1) Squeeze half a lemon into a bowl filled with water. Make sure the bowl is large enough for the artichokes to fit in once they’re trimmed.
2) Squeeze the juice of the other half into a smaller bowl and keep a pastry brush at the ready – you’re going to be using this to brush the artichokes as you’re trimming them.
3) Cut the stems of the artichokes off about 4-5cm below the first ring of leaves.
4) Carefully move a sharp knife along the bottom half of the leaves, cutting the woody upper halves off while moving around the artichoke, „up“ to the tip. You should end up with a light green bulb on top of a dark green stem – light green and rapidly browning probably, so immediately brush them with the lemon juice in your small bowl to keep them from browning once you’re done trimming the leaves
5) Use a veggie peeler to peel the stem, cut the artichoke in halves and brush the cutting surfaces with lemon juice again.
6) Carefully loosen the straw’y knob in the middle with the tip of a knife and pull it out. If you happen to have one of those nifty sharp-edged spoons or melon scoops, use that one instead.
7) Bring the chicken stock to a gentle simmer on medium heat in a pot or pan large enough to hold the artichokes.
8) Simmer the artichokes for about 4-6 mins – depending on their size – until they’re soft. Poke them with a sharp knife to check whether they’re done – if the tip goes in and out smoothly, you’re golden.
9) In the meantime pick a bowl, again large enough for the artichokes, and blend 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 2 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp of the stock in it. Season the marinade with pepper and a pinch of salt before turning the artichokes in it.
10) Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave the artichokes to marinade until everything else is done.
300g Fillet of Lamb
2 heaped Tbsp Ras El Hanout
2 Cloves of Garlic, finely chopped
5 Tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbsp Butter
1) Pick up a container large enough to hold the fillets.
2) Pour in the oil, add the garlic and spice blend and use a whisk to blend the lot until everything is well combined.
3) Add the fillets, turning them in the marinade before snugly tucking them in next to eachother.
4) Close the lid and pop the container into the fridge for 4-6 hours or, even better, overnight.
5) Take the container out of the fridge about 1 hour before getting started with the salad and replace the lid with a cover of clingfilm.
6) Once you’re ready to fire up the pan, set the heat to medium-high, add the butter and a Tbsp of the marinade to it before placing the lid on top and waiting until the pan heats up.
7) Carefully place the fillets, 2 or 3 at a time, depending on their size, in the pan. Make sure to lay them down away from you in order to minimize the risk of butter and oil splashing in your direction.
8) Sear them on all sides for around 1 min on each side. If you have a bunch of particularly small ones in front of you, that’s about the time they need to get to medium as well. Since lamb fillets can vary from mars-bar size to the size of a small rumpsteak, I can’t give you an accurate pan-time at this point. Your best bet, unless you’re used to pan-frying fillets of the same size, is to go with the infamous pressure test – you can find it in my Steak-101 here.
9) Once they’re done, place them on a warm plate and tuck them in under a cover of aluminum foil.
10) Set them aside to rest for at least 6-8 mins.
4 Ripe Figs
½ Pomegranate, seeds knocked out of their shell, pith removed
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
60ml Dry Red Wine – our usual Tempranillo worked perfectly
40ml Red Port
2 Tbsp Pomegranate Syrup
2 Tsp Balsamic Vinegar
3 Tbsp Olive Oil
Freshly cracked Black Pepper and Sea Salt to taste
1) Add the wines to a small pot set on medium-low heat and let them simmer until they’ve reduced down to about 3 Tbsp of liquid.
2) Pour the reduction into a small bowl and add the pomegranate syrup and balsamic vinegar.
3) Pick up a whisk, give the contents of your bowl a good stir to combine them and, while keeping the whisk going, pour in the oil in a slow and steady stream.
4) Have a taste and season the dressing with salt and pepper.
5) Free the pomegranate gems from their shells and add them to the dressing. Keep a few outisde to dot the plates with if you’d like to doll up the dish.
6) Cut the figs into 1/8 and gently set them into the bowl of dressing to marinate. Spoon some of the dressing over the figs and set the bowl aside until you’re ready to plate up.
Assembling the Salad
1) Divide 200g mixed lettuce leaves onto two plates.
2) Unwrap the fillets and slice them into bite-sized pieces before placing them on top of the leaves.
3) Carefully arrange the figs and artichokes – simply halved as as they already are or thinly sliced – around the lamb cubes and drizzle everything with the dressing.
4) Dot the plates with the remaining pomegranate seeds and serve.