The sheep farmer showed up at work with a lamb head wrapped in plastic and questioned whether there was a call among the Chef community for it. It brought me back to my short stage in Joel Robuchon’s Paris kitchen in 1996. I remember a dish I was drawn to like a moth to a flame. Chef Robuchon slow braised a pig’s head and served the meat stacked artistically on a plate with baby vegetables in a mustard and tarragon sauce. Every part was utilized: the cheeks, the tongue, the ears and the brain. It encapsulated Chef Robuchon’s approach to Michelin three star cooking. Use simple, humble ingredients and elevate their stature on the plate with seemingly simple presentations. Cuisine Actuelle is what he termed his approach….
One of my favorite regions in America is Northern California. In a lot of ways, the picturesque Anderson Valley of Mendocino reminds me of the South of France and parts of Italy, though in an obscure kind of way. The sun kissed rocky hills and foggy valley floor are home to thousands of acres of grape vines, small organic farms and herds of goats and sheep. Its bucolic small towns nestled among towering redwoods and craggy coastlines bathed in the golden California sunshine are a photographer’s wet dream. Like Peter Mayle’s biographical series ‘A Year in Provence’, Mendocino boasts a unique rhythm governed by it’s own cast of colorful characters that people the region. As an outsider you are viewed with a weary apprehension and often confused for a government official of one kind or another till you integrate . Time is measured not by days, weeks or months but by the seasons.
For my first home cooking project I decided to tackle making Merguez, those wonderfully spicy Moroccan lamb sausages best appreciated with a plate of frites (French fries) and a big green salad. Ask anyone from Marseilles about Merguez and their eyes will glisten while they conjure images of picnics past. I myself had pictured casually sipping a glass of Claudia Springs Viognier while gleefully grinding the meat, seasoning it, and then filling the sausage casings as the charcoal briquettes turned from cool black to white hot. It should have been a simple enough task for a big Chef with thirty years’ experience cooking in the finest kitchens across America. Unfortunately, that Zen foodie moment wasn’t in the cards, but thankfully I am naturally stubborn and did eventually manage to make a few strands of Merguez….
Warning: Purists will be pissed off! This is an upscale expensive version of what commonly is a street food in the Middle East.
Warning # 2: I do not have a tower and I did not use a vertical spit… I used my traditional spit and basted frequently.
OK, now that I have clarified things I hope to have kept the hate mail to a minimum. I work at a great Mediterranean restaurant in the middle of Southern California’s desert called Figue. With temperatures soaring in the mid 110’s to 120’s this time of year I got to thinking what do other hot cultures eat this time of year. My overheated brain wandered past cool bowls of gazpacho and cucumber soups drizzled with Greek yogurt to the Middle East, specifically shawarma. Even with the heat I still want real food… that shocked me. I really thought this time of year I would wither away nibbling on frozen popsicles and salads. Part of the problem is my friend and boss, Lee Morcus, owner of Figue Mediterranean, absolutely LOVES food too and we talk a lot. We share texts about food, emails about food, face to face conversations about food. Pretty much every single time we are together food comes up. Lee has to be credited with getting me to put shawarma on the menu recently. I can’t remember if it was his mouth drooling description of eating shawarma at some point in his life or the fact that he is of Lebanese decent and that triggered my mind. However it came to be, here is how I have been making it lately. I apologize to cooks who need exact recipes, this is not one of them. The first thing is starting with high quality lamb. We buy our from a small cooperative of farms out East called Elysian Fields. It is a collaborative effort between former lawyer Keith Martin and Chef Thomas Keller and has often been referred to as “Kobe Lamb” because of the unsurpassable quality. If you want to taste what lamb should taste like please visit Elysian Field’s website and find a way to get some.
For our shawarma I used the best cut available, a saddle of lamb. I boned it out leaving both the tenderloin and filet attached. Then I made a paste from garlic, cilantro and ginger and spread it all over.
I sprinkled a spice mix tentatively called “Shawarma Lamb Mix” all over the lamb and tied it up. The spice mix was basically a mixture of black pepper, cardamon, fennel seed, cumin, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, paprika, sumac and smoked Maldon salt.
Then I cooked our lamb in our almond wood fired rotisserie and cooked it for six hours basting it frequently with it’s own juices. Obviously the picture below is chickens (stuffed with herbs and preserved lemons seasoned with Moroccan spices) spinning on our rotisserie… Sexy, isn’t it?
I top the flatbread with a sauce made from Harissa Paste and Tomatoes, cover with shaved lamb dripping in it’s cooking juices, a salad of cucumbers, red onions and heirloom tomatoes flavored with sumac and parsley and mint, then drizzled with a tahini sauce (tahini, lemon juice, salt, pepper, lamb fat and shawarma spice mix)… WOW is it good! I sold out both Friday and Saturday nights. Come soon to taste this dish!
Here is an incredibly bad shot from my camera phone:
Definition of EPIGRAM
1: A concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought
Benjamin Franklin’s famous epigram, “Remember that time is money”
– Merriam Webster Dictionary
Definition of EPIGRAM, in food terms
1: A French dish consisting of two slices of lamb, usually a slice from the breast and a chop, cook then breaded and fried.
Phileas Gilbert (1857 – 1942), famous Chef who collaborated with Escoffier on le Guide Culinaire relates the origins of the culinary dish ‘Epigrammes’:
“It was towards the middle of the 18th century. One day a young marquise overheard one of her guests at the table remark that when he was dining the previous evening with the Comte de Vaudreuil, he was charmingly received and, furthermore, had had a feast of excellent epigrams. The marquise, though pretty and elegant, was somewhat ignorant of the meaning of the words. She later summoned Michelet, her Chef. ‘Michelet,’ she said to him, ‘tomorrow, I shall require a dish of Epigrammes.’
The Chef withdrew, pondering the problem. He looked up old recipes, but found no reference to anything of the kind. None of his colleagues had ever heard of the dish. But no French master Chef is ever at a loss. Since he could discover nothing about the dish he set about inventing one. Next day, inspiration came and he created a most delicate dish.
At dinner, the guests fell into ecstasies over the dish before them and, after complimenting the lady of the house, desired to know its name. The Chef was called. With perfect composure he replied, “Epigrammes of Lamb a la Michelet.
Everyone laughed. The marquise was triumphant, though she could not understand the amusement of her guests. From that moment, the culinary repertoire of France was enriched by a name still used to this day.”
Epigramme of Fillet of Trout, from Charles Elme Francatelli’s book entitled “Francatelli’s Modern Cook” (1886 edition):
“Trim the fillets as above (cut to resemble pear shaped fowl breasts), bread crumb one half, in the ordinary manner, and place these into a saute pan, with clarified butter; put the remainder into another saute pan, with clarified butter, without being bread crumbed, and season with pepper and salt. Fry the fillets, drain and dish them up in a close circle, placing one of each kind alternately; fill the center with some scollops of fillet of soles, tossed in a spoonful of Bechamel sauce, and some chopped and par boiled parsley; pour some Aurora sauce over the plain fillets (taking care not to smear those that are bread crumbed), pour some of it round the base, and serve.”
Charles Elme Francatelli was a pupil of Careme and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen.