I can’t count how many times I’ve told people that they shouldn’t try to prepare a new dish when guests are coming over. I like to do as I say but last week, I didn’t follow my own advice. I’d invited chef David Kinch over for dinner. Manresa, his two-Michelin star restaurant, suffered an awful fire recently and during the rebuilding phase, his evenings are more free. That won’t last long because he’s targeting to reopen in late fall.
David has come over several times and we’ve tinkered in the kitchen. The menu has usually been something I’m well-practiced in, like homemade tofu, pho, and Peking duck. It was just the three of us on Friday so I decided to treat our guest like family. That’s to say, I’d try something new out on David.
The stunning August 2014 issue of Saveur magazine is dedicated to Indian food, and a recipe for lamb simmered with three kinds of chile (dried, fresh, and ground) caught my eye. The photo was red like fire and the dish was described as:
It is one of 30 or so lamb dishes that composes the 36-dish Kashmiri celebration feast called the wazwaan, a legacy of the 15th-century Turko-Mongol conquerer Timur. He brought with him to Kashmir 1,700 skilled workers, including cooks; today, their descendents, the wazas, butcher whole lambs, breaking them down for dishes such as this succulent, spicy stew.
The Kashmiri lamb recipe was part of Saveur executive editor Betsy Andrews’ story, Perfect Union about attending a wedding in northern India. I was smitten by her prose (“dining like queens”!), the photos by Ariana Lindquist, and intriguing recipe. Rory was into it. David is a world traveler whose partner is the proprietress of Kin Khao, a potent new Thai restaurant in San Francisco. The three of us could deal with a lot of heat and lamb.
I wondered how the spices – cinnamon (cassia), cardamom, black cumin and peppercorns would do. Then there was the tart edge of tamarind to lend an acidic backbone. The dried mint – I had a stash of Persian mint from making recipes in this fabulous book by Louisa Shafia, would refresh and counter the lamb-iness.
The black cumin was tricky – there was no suggested substitute. I live in Santa Cruz and wasn’t about to drive 1.5 hours (round trip) to the India Cash and Carry. My solution was to head to AJ’s – a gas station convenience store owned by people from the Middle East. They had Halal meats and basmati rice. I’d studied the spice section months ago and it had the best of that part of the world. Rory was willing to drive, and there it was on the shelf. Once home, I tasted the black cumin and realized that it’s like a cross between regular cumin and caraway, spices that pair well with lamb. So in a pinch, use the substitute I’ve suggested below.
I started cooking at 5pm and David arrived soon after 7pm. “It smells so good outside of your house!” he said walking through the door. In the kitchen, he examine the pot and nodded with approval.
Before we ate, we both verified the seasonings. I added salt but things didn’t quite seem right. David asked about an extra acidic element to round things out. I’d made a seared ginger raita yogurt sauce. He deemed that the perfect counterpoint. We sat down and the three of us ate up most of the dish, nibbling on the bones. The sauce was complex in flavors and layering. It was stunning.
Sometimes I don’t follow my own advice and things turn out okay. It also helps to have a good friend in the kitchen.
Kashmiri Lamb with Chile Sauce
Yields: 4 servings
- 6 dried Kashmiri chiles or pasilla chiles, stemmed (I used pasillas for a dark red result)
- 2 small red Thai chiles or 1 Fresno chile, stemmed
- Generous 2 pounds (1 kg) lamb shoulder, each cut into 2 to 4 pieces
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 1 stick cinnamon
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 1 teaspoon black cumin seeds, or 3/4 teaspoon cumin plus 1/4 teaspoon caraway
- 10 cloves garlic, minced and mashed or put through a press
- 2 Indian or regular bay leaves
- ¼ cup tamarind liquid/paste (see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen or Asian Dumplings for recipe or go here)
- 3 tablespoons dried mint (measure as pre-rubbed/whole leaves)
- 1 tablespoon red chile powder, such as cayenne
- Salt, to taste
1. Heat a 6-quart (1.5L) pot over medium-high. Cook the dried chiles, pressing with a spatula, until lightly toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Briefly cool, then tear into large pieces, discarding the seeds as you go along. Transfer to a food processor. Add the fresh chiles and 1 cup water. Purée until smooth and return to the pan.
2. Add the lamb, peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, and 3 cups water (.75 L). Bring to a boil the lower the heat to simmer, covered, until lamb is tender, about 1 hour. Cool a few minutes then transfer the lamb mixture to a bowl.
3. Wipe the pan clean. Heat the oil over medium-high. Cook the cumin seeds, garlic, and bay leaves until the seeds pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Return the lamb mixture, then add the tamarind paste, 1 tablespoon of mint, the chile powder, and about 3/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until thickened, about 1 hour. Let cool for 15 minutes to settle flavors. Skim off excess fat, if you like. Serve in a shallow bowl, garnished with the remaining mint.
Adapted from “Perfect Union” by Betsy Andrews in Saveur, August 2014.