Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And the jewels do shine

Raggedy blooms
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine had a few of us over for a housewarming. We spent a lot of it plopped down with steaming cups of tea, pouring over her cookbook collection. My friend said that we were free to borrow whichever cookbooks we wanted, that she didn't cook from them much and was mostly content just to read through the stories and recipes and be warmed by them. I didn't take her up on her offer that day, but there was one particular book that stuck with me, Sam and Sam Clark's Moro East.
On dark, drizzly days like the ones we've been having here in Chicago, leafing through its pages is just about enough to warm you. The book provides a glimpse into life at the community garden where the Clarks tended a plot--a year in vegetables, small gatherings, and food shared with friends. Though the Clarks are based in London, their book has the feel of some place warmer, some place arid and sun-kissed. This owes mostly to the friends the Clarks made while gardening. Many of them hailed from the Mediterrannean--Turks and Cypriots who knew a thing or two about grape leaves and sumac and grilled lamb. They and the Clarks cooked together, often over charcoal in the open air right by their neighbouring plots. Many of the recipes in the book are contributions from these friends.
Butternut squashMise en place
I finally asked for my friend's copy just as the temperatures around here were dipping. In return, I snipped her the last few raggedy blooms from the garden out back--something to brighten her new place for a while. By then, it was November. Thanksgiving was just around the corner. I'd been busy writing and hadn't thought much about it. I certainly hadn't placed an order for a turkey. So I started leafing through Moro East, looking for ideas. One of the first recipes I landed on was for something called la caldereta, a bone-in lamb shoulder rubbed with thyme and rosemary and slow-roasted with onions and potatoes. Exactly what I was looking for, and with a pretty name like that, how could I resist? So, that's what we built our Thanksgiving meal around this year, a lamb roast from Extremadura (in western Spain) re-interpreted by a couple of London chefs. It was wildly non-traditional. Think homemade pita bread, chickpea fritters, mint-flecked yogurt, and roasted eggplant scattered with pomegranate seeds. (I don't think our guests minded.)
Crowned with squashJewelled pumpkin rice
Thanksgiving was a while ago now. But weeks after, there's one dish from our meal that I'm still thinking of. It's another from Moro East, a side dish that the Clarks call jewelled pumpkin rice. (They really know how to name a dish, now don't they?) It's not much to look at, despite the name. The colours are those of the late autumn landscape--soft browns, bursts of orange, faded greens. But it really is something. The rice is made spectacularly fragrant by cinnamon, allspice, and cardamon. These go in the pot following the butter and onions and toast for a good long while, perfuming your kitchen. And the jewels buried in the rice do shine--tart, chewy currants, roasted butternut squash, and toothsome pistachios. All this is finished with a splash of buttery saffron water, which lends it a lovely roundness.
The friend who lent me the cookbook was one of our Thanksgiving guests. I was gratified when she told me that we'd cooked things that she'd often looked at but would probably have never cooked herself.
I thought that the rice went wonderfully with the lamb shoulder we roasted. Its sweetness complemented the grassy, gamey notes in the roast. With the onions and butternut squash in this dish, its sweetness is rather assertive. You'll want to pair it with something else that can hold its own.

Jewelled Pumpkin Rice
Adapted from Sam and Sam Clark's Moro East
Note: About the butter. Vegans, you can easily replace the butter that the onions cook in with an equal amount of olive oil (75 g), which is what I did for one of my friends at Thanksgiving. After letting the rice rest off heat for 5 minutes, I then set aside his portion and poured the buttery saffron water on the remaining rice. Just as easily, you could omit the butter from the saffron water. I've since made the rice again, this time going half butter, half olive oil. Surprisingly, the butter didn't make much of a difference.

500 g / 1 lb peeled and seeded butternut squash (the flesh of a 750 g squash), cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
a big pinch of saffron (about 50 strands)
100 g / 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (see note above)
3 inch cinnamon stick
4 allspice berries
1 large or 2 medium onions, thinly sliced across the grain
15 g / 1 1/2 tablespoons dried barberries (or currants)
50 g / 1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
300 g / 1 2/3 cup basmati rice, soaked in tepid, salted water for 1 hour
450 ml / 1 4/5 cup vegetable stock

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Toss the diced butternut squash with half of the salt and the olive oil. Spread it in a single layer in a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes or until tender.

Mix the saffron with 3 tablespoons of boiling water and add 25 g (about 2 tablespoons) of the butter, which should melt. Set aside.

Heat the remaining butter in a medium saucepan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams, then add the onion and the remaining half teaspoon of salt. Fry over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft and starting to colour. Add the barberries, pistachios, and cardamom and cook for 10 minutes more, until the onion is golden and sweet.

Now drain the rice and add to the pan, stirring for a minute or two to coat, then pour in the stock. Taste for seasoning then scatter with the roast squash. Cover with a circle of parchment paper and a tight-fitting lid and cook over high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 5 minutes. Remove the lid and parchment and drizzle with the buttery saffron water. Replace the lid and leave to rest, off the heat, for 5-10 minutes.
Serves 4-6.