Costolette d’agnello alla Marocchina
For many, the mention of Morocco conjures up visions of crowded street markets filled with decorative lanterns, fringed carpets, ornate pottery, woven baskets, and other artisan goods. Amidst the hustle-bustle of tourists, vendors, and djellaba-cloaked locals, aromas of argan oil, burning incense, supple leather, and smoldering tagines fill the air.
It is a scene ripped straight from the pages of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, or reminiscent of a place where trouble brews in an Indiana Jones adventure. Morocco personified is a veiled belly dancer wearing little more than a hip scarf and finger cymbals: Exotic, mysterious, and seductive. And perhaps the greatest treasure found in any Moroccan street market, or souk, would be the stall of the humble spice merchant.
Top of the shop
The fragrances of paprika, cumin, coriander, saffron, and dozens of other tantalizing scents saunter through the open-air market. Intoxicated by the perfumed air and salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, you certainly want to sample the goods. So, the merchant offers you “Ras el Hanout”.
Literally translated, Ras el Hanout means “top [or head] of the shop”. The closest English equivalent phrase is “top shelf”. So, to receive Ras el Hanout means you are getting the best of what that merchant has to offer. Obviously, there is a certain subjectivity at work here. The best of the best varies from stall to stall, as each spice merchant values spices differently. Ras el Hanout blends can range from a blend of six to eight spices to upwards of dozens.
Some sources claim it is heavy on nutmeg, turmeric, and ginger, while others lean towards paprika, cumin, and coriander, while some stretch the canvas to include ingredients like lavender, rosebud, orris root, fenugreek, ash berries, and galangal. Because of this, there is no official Ras el Hanout recipe. Still, it is as important to North African cooking as olive oil is to the Mediterranean. To provide a cultural reference, Ras el Hanout plays a similar role in North African cuisine as Garam Masala in Indian cuisine.
He who controls the spice controls the universe
There was a time when a man would be killed for a handful of peppercorns and cinnamon was 15x times more valuable than silver by weight. Now, even the most esoteric of spices are ubiquitously available within a stone’s throw packaged in convenient little jars. Even so, gathering up enough of the “good stuff” to make a legit Ras el Hanout is a little pricey. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth your time and money to visit a boutique spice store.
Here’s an analogy for the candle buyers out there. I happen to like candles quite a bit. I would live by candlelight if it was affordable and didn’t make everyone around me crazy. The fact is, though—most candles are less than adequate for anything except a bit of light. Those high-end wood wick or Yankee-branded candles people buy to make their home smell like a spa retreat…well, there is a reason why the price tag feels like rape. First of all, they burn much slower. Maybe it is a better quality wax, maybe they are hand-poured…I don’t pretend to know. What I do know is you can smell them a block away after you light them. That bootleg candle you bought at the dollar store in a feeble attempt to save a few pennies was money down the toilet. Spices are the same in this respect. Without question, boutique spice shops have higher quality products.
Here’s the rub
Those bay leaves in your mother-in-law’s pantry that you recognize from childhood taste like muted cardboard at best. The cloves you bought six years ago because you were on a spiced tea kick but also thought they would help out with a toothache in a pinch are no longer worth keeping. Store-bought dried herbs, in general, suck from the moment you bought them, as they were stale long before you arrived. Don’t let a pretty label fool you. Spices have a shelf life of six months under the best circumstances. Anything older than that is occupying cabinet space for no better reason than A. Forgetfulness, B. Laziness, or C. Hoarding Mentality.
For spices to be pungent, aromatic, and flavorful, they need to be fresh. Which brings me to the supermarket—avoid buying spices here altogether if possible. They are vastly overpriced and have been sitting on the shelf for god-knows-how-long, not to mention dying in a warehouse long before that. You suck 100% of the life out of them once you remove that feckless ‘keep it fresh’ seal.
If robust aroma and flavor are your goals: Find a local spice merchant. Local boutique shops specializing in spices like Savory Spice Shop and Penzey’s have the highest-quality products, not to mention an unparalleled inventory of items that you only dream to find elsewhere. You’ll know the difference the moment you enter. The scent alone will knock your socks off, and oftentimes the prices will surprise you, too. Many spices purchased by weight cost less than the grocery store.
Rock the casbah
Like I said earlier, there is no “real” Ras el Hanout blend. You decide which flavors complement your dish the best. I realize obtaining each of the ingredients in this spice blend isn’t economically feasible and may require some to seek out a second mortgage. There is a more affordable approach than dropping $50-$100 on spices alone.
The aforementioned spice merchants will not only gladly throw together a custom blend for you at a fraction of the cost of purchasing individual spices, but likely have a few blends of their own sitting on the shelves that are excellent starting points. I highly encourage visiting your local spice shop and asking for a Moroccan blend. If that is inconvenient, search online, as many of the better shops have delivery options. The Tan-Tan Moroccan blend from Savory Spice Shop is more than adequate for this recipe and a hundred other uses. Moroc-can-roll chicken wings, perhaps.
- Blend the Ras el Hanout spices in a bowl. Feel free to add or omit spices or change proportions based on your tastes.
- In a separate bowl, pour in the olive oil and minced garlic. Add 2-3 tablespoons of your spice blend to the olive oil/garlic mixture and blend well with a whisk to make a paste.
- To obtain individual chops, stand the rack on end, and starting from the exposed rib end, cut between ribs with smooth, single strokes. If you don't get through in one stroke, pick up your knife, place it back in the seam, and pull it again—do not saw back and forth.
- When you have achieved individual chops, dredge them through the Ras el Hanout olive oil blend until thoroughly coated. Place in the refrigerator to Marinate for a minimum of one hour.
- Spread crushed pistachios out on a plate. Take each chop and coat the back with the pistachio dust. You could coat more of the lamb; however, the pistachios are likely to burn over the flame. This is up to a matter of personal taste. Pan searing lamb chops tend to be more kind to a full pistachio crust.
- Heat a charcoal or gas grill. Rub the grates with a paper towel and a little olive oil.
- Prior to placing the chops on the grill, sprinkle a little more spice blend onto each chop, as you would a dry rub. Don't overcompensate and the spice may burn and affect the crust you are wanting to achieve.
- Cook for 4-5 minutes before turning once and cook another 3-4 minutes on the other side for medium-rare. Exact timing is contingent upon the heat of your grill. The timing would be similar in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.
- Set aside on a plate and cover loosely with a foil tent to rest for 10 minutes.
- Heat a pot of water (or chicken stock, vegetable stock, or apple cider) until boiling. Add the farro and cook for roughly 20 minutes, or until al dente. Drain the farro and cool.
- Prepare acidulated water by adding a tablesppon or two of lemon juice to a bowl of water. This will keep your sliced apples from browning while you prepare the salad.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the sherry vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and slowly incorporate the olive oil until emulsified.
- Pat dry the arugula. Toss it in a bowl with the apples, cooked farro, and pomegranate seeds, lightly adding the vinaigrette as you are tossing. Do not over saturate. Adding more vinaigrette later is easier than subtracting.
- To roast garlic, preheat an oven to 375ºF. Cut a head of garlic in half, drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and place in an oven-proof dish for 30-35 minutes. Remove the garlic from the oven and allow to cool. Squeezing either the whole head of garlic or individual cloves will release the roasted garlic from its skin into a convenient paste.
- Heat a small pan over low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, tossing frequently until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Watch them closely as they burn quickly. Set aside to cool.
- Drain and rinse the cannellini beans.
- Add the beans to a food processor with all other ingredients except for the olive oil.
- Blend on medium speed while slowly adding extra-virgin olive oil to emulsify until the hummus has reached the desired consistency.
- To plate, use a rubber spatula to spread it around the rim of a shallow bowl, creating layers. Once plated, garnish with fresh parsley, ras el hanout blend, toasted pine nuts, and extra-virgin olive oil.
- Add the vinegar and sugar to a small saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Boil until the mixture has reduced by half and has a syrupy consistency. Be careful as it will thicken as it cools.
- If you want to skip this step, plenty of reductions and glazes are available for purchase.