MCC: Andalusian Lamb


Welcome to the first installment of the Medieval Cooking Challenge, an exploration of authentic Medieval flavors from our modern-day kitchens. To get the scoop on future challenges, head over to the Medieval Cooking Challenge page and join the mailing list!


April is prime time for finding a leg of lamb in the grocery store,so it seemed the perfect month for my favorite 13th Century recipe from the cookbook that simply goes by An Anonymous Andalusian (translated by Charles Perry). (Needless to say, the Internet makes finding these sorts or references much easier.)

Stuffed and Roast Mutton; Called “The Complete” [or “The Inclusive”]

Take a plump skinned ram; make a narrow opening in the belly between the thighs and take out what is inside it and clean. Then take as many plump chickens, pigeons, doves and small birds as you can; take out their entrails and clean them; split the breasts and cook them, each part by itself; then fry them with plenty of oil and set them aside. Then take what remains of their broth and add grated wheat breadcrumbs and break over them sufficient of eggs, pepper, ginger, split and pounded almonds and plenty of oil; beat all this and stuff inside the fried birds and put them inside the ram, one after another, and pour upon it the rest of the stuffing of cooked meatballs, fried mirkâs and whole egg yolks. When it is stuffed, sew up the cut place and sprinkle the ram inside and out with a sauce made of murri naqî’, oil and thyme, and put it, as it is, in a heated tannur [clay oven] and leave it a while; then take it out and sprinkle again with the sauce, return to the oven and leave it until it is completely done and browned. The take it out and present it.

I found this recipe while putting together a Medieval feast for about 100 or so, several years ago. While I might have been momentarily intrigued by the idea of cooking an entire ram stuffed with all sorts of small poultry and game birds (not to mention mirkâs [aka lamb sausages] and meatballs) , it was a short-lived fascination. Instead, I made it much more manageable by taking the essence of the recipe and scaling it down into something a modern-day cook could make for her family or a group of friends.


Medieval Andalusian Lamb

Medieval Andalusian Lamb

Here’s how to taken this recipe from Medieval to Modern:

Medieval Andalusian Lamb

The Stuffing: 

1/2 lb. Chicken breast, cooked and shredded
1 cup Almonds, roughly ground
1 cup coarse breadcrumbs
2 Eggs
1 tbsp Pepper
2 tsp Ginger
1/2 cup Chicken broth
2 Tbsp olive oil

The Lamb: 

6 to 8 lb. Leg of lamb, de-boned

The Basting Sauce:

1/2 cup Olive oil
1/2 cup Soy sauce
2 tbsp Thyme

Ingredients for the lamb fillingThe stuffing is quite simple: just toss everything into a bowl and mix thoroughly. You want something crumbly that sticks together, not soupy. Set aside until ready to stuff the lamb.

A few notes on the ingredients, though.

Almonds are quite common in Medieval recipes, used for their flavor as well as to thicken sauces and add texture. If you have an almond allergy in your home, walnuts and hazelnuts are both mentioned in other recipes of the period and would be appropriate substitutions (with hazelnuts being the better choice, flavor-wise). If yours is a strictly no nuts household, though, you could leave them out but the dish would suffer. We opted for something modern but safe: soy nuts. Whichever you choose, pulse them around in a food processor (or give them a few good whacks with a mortar and pestle if you’ve got one handy) to break them up but leave the pieces fairly large, just like the breadcrumbs.

Making coarse breadcrumbs the semi-old fashioned wayBreadcrumbs, in this instance, are not the powdery sort we buy in the store. Even the panko-style breadcrumbs are a little too fine. What you really want is to take a few slices of day-old bakery bread (or a couple of large bakery rolls) and shred them either in a food processor or with a box grater.

Deboning the lamb is simpler than it might seem. After doing more than 10 of these in my lifetime I’ve gotten quite good at them and have figured out the best possible plan of attack.

Tip #1 Defrost the lamb only partially. In school we took meat-cutting class in the walk-in refrigerators. A big part of food safety is temperature control so keeping the cold food cold while you’re manhandling it is important. Leaving the large hunk of meat semi-solid also makes it easier to cut through and less slippery as you move the pieces around.

the de-boned lamb

(vegetarians may want to look away)

Tip #2 Follow the bones you can see. You’ve probably got two bits visible: the skinny end of the leg bone and the hip socket. Do yourself a favor and start with the leg bone, following it straight up until it bends towards the hip socket. Then make a long cut between that bend and the visible hip socket. After that it’s just a matter of making small, precise cuts along the bone, separating the muscle without piercing the skin.

Tip #3 Save the bone! Pop it in the freezer until you want a really rich stock (like for French Onion Soup). Roasted bones make amazing stock and soup bases and a good Medieval cook would never throw away such wonderful raw materials.

Once the leg of lamb is de-boned (or if your butcher did that part for you and you’re now joining us at the counter), spread it out into as rectangular a shape as possible, with the cut side facing up. To make this work you may need to “butterfly” certain sections to stretch and flatten the larger muscles into the desired shape. Also, having the lamb on a flexible cutting board or sheet of wax paper will help with later steps (which I totally forgot to do this time and paid some messy consequences).

The flat and tidy lamb leg, ready for stuffingPat the stuffing mixture over the lamb, leaving a clear border along the long edges.

adding the stuffing to the lambCarefully roll up the layered lamb into a long cylinder. If you’ve got someone to lend an extra pair of hands it helps as you tie the roast closed with kitchen twine to keep it together in the oven.

Stuffed, rolled and tied leg of lamb(At this point you can wrap the stuffed leg of lamb in plastic wrap and foil and freeze for up to 2 months with no fear of spoilage. Defrost completely before roasting.)

To roast the stuffed leg of lamb, preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Mix together oil, soy sauce and thyme and pour about half of the mixture over the lamb which has been placed seam-side-down in a roasting dish. Roast for 9o minutes, basting with the other half of the oil mixture after about 45. Start checking the temperature after an hour–the center of the roast should be at 165° F to ensure doneness (a little pink on the lamb itself is generally a good thing, though).

in the roaster and basted with the sauceLet the finished lamb rest for 10 minutes before removing the twine and slicing into ½-inch thick portions. This should make between 8 (double-sized) to 16 (normal-sized) servings: perfect for a big family dinner or entertaining.

Adding Another Flavor Layer

In the original recipe, in addition to the stuffed poultry, meatballs and sausages were also called for. I’ve not included them in the past but since I was subbing out the almonds and taking away that little edge of the flavor, I wanted to add something else. Even though they look like meatballs, they’re actually flavored the way the mirkâs would be because I thought that was more interesting.

I totally eyeballed it, but to a pound of ground lamb I added somewhere in the neighborhood of:

2 Tbsp Soy Sauce | 2 tsp Pepper
2 tsp Coriander | 1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Lavender | 1 tsp Cinnamon

The only thing I’d add for the next time is at least 1 egg. Ground lamb tends to be incredibly lean and it can become dense and a little mealy without a little added fat.

Did they really have Soy Sauce in 13th century Andalusian Spain?

Not exactly. What they had was a sauce called murri naqî’ which was a fermented, salty grain-based condiment they used quite heavily in many of their dishes. When I first made this recipe, it wasn’t feasible to make your own murri naqî’ and soy sauce was the best fit out of modern products. Now, I learn, others have succeeded in making their own murri naqî’ , but soy sauce is easily available and accomplishes that umami flavor that’s needed.


If you’ve tried this and posted it on your own blog, link up in the comments below! And don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list to get the new challenge delivered to your email inbox at the beginning of each month!

Reviving an Easter Tradition


When I was a little girl, we lived with my grandmother for a few years before moving several states away from all of our extended family. Of that time, holidays always seem to stand out in my memories. Easter was no exception.

We’d color eggs the night before, making sure that each egg bore the name of a family member and then, before I went to bed, we’d leave the carton with the colored eggs out on the table. In the morning I’d get up, run to the kitchen table and peer up at all the eggs nestled amongst that cellophane Easter grass on a big silver platter.

One year I swear I saw the Easter bunny hopping away down the driveway, but everyone says I just dreamed that.

Well, last fall my aunt–the youngest of my father’s siblings–was in town and we were reminiscing after dinner and this story came up. Turns out my aunt was in possession of said silver platter (Maw-Maw having passed away while I was in high school, many [many] years ago) and a couple of months ago that very platter was FedExed to me at work.

So this year, with friends coming over for Easter dinner (my family was either out of town or otherwise engaged on Sunday), Todd and I revived that tradition by making everyone an egg with their name on it (plus a few more) and, just before they arrived, set them all out on the tray.

Easter Eggs on a family tray

In year’s past I’ve gone to various lengths with egg dying (the year of the plaid-dyed eggs stands out as the most memorable) but this year we went old school–colored dye dots and a wax crayon. Instead of the shredded cellophane, though, I used the edible Easter grass (looks and feels like Styrofoam but is actually pretty tasty)–some things are worth updating!

One of these days we’ll buy a “real” dining room table

With 8 people* for dinner we swapped out our small (yet completely functional) IKEA kitchen table for a folding table and our patio table brought in for extra elbow room. These tables work great but they’re still not wide enough to hold place settings and the serving dishes so the meal was served buffet-style from the kitchen. Except the rolls, those fit on the table.

Brioche Bunny Rolls

To dress up the plain ivory tablecloth and plates, I cut egg-shaped place mats from wallpaper sample books and added mismatched napkins from my magpie-like stash (I buy random cloth napkins when they go on sale and use them as covers for hand-bound journals)–no two anything matched. A mini-“basket” (cocktail cup full of candy) at each place-setting finished the suddenly festive table.

Easter TableThe menu was

(deviled eggs, pimento cheese with celery, chocolate covered matzo, & spinach dip with crackers)

Decorated Deviled Eggs

Andalusian Lamb (come back for the recipe on Thursday)
Roasted Vegetables (red potatoes, rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots and onions)
Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts Salad
Fruit Salad
Brioche Bunny Rolls

Easter Buffet

And one of our guests brought Cheesecake for dessert with a choice of toppings. Everything was delicious (though I still need to tweak the dressing on the broccoli/sprout salad, should I ever make it again).

The kitchen table got moved into the library to hold all the Easter goodies. Frankly, I’d hoped our guests would have taken more candy home with them–we still have quite the sugar haul for just 2 people.

Easter Candy Candy Candy

After dinner we kept on with the traditions (this time, a newer one) and played a round of Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, snacked on candy and engaged in light-hearted smack talk as we tried to be the last bunny standing with the right carrot. Todd was that bunny.

It was a wonderful afternoon spent in even better company with enough leftovers that we don’t need to cook for at least another day. A win all the way around.

*we were supposed to be 8, but a couple of last-minute cancellations brought us down to only 6


Food safety note: I’m sure (I hope) my family didn’t actually leave the eggs out all night. Most likely they went back in the fridge right after I went to bed and someone got up very early and set them out before I got up. At least I hope so. Even hard-boiled eggs should be refrigerated, folks.

More (or Less) Meatless


The second week of our cooking through Almost Meatless was just as tasty as the first. Maybe even more so?

Shabu Shabu Soup

Shabu Shabu Soup

We started with Shabu Shabu Soup. Traditionally this soup is served as a flavorful broth and a tray of thinly sliced meats and vegetables that cook almost instantly in the hot soup. It’s the sound of the add-ins sliding through the soup that gives the soup it’s name, according to the authors.

Tip for this recipe: to get the thinnest slices of steak without a deli slicer, slice the steak when still partially frozen. Just watch the finger-tips, they tend to go a bit numb doing this sort of thing, increasing the possibility of an ouchie!

This version of Shabu Shabu soup has all ingredients cooked before arriving at the table but it was another excellent choice for a summer meal. Not too heavy and an amazing flavor. The bok choy leaves do lend a bit of bite, along the lines of mustard or turnip greens, but any chance to use soba noodles in a dish makes me very happy (even if I had to check 3 grocery stores before finding them).

Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara

Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara

Next we skipped ahead to the eggs chapter and tried out the Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara. What could go wrong with fresh asparagus, peas and bacon? I’m not entirely sure but there was something just a touch off. Maybe it was the whole-what pasta we used? Maybe it needed more bacon (though, you know, that’s pretty much a given)? Or, maybe it just wasn’t what we were after that day. Who knows. It was fine as far as a pasta disk goes but it wasn’t the best thing we tried from the book.

Finally, it was time for the Albondigas. I just love saying that word: al-BON-di-gaas. Lamb and Irish-oat meatballs, a little spicy from the chipotle pepper, cooked in a rich tomato (or, in our case, roasted red bell pepper sauce). I had a pound of ground lamb and only needed half that so I made a double batch with plans for the leftovers already brewing.



One of the few recipes that came with serving suggestions, instead of lime rice we made lime quinoa and served it with the suggested flour tortillas. It was a nice little accompaniment to the spicy meatballs and helped dampen some of the fire. The steel-cut oats really added to the texture of the lamb and kept in a significant amount of moisture for the lean lamb.

The leftovers? Well, I’d been craving a meatball sub for quite some time and saw this as my opportunity to act on it. Picking up a load of french bread and provolone cheese, we spread the split loaves with mayonnaise (adds a wonderful creaminess to the acidic sauce on the meatballs) and lined them with provolone before popping them under the broiler to melt the cheese. The meatballs and sauce were added, another half slice of provolone on top and back under the broiler until the cheese melted again and the edges of the bread crisped.

Mom taught me that pickles make a lovely counterpoint to the rich taste of both tomato sauce on a meatball sub as well as barbecue sandwiches, so I added a little relish to my sandwich as well. Oh, so, yummy. A little extra grated Parmesan on top and these sandwiches totally cured my craving. In fact, a little queso fresco on top of the standard albondigas wouldn’t go amiss should we make these again!



And, hey, I got to drag my baguette pan out of storage–it makes the perfect holder for toasted subs to get maximum crispiness on the edges without spilling any of the filling!

After working our way through the cookbook (selected recipes, that is), did it fulfill those cover-flap promises?

Eating less meat is…

  • healthier? Probably. I mean we did eat less meat and more veggies. Did we, like, lose any weight in the process? Nope. If anything I felt heavier after some of these recipes than some of the balanced and properly portioned meaty meals we’ve eaten in the past.
  • cheaper? Definitely not. My grocery bill was the same if not more for 7 days of eating out of her book. Mostly from the vegetable requirements and specialty items that needed to be tracked down. I’m betting if you had a farmer’s market nearby (one that isn’t open only during workdays, for instance–sometimes it seems like you have to sacrifice a “normal” workday for access to healthy eating) or access to smaller portions of meats you might actually be able to save some cash. Keep in mind, too, that we already had several items so the higher bill came with the somewhat-shortened list.
  • eco-friendly? This one’s harder to say, for sure, but we definitely used less packaged items, created less trash and all that. It would take much more than a week, though, to really create any sort of environmental change.

All in all I enjoyed trying these recipes and look forward to making others at another time. I just don’t think I’ll be using this as my meat-adjusted bible any time soon.

Naan Pizza & Tomato-less Sauce


naan_1It’s been 3 1/2 years since I’ve had any sort of tomato-based sauce*. Do you know how many foods contain tomato sauce, paste or both? It’s been a long 42 months.

The why of this has to do with an unfortunate hiccup in my health and there’s many other things I’ve had to eliminate (caffeine, for one) or cut way back on over the years but concentrated tomatoey goodness has been one of the things I’ve missed the most. Over time I’ve gotten to the point where I can tolerate a slice or two of fresh tomato on a salad or sandwich (once a week or so) without illness but it’s not the same.  I’ve wondered for a while if there was a way I could “fake” a red sauce for spaghetti, pizza, etc. but never tried it until a few weeks ago with a red bell pepper sauce that has improved my personal food landscape many times over.

Since that first foray over whole wheat spaghetti, we’ve used it on stuffed (green) bell peppers, a delicious lasagna and, now, pizza with wonderful results. It doesn’t taste exactly like tomato sauce, but with careful seasoning there’s usually only a taste or two per meal where the switch is readily apparent.

Red Pepper Sauce

5 red bell peppers, diced, or 2 jars roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
4 green onions, sliced
3 cloves (or more) garlic, minced
1/2 Tbsp paprika
1/2-3/4 c Chicken stock
Olive oil, salt and pepper

Saute the onions and garlic in oil until the whites of the onions are translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer until the peppers are tender: 20 minutes or more if using fresh peppers, 10 or so if using canned–gives it time to absorb the other flavors. Add salt and pepper to taste along with any other spices you want. Puree everything smooth (a stick blender makes this so much easier) and then re-season if necessary.

That’s the basic sauce recipe. The jarred peppers are a good substitute for when fresh are either unavailable or cost-prohibitive, plus they cut down your cooking time. What spices you add will depend on what you’re using the sauce on. For Italian, add the usual oregano, thyme, basil and whatever else you like.

You can stretch the sauce by using more stock–we like ours thick for most things, but if you like a thinner sauce  go up to a cup and a quarter of stock and this recipe will make about a quart of sauce (depends on how much water is in the peppers, too), thicker it might be closer to a pint. It freezes wonderfully, so you can definitely make up a big batch when peppers are plentiful (you can also use some yellows in there, too, it just makes the sauce a little more orange) and put it away for later.

We’d been planning to try it out as a pizza sauce but hadn’t gotten around to it when we had the following conversation, Thursday night:

Todd: I got some extra roasted red peppers if we wanted to make more of that sauce.

Jenn: Ooh, yeah, we haven’t tried it on pizza yet. Maybe we could do that this weekend?

Todd: (looking at his place which included grilled naan) I wonder if you could make naan-pizza.

Jenn: Why not? Mmm, Indian spices in the sauce–what toppings would we use?

Todd: Lamb?

So, Saturday we headed out for provisions: more naan, lamb, and some goat cheese. The end result was an amazing pizza that was way more filling that we thought it would be.

Naan Pizza
Serves 4

1 cup Red Pepper Sauce seasoned with cumin, coriander, garam masala, and a touch of mint and cinnamon
1 pkg Naan (2 pieces per package)
Olive oil
3/4 lb lamb, ground or cut into small chunks
Flour for dusting
1/2 lb sugar snap peas, chopped
1/2 c diced red onion
Minced garlic
Salt and pepper
4 oz cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 oz crumbed goat cheese

Preheat your over to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and line a backing sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. Lay out the naan and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, salt and some granulated garlic, if you like. Divide the Red Pepper Sauce evenly between the two naan and top with some more minced garlic.

Season the lamb with salt and pepper and, if using whole meat instead of ground, dredge it lightly in flour. I happened to have some Pani Puri (semolina flour) left over from an Andalusian feast I did a while back so I used that, but any flour should do. Saute in olive oil until browned, then add peas and onion and cook until the lamb is done. Divide this mixture between the two naan. Divide the two cheeses evenly among the pizzas.

Bake the pizzas about 15 minutes or until the cheese has started to melt and brown on the tips. Goat and cream cheeses don’t really melt the way mozzarella does, so you have to trust the browning rather than the smoothing out that you usually get on a pizza.

naan_2We served it with a bit of prepared Tabbouleh on some mixed lettuces. You can, of course, try other meats or just a combination of veggies on this and it would be equally good. I think that adding a bit of yogurt to the pepper sauce would make a wonderful curry sauce, too, with just a bit more seasoning.

*That is to say, without becoming ill–unfortunately I’ve been reminded the hard way of just how many things contain enough tomato paste or sauce to cause a reaction.