Border-free cooks, this may be the perfect summer dinner – especially if you're in the mood for Mediterranean flavors. Grilled butterflied leg of lamb, with asparagus spears thrown over the coals at the same time. A couple of fabulous salads to start, from the James Beard Award-winning cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. A gorgeous tart to make the most of sweet-and-ripe summer stone fruit.
It's ideal for laid-back entertaining (eat outside!) as nearly everything can be done ahead.
Friends were coming over last night, and I knew we'd want to relax and hang out, maybe have some nibbles before dinner and a glass or three of rosé before I lighted the charcoal on my old-fashioned Weber. A butterflied leg of lamb on the grill sounded about the right speed; I've been craving summer's char.
Flipping through Zahav, I happened upon a couple of salads that spoke to me.
The first was quinoa, pea and mint tabbouleh. Irresistible, right? So smart of chef Michael Solomonov (who wrote the book with Steven Cook) to swap quinoa for the traditional bulgur wheat, and toss in peas to play with the mint. No need to use fresh peas when frozen ones (so stress-free) do just fine.
The dish was as wonderful as I'd hoped – and then some. I'm going to make it again, pronto. The recipe serves 4 to 6, but next time I'll probably double it so I have some left over for the next day. So good! I can't wait for you to try it and tell me what you think.
I served that as a first course before the lamb, but first we had nibbles: some marinated gigante beans I found at the olive bar at Whole Foods (speared with toothpicks – crazy, right?); spicy pickled okra (also from the olive bar); roasted salted cashews; and Castelvetrano olives (my faves).
But the star nibble was charred eggplant salad from the Zahav cookbook. To make it, you char halved eggplants on a grill or stovetop grill – I used the cast-iron grill that fits right on my stovetop – cut-side down, until the flesh is "like pudding" in texture. It took a long time – about 45 minutes. Alternatively, you can do it under a broiler (cut-side up). Scoop out the flesh (discarding the charred exterior), and use a spoon to beat it to creaminess with minced raw garlic and olive oil; then you stir in salt. The recipe called for topping it with half a cup of chopped fresh parsley, but that turned out to be too much; I cut it down to a quarter cup, stirring half of it into the salad and using the rest as garnish on top – just right.
It was pretty delicious – the proportions were otherwise perfect – and I served it with triangles of whole-wheat pita bread toasted in the oven. I felt it would be even better with a zing of acid, so I squeeze in half a lemon, and it went from delicious to dreamy.
If you own the cookbook, you might notice that the photo with the eggplant salad recipe is more reddish in color than mine turned out, flecked with something that looks like small bits of roasted red pepper or tomato. Hmmm. Very intriguing. There is a variation offered: adding a cup of tehina sauce turns the salad into baba ganoush (eager to try!). But no other variation is mentioned. It seems like a recipe ripe for improvisation.
The timing on this dinner is very easy, as you can made the eggplant salad, tabbouleh and dessert in advance, letting the lamb bask lazily in its marinade (olive oil, red wine vinegar, crushed garlic, chopped mint and cilantro, salt and pepper). Rather than keeping the lamb tied up after it's bones have been removed, you unroll it so it's flattish – that way it absorbs more marinade, cooks more quickly and gets more charred surface. The marinade, meanwhile, is one you can play with, depending on the flavors you want – maybe rosemary and/or thyme instead of mint and cilantro, or more or less garlic, maybe Aleppo pepper or cayenne rather than black pepper. You get the idea. You can marinate it for a couple of hours, or overnight.
Once you're ready to grill and the coals are hot, wipe the marinade off the meat (be sure to bring the meat to room temp for about an hour first) and spread the lamb flat on the grill. Toss some asparagus spears in a little olive oil and salt and throw them on the grill next to the lamb after the lamb has been on there two or three minutes. Keep the grill covered to prevent flare-ups, and flip the meat after 6 or 8 minutes. You'll want to keep an eye on, as it the cooking time can range from 12 to about 22 minutes total depending on how hot the coals are, the size of the cut and how done you like it. If you're going for medium-rare, aim for an internal temperature of about 130. But don't worry if it goes past that – even if it's done to medium it's really good.
Got it? Here's the recipe:
Once it's done, be sure to let it rest for at least 10 minutes, so it's as juicy and tender as can be. Go ahead and serve the tabbouleh as a first course (or whatever you've dreamed up – the tabbouleh is also really good with the lamb!). By the time you're done, the lamb will have rested long enough. Slice it (across the grain), laying the slices on a platter and pouring over them any juices that have collected on the plate as it rested. Oh, man – you are in for a treat! Serve it with the asparagus. If you're tired of asparagus, you could just as well have done zucchinis quartered lengthwise on the grill – that would be great with it, too.
"We should have started with this!" That's usually Thierry's refrain come dessert-time; he has a sweet tooth. I was really, really happy with the way this tart – which starred nectarines, black plums and apricots – turned out.
OK. I'm not going to go on and on about the tart; instead I'll tell you more about it in a separate post. For now, here's the recipe: