As we enter yet another week of lockdown I am trying to add a bit more diversity to our dinner table. I began leafing through old kitchen notebooks to get inspiration from past dishes. I came across an uptown version of lamb mechoui that used to be a fixture on my menus almost 20 years ago. A dish I had long forgotten about.
For those unfamiliar with mechoui, it is a festive lamb dish from North Africa. It’s usually made from a whole lamb, though small camels, gazelles, or even wild sheep will work in a pinch. Mechoui is intended to serve large gatherings, like a wedding or a joyous celebration. My version starts with a 3-pound boneless lamb shoulder marinated in spiced butter, then slow-cooked over a charcoal fire. But you can even make this in a conventional oven to get an unconventional flavor unto your table.
In Morocco, whole lambs or goats are cooked in earthen clay ovens or even large holes dug deep into the ground. A large wood fire is constructed and allowed to burn until nothing but embers are left. The lamb is often massaged with a spiced butter made from coriander, garlic, cumin, paprika, and sometimes cinnamon. Sometimes it is seasoned with a tomato and garlic marinade. The animal is lowered into the pit bound by a spit and entombed under a roof of clay. The embers smoke and crackle, charring the exterior and rendering the flesh tender and juicy in 5 to 6 hours. Mechoui is commonly served with nothing more than bowls of cumin, pepper, and salt to flavor the meat and perhaps a bowl of saffron rice.
Since I do not have enough people to feed a proper mechoui to I generally cook a leg or preferably a shoulder of lamb. The shoulder lends itself to the longer cooking time and yields incredibly tender and juicy meat. I marinate the lamb for at least two hours but preferably overnight. I like to cook the mechoui in a hot smoker or charcoal grill but an oven at 375°F will work as well. Serve with saffron rice or golden couscous.
Prep Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook Time 6 hours
- 1.5 tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp chopped garlic
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (2 sticks)
- 1 lamb shoulder, about 4 to 5 pounds deboned
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp chopped garlic
- 1 onion peeled and chopped fine
- 1 carrot peeled and chopped fine
- 1 thin zucchini washed and chopped fine
- 2 cups Israeli couscous
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1 pinch turmeric
- 1 pinch cinnamon
- 1 pinch cumin
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup diced dried apricots or raisins
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds toasted
- 2 cups chicken broth
- Make the spiced butter by beating all the spices with the softened butter.
- Remove any excess fat your lamb shoulder might have. Rub 2/3rds of the softened butter into the meat, covering the entire surface. Let marinate for a minimum of 2 hours at room temperature or overnight in your refrigerator.
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Place the lamb shoulder onto a rack in a roasting pan and cook for 2 hours, or until the lamb is fully cooked. If you are using a smoker or a charcoal fire let the lamb cook low and slow for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fully cooked and tender. Keep warm.
- While the lamb is cooking, prepare the golden couscous. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the oil until hot. Add the garlic, onion, carrot, and zucchini and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the couscous, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, and cumin. Stir briefly, then add the parsley, apricots, almonds, and broth. Bring to a boil, then lower to a bare simmer and cook covered until the couscous is tender, about 20 minutes.
To Serve Your Mechoui
- Remove the cooked lamb shoulder to a cutting board. Carve the meat into thin slices and pour over the remaining spiced butter. Pass the meat and couscous at your table.