Standing on the kitchen side of the studio apartment I share with my fiancée (an ICU nurse), browning soffritto and leafing through the pages of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by the late, great Judy Rodgers, it is safe to say this is not what I would have forecast for the apocalypse. No hellfire (my burners are electric), no brimstone, the major drama of my day is a foray to the laundromat.
The domestic anguish of quarantine is easy to dismiss, but frankly I’ve found my sanity slipping as the weeks pass. The pile of dishes that greets me every morning from the sink has taken on the aspect of a willful tormenter, and the police officers staring blandly through the window from the precinct across the street have become my sole, most intimate companions.
There are plenty of distractions, still, without rushing to miss a train, or browsing craft keychains in the Canal Street Market. But there is also the sense that living is really my only obligation––that, and not going to the beach. Maybe it is meaningful that in this situation, both privileged, in the sense that I have a home and partner whose income can support us, and devoid of the usual sources of purpose––work, friends, other things I’ve forgotten at this point––it’s food that is making sense to me.
According to my notes from the past month, I’ve made risotto and paellas, braises and butter chicken, and a whole menagerie of gluten-free baked goods. Every night, when my fiancée gets home from the hospital, I light the candles and array my day’s work on the table, while she describes the devastation of the coronavirus. The food I am making is for her, which makes me feel less useless, and makes being alone in a single room for most of my waking life less lonely. It also gives me a sense of direction: salt meat for tomorrow’s dinner; blanch greens, and squeeze them into compact balls to fill the freezer; mix cookie dough to bake on demand. The slow accumulation of effort converted into flavor––today’s ragu enriched with yesterday’s stock built on Thursday’s chicken trimmings––feels inherently optimistic. How comforting the thought, as we polish off a bowl of pasta with pesto (the extra to be tucked under the skin of a dry-brining chicken), that because of my work, tomorrow’s food will be better than today’s.
As much as food is about impermanence, it is also about the steady accumulation of work. Hunger that begets agriculture that begets civilization. A pile of lemons that begets a lamb braise that begets shakshuka in the morning. And if cooking food is the work that slowly enriches the cycle of our days, sharing is what gives food its meaning. So here is a recipe for disaster. May tomorrow’s dinner outshine today’s.
Basically a Lamb Tagine
Before our plans were interrupted by COVID-19, we were going to Morocco for our honeymoon in June. Though the honeymoon is postponed, these flavors have been on my mind. This is in no way an authentic tagine, but neither is it an act of pure invention.
Note: This recipe may not look quarantine-friendly, but a few points in its favor. First, if you are in isolation in your home, this is a good time to braise. You will not step out to get a coffee, lock yourself out, and burn down the building. Second, braises freeze well. All of those fresh carrots and bright citrus you bought on your weekly shop will be sad and flaccid soon unless you braise them, bag them and freeze them. Third, the aforementioned shakshuka. Just spoon the rich braising juices into a skillet tomorrow morning and break your eggs right into the pan. Besides, if you need more convincing, when you braise lemon halves with tomato, they soften, caramelize, and become tender and sweet as candy. Enjoy.
2 Tbsp Vegetable Oil
2 Lamb Shanks (~2-3 Lbs?)
3 glugs Olive oil
1 Yellow onion, chopped
1 head Garlic
6 threads Saffron
1/2 tsp Ground turmeric
1/2 tsp Ground cumin
1/4 tsp Ground black pepper
1/4 tsp Ground dried ginger
3 Cinnamon sticks
3 cups Boxed or canned chopped tomatoes
3 Small lemons, halved crosswise
10-15 Prunes, halved
4 Medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups Full-bodied red wine (even a funky natural one)
1 Orange, blood (I almost forgot about him!)––juiced
- Yesterday, heavily salt the shanks
2. Before you begin, take the lamb out of the fridge (it should be at room temp. to cook)
2.5. Preheat oven to 300°
3. Slice the garlic head in half crosswise, splitting the cloves. Keep the bottom (root) half intact, skin on, and skin and finely mince the top halves
4. In a hot pan, sear the lemon halves, flesh down, till slightly charred
5. In a dutch oven or pot (this is going in the oven, eventually), brown the shanks in vegetable oil, turning every few minutes, till well browned (10-15 minutes)
6. Remove the lamb, turn down the heat, and carefully drain the oil. Add olive oil, and sauté the onions on med-low with a few big pinches of salt. Throw in the half garlic head, exposed side down, and sauté till the onions are transparent and starting to brown.
7. Add the minced garlic and the spices. Sauté for a few seconds, until they release their fragrance.
8. Add the tomatoes and the blood orange juice, then scatter in the prunes and the carrots. Nestle in the lemon halves, then the lamb shanks, and add wine to bring the liquid 1/3 way up the meat (this should be all the wine––if the shanks are already 1/3 submerged, prop them up on the carrots + lemons). Add a couple pinches of salt.
9. Bring to a boil, then place in the middle of the preheated oven, lid on. Remove every 30 mins to flip the lamb (otherwise it’ll dry out). Braise for 3-4 hours, till the meat is fork-tender and falling off the bone.