In this blog post, Penn Press Advertising Manager Sara Davis does a bit of culinary time travel, guided by Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum Elias--the authors of Scheherazade's Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World.
Cooking foods from the past in the present season
I have a farmshare, which means that each week I receive a box of locally and sustainably grown vegetables. It’s a true grab bag every week, with an assortment of yearlong staples (mostly varieties of onions and garlic) and long-awaited treats (like heirloom tomatoes in the summer and squash in the fall). And, occasionally, a vegetable that must be dispensed with rather than enjoyed. Fennel root was my bête noire this week. Although I’ve come to tolerate its strong licorice-y taste, it’s hardly my favorite.
But this week my neighbor and I tried the Lamb and Fennel Tajine recipe from Scheherazade’s Feasts, which caught my eye on the Penn Press Pinterest board. We had everything necessary except the lamb, which was easily obtained. I got shoulder chops, one of the cheaper and tougher cuts of lamb, but perfect for stewing.
The first step was to boil the meat, which was a new cooking technique for me. I was taught to brown and then simmer meat, and thought that boiling would toughen it and leech it of flavor. This theory was flatly disproven by this dish. Boiling the lamb created a fragrant and flavorful broth, which we set aside as directed. After we browned the preboiled meat, onions, and seasonings in the pot, we returned the lamb broth to the pot, where it infused everything else—including the fennel!--with its rich flavors. We let this stew simmer for quite some time, causing the onions and garlic to dissolve and the fennel and lamb to grow sweet and tender, mingling their own strong flavors with the more subtle seasonings of caraway and coriander.
We ate ours with strips of cabbage that we had roasted while waiting for the stew to simmer. It was an incredibly warm and comforting meal, perfect for the cooling weather. It was also relatively easy to assemble and prepare using ingredients that were local and seasonal in Philadelphia—a wonderful find for a recipe that was invented in another century across the globe! But perhaps most surprising of all is that the fennel, drenched in broth and delicately seasoned, tasted absolutely delicious to me.
Sara Davis is the writer behind scenesofeating.com.