Berbere-Crusted Rack of Lamb with Herbed Israeli Couscous

berbere lamb

The cuisine of Africa is still relatively unknown in the States—and it's new for me too, but what I've tasted so far in my culinary outings has me completely enamored with the deep flavors and unique spice mixtures. That's why for this coming Easter holiday, I decided to create something a bit different and somewhat unexpected for my family. Instead of the traditional American glazed ham or Mediterranean roast leg of lamb, I decided upon this African-fusion-style rack of lamb inspired by a restaurant visit, and a pasta side dish with Israeli origins.

Some years ago I had dinner at the now closed Merkato 55, the African fusion restaurant in New York's meatpacking district. The menu was composed by none other than Ethiopian-born Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, who has lately become the favorite chef of the Obamas. (The first lady recently dined at his Scandinavian restaruant, Aquavit.) I clearly remember fawning over the restaurant's roast lamb encrusted in berbere, a spice mix used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It combines ajwain, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, cassia, cardamom, coriander, and chiles. The smoky, spicy, and peppery flavors of the berbere makes a wonderful complement for the gamey quality of lamb.

For a bright and fresh side dish evocative of spring, I'm serving the lamb with herbed couscous. Israeli couscous is like Moroccan couscous in that it is a tiny pasta, but it resembles small pearls instead of tiny grains. In Israel it is known as Ptitim and is enjoyed as an alternative to rice. The pearls have a bite or pop to them as they are eaten. Cook them in stock and any combination of fresh herbs, dried fruit, or nuts for a very flavorful side dish. This new and unique holiday dinner update is just the way to welcome the renewing season of spring.

Berbere-Crusted Rack of Lamb

Recipe adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson.

for the marinade:
2 racks of lamb (1-1/2 pounds each)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 sprig fresh rosemary, stripped
2 garlic cloves, crushed

for the berbere paste:
1 tablespoon berbere
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons dry red wine
1 egg yolk

for searing the lamb:

olive oil
fine sea salt

for the reduction sauce:
2 tablespoons berbere
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons butter, chilled, cut into pieces

Trim excess fat and silver skin from racks of lamb. French the ribs by slicing along each bone and removing the flesh in between.

To marinate, combine lamb, oil, lemon juice, rosemary leaves, and garlic in a large resealable plastic bag. Seal, place on a plate to capture any leaks, and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

When ready to cook, remove lamb from the bag, scraping off all bits of rosemary and garlic. Pat chops dry with paper towels. Discard marinade.

To make paste, combine berbere, breadcrumbs, mustard, wine, and egg yolk in a small bowl. Stir until smooth.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

To sear lamb, heat a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high to high heat. Drizzle in about 1 tablespoon olive oil. Generously season racks with salt. Sear lamb 3 minutes per side.

Transfer lamb to roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Apply berbere paste to top fatty sides, spreading evenly with hands. Place in oven and roast until an instant thermometer inserted into the loin end reads 125 degrees F. for medium-rare, about 20 minutes. Let lamb rest for 5 minutes before carving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

While lamb roasts, prepare sauce by toasting berbere for a few minutes in a small saucepan set over low heat. Pour in stock and wine. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer. Cook until sauce thickens and reduces by third, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in butter, a little at a time, until sauce glistens. Serve alongside lamb. Yield: 1/2 cup.

Herbed Israeli Couscous

1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups Israeli couscous
2 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup finely chopped mint
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

Toast pine nuts in a small saucepan set over medium heat until nutty brown. Add raisins to a small bowl and cover with hot water.

Warm butter and oil in a small saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add shallot and garlic, saute until soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add couscous and toast for a few minutes. Pour in chicken stock and add bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and salt. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer. Cook, covered, until couscous has absorbed all liquid and is tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Once couscous is cooked, leave uncovered for a few minutes for any remaining liquid to evaporate. Toss in pine nuts, drained raisins, mint, and cilantro. fluff with a fork and combine. Yield 4 to 6 servings.