Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 2: Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley

Old Carob Tree

A carob tree and a wellspring of water have been called miracles that have sustained sages and prophets alike. The slow maturation and flowering of the carob tree also teaches one to invest in the future even when it is arduous and promises no immediate gains. The carob is staple that provides sutenance, the promise of the next generation, and is incredibly tasty when cooked in a stew with lamb.

Carob Seeds

The second entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is from yours truly, Webmistress, Laura Kelley. It is a Lamb and Carob Stew based on the “recipe” XIX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464).  The original called for meat, fat, salt, shallots and semolina, carob and water.  The tablet also calls for the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with a milk product (probably yogurt or sour cream) as well.  I added cumin, coriander seeds and a bit of salt – all of which would have been available in the ancient Near East.  The dish that resulted is pictured below, and I can personally attest that it is absolutely delicious, savory, earthy without any carob or chocolate-flavor to mar the flavor of the meat and spices.

Lamb and Carob Stew

What the carob does do is make a savory stew even more savory, and in the case of my creation, it blanketed the sharp edges of the added cumin and coriander seed. I feel justified in adding the cumin and coriander because in most of the modern world, recipes still don’t list each and everything that goes into the pot – that is a sort of rigor and precision that is uniquely a western European and American expectation. All over the world, ingredients are left unspecified to allow for creativity of individual cooks or just to use what they have on hand. If your interested in this concept of culinary variation, check out my post Viva Variation. For justification of the use of carob and semolina, see my growing lexicon of Mesopotamian food terms. But I digress. . .

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Lamb and Carob Stew
Buttery-soft and delectable halal lamb fresh from the farm is spiced with ground coriander and cumin seeds and sauteed in light sesame oil.  The shallots are added and lightly caramelized.  The stew is then given an incredible depth of flavor by the addition of ground carob powder.  Then it is lifted by the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with whole milk yogurt and served on a bed of semolina couscous cooked and steamed over homespun lamb stock.  As superb today as it was almost 4,000 years ago.

Ingredients
1-1.3 pound lamb roast, cut into bitesize pieces
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, freshly ground
3 teaspoons cumin seed, freshly ground
2-3 tablespoons light sesame oil (gingelly)
6 medium shallots, peeled and sliced
2 -3 cups of water
2-3 generous tablespoons of carob powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 leek (both white and green parts), carefully cleaned and rinsed
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 cup of yogurt

Serve over couscous – cooked separately as desired.

Method
Flavor lamb with half of the ground coriander seeds and about 1 teaspoon of ground cumin seeds. Massage the spices around and into the meat as possible. Let stand for several hours or overnight to really flavor the meat.

Heat light sesame oil in a large saucepan and sear the seasoned lamb until opaque and just beginning to color around the edges. Reduce heat, remove meat from pan and set aside. Add sliced shallots and cook over low heat until the start to caramelize. Caramelization will happen more quickly if you don’t stir or otherwise disturb the shallots too much.

When shallots are done to your liking, add the remainder of the ground coriander and cumin seed and cook to warm the spices, 3-5 minutes. When spices are warm and aromatic, add water. (Start with 2 cups and add more if needed or desired after meat is added.) Cook to warm water. When water is hot, add meat and stir. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes to bring meat up to temperature. Add carob powder and salt and stir well. if the carob clumps, break it up. Recover and cook over medium or medium-low heat until lamb is soft, stirring occaisionally. The exact amount of time will depend on how large you cubed the lamb, but should be about 40 minutes or so. Watch the heat so that the lamb doesn’t burn, lower heat if necessary.

Prepare couscous as desired while the lamb is cooking.

When lamb has almost softened, uncover and cook for about 5- 10 minutes. In a food processor, pulse the leek and garlic until a diced vegetable is achieved. Add yogurt and pulse once or twice more to mix. Don’t blend until mush, the crunch of the vegetable is desired.

Add to the stew and stir well. Cook uncovered stirring occaisionally until stew is hot once again. Serve over couscous and garnish with fresh cilantro.

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Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464)

A word or two about my choices. I chose lamb, simply becasue I like it, but almost any meat will work with this recipe. I chose a stew, but many other options are available – a braised dish, a cooked shank, or even a roast that is first boiled. I also flavored the meat with the dry spice rub to increase the impact of the coriander and cumin flavor on the stew. In the first test run of this recipe, I added the spices only to the stew and they were not as prominent as when added to the meat before cooking and in the stew.

For the form of semolina, I chose couscous – simply because it was a form of semolina and would be tasty with the lamb stew. Other options could include a ground and lightly roasted semolina to thicken and add flavor to the stew (much as roasted rice is used in SE Asian dishes today), or coating the meat prior to searing with a semolina and spice mixture – sort of like spiced breadcrumbs might be used today.

I chose to integrate the yogurt, leek and garlic mixture into the stew, much as one would add yogurt to an Indian curry. However, other choices could include as a condiment for diners to add at will to the stew, or even a dip for breads that accompany the meal. Adding the blend into the stew adds great texture with the crunch of the vegetables as well as little blasts of additional flavor when diners bite into them.

Other dishes and combinations are doable and I hope will be done by others. This is only one possibility for the nineteenth “recipe” listed on the Yale Babylonian Tablets – there are many other culinary creations to make, but clearly this is much more than just another meat broth as envisioned by Bottero. (Words and recipe for Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Carob Tree by Ivlys; Photo of Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley; and other photos borrowed from google images.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 1: Mersu by Sasha Martin

Sasha’s Mersu – View 1

The first entry in our Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from friend in the blogosphere, Sasha Martin over at Global Table Adventure.  As fate would have it, she was cooking the food of Iraq the same week that I announced the Cookoff and instantly noted the connections between the Mesopotamian mersu recipe and a confection on the modern Iraqi table.  Using only the dates and pistachio nuts in the original recipe, Sasha came up with the glorious treats pictured here.  For some of the mersu, she added a coconut* topping as a variation that adds visual interest in the presentation and tastes delicious as well.  For further information on the use of pistachio nuts, see the Mesopotamian Lexicon on this site.
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Mersu
As envisioned by Sasha, mersu combines the natural, unaltered and unenhanced flavors of the dates and pistachio nuts in delicious ways.  The dates are ground, mixed with minced pistachio nuts and then rolled into bite-size confections.  Delicious as is, Sasha took this an extra step and rolled the date-nut balls in ground pistachio nuts and ground coconut,and arranged them as pictured above.

Ingredients
1 cup pistachios
1 cup pitted dates
1/8-1/4 cup pistachios, ground for rolling and/or
1/8-1/4 cup shredded coconut for rolling (optional)
(Makes 12)

Method
Blend dates into a paste by pulsing in a food processor.  If you prefer the authentic, Mesopotamian preparation techniques, pound and rolling the dates will produce the same results – but take a lot longer and leave your arms sore unless you are accustomed to making bread.

Then add the minced pistachios and pulse or pound again until integrated and smooth.

Form into small balls. Sasha leveled the mixture in a tablespoon to make sure they all came out the same, then she rolled them in her hands. About half way through, she washed her hands and the spoon to reduce stickiness. This made a dozen.

As a finishing touch, roll the date balls in ground pistachios or shredded coconut. The pistachios coating is more traditional, although the coconut is fun.  (Make ground pistachios by pulsing a 1/4 cup in a coffee grinder or food processor.)  To see this recipe constructed step by step and to catch Sasha’s food and time travel vibe – click here.

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Mesopotamia – 2nd Millenia BCE

The original description for mersu comes from one of the many thousands of tablets recovered from the ancient city of Mari by French archaeologists in the 1930s. Most of the tablets have been dated to 1800-1750 BCE, a time slightly before the Yale Babylonian Culinary tablets and more than 1000 years before the Lamb and Licorice “recipe” from Erech.  The original description mentions only pounded dates, and ground “flour” for a coating (ARM 11, 13: l and 124: 4) and a sort of nut that I think are pistachios (ARM 11, 13: 2) (not terebinth as has been suggested).  Now, the “flour” coating could be semolina (samidu), or it could be a sort of ground nut as Sasha envisioned, because many types were enjoyed in the ancient Near East, including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pinenuts, and pistachios.

In a reference I just pulled last night by Marcel Sigrist (JCS 29, 1977) on the creation of food offerings for celebrations at the Temple of Nusku (light/fire) in Nippur, the author cites tablets that suggest alternate (not additional) ingredients for mersu**.  Other ingredients that could be used in place of dates include figs and raisins and another unspecified type of date.  Other ingredients that could be used in the place of the minced nuts in the body of the confection are minced apples.  Other ingredients listed as potential reference include fat, cheese, wine and oil from oilseeds.

Sasha’s Mersu – View 2

At first these may seem incongruous to the concept of mersu as we have considered so far – that of a dessert or sweet appetizer. But consider for a moment a savory mersu. Even considering only the mode described by Sasha, fat could be used to make a smoother pounded fruit center, the cheese could be a hard variety, minced and used in the body of the dish or grated and used as a coating as the pistachios were used by Sasha.  If a soft cheese were used, it could become a creamy center to the fruit body.  Another variation could be a dried kashk-like substance to coat the dates. The seed oil (probably sesame) could be used the same way as the fat, or alternatively, the analysis could be a bit off and the table is only suggesting that ‘the seeds that produce oil’ can be used. If this is the case, the seeds could be used in the body or as a coating for Sasha’s variety or both.  Dates with a sesame coating – yum!

The ingredient wine is, I admit, a bit puzzling. There is chemical evidence for wine inside jars that suggest that wine was probably already being enjoyed by at least the upper classes by ca. 3500-3100 BCE, but how would this translate into the mersu recipe?  Well, wine could be used as liquid to moisten the dates just a bit, or the wine-must could be made into a syrup added to the dates to moisten them or used to coat them.  Additionally, the must syrup could be dried completely and powdered for a coating not unlike the ground pistachios in Sasha’s creation.  Additionally, something could be done with the pomace.  Seeds removed, this could be used as stuffing for the mersu or mixed in like the minced pistachios.  Likewise it could be dried and powdered as the suggestion for must syrup above.

So there are many more potential variations to even Sasha’s confection to be had by switching out ingredients – a fabulous and varied cuisine is beginning to rise from the embers of history.  I’m hoping others will create different mersu for us to enjoy over the course of the next couple of months. Remember you can use modern dishes Ma’moul or Ranginak as guidelines, or make your own confection based on the ingredients listed. There are other ways to combine these ingredients – I’m sure of it – give it a try! For these and other savory recipes to try see the Mesopotamian Cookoff announcement – entries are accepted through September 30, 2011.

Summary of additional ingredients from the Sigrist paper are: figs, raisins, another type of date, apples, fat, oil from oilseeds (or oil seeds (possibly sesame seeds) themselves), cheese and wine (or must or pomace). If anyone wants to have a go with these additional ingredients – I’d love to add a savory mersu to the list! (Words by Laura Kelley, Recipe and Method for this form of Mersu by Sasha Martin.  Photo of Mersu 1 and Mersu 2 by Sasha Martin; Photo of Mesopotamia in the Second Millenia BCE from Wikimedia.)

*(Coconut might have been known by the neo-Assyrian period, but was probably not used at the time the original recipe was recorded.)

**(Sigrist makes the connection between “ninda-i-de-a” and mersu.  However, as Bottero assumed mersu was a “cake”; Sigrist assumes it is a type of bread.  Sigrist also writes that all of the ingredients are included in the bread, not that it is a list of possible ingredients to be used in combinations according to the cook’s need or desire.)