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The book:  Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Xinjiang lamb skewers

Why I tried itCumin and lamb is nothing new; it’s one of the signature flavor combinations of Xinjiang, near the Kazakh and Mongolian borders.  But I have a weakness for chili bean paste (how many weaknesses have I confessed to in this series?!), and it was summer, which meant grabbing any opportunity whatsoever to light the grill.

Why I loved it:  It’s funny, this turns out to be all about the ma la (“numbing and hot”) , which I think of as more of a Szechuan thing. There’s the sizzle of the lamb fat, and the sweetness of the meat and the savory plumb line of the bean paste…and that addictive numbing buzz from the Szechuan peppercorns.  And then there are those grilled scallions, still a bit pungent, flame-and-charcoal-kissed and sweetly blistered.   You’ll likely find yourself licking the skewers, so take a tip from me and watch out for the pointy end.

Estimated preparation time:  15 minutes prep, several hours to marinate, maybe 45 minutes for preheating and grilling
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Xinjiang Lamb Skewers

This is all about the chili bean paste (doubanjiang) so get a good one, ruddy and thick. Personally, I prefer the ones made from broad beans to the ones made from soy beans.
serves 4

1 lb 7 oz boneless lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 fat garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons ground cumin
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons chili bean paste
4 scallions

Chop the lamb shoulder into cubes and put into a bowl.
Toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet on medium heat for a couple of minutes until you can smell their aroma, shaking the pan often to stop them from burning. Let cool, then grind in a mortar and pestle, or a spice or coffee grinder if you have one. Do the same with the Sichuan peppercorns.
Add both spices to the lamb along with the ginger, garlic, cumin, and salt and mix well, then add the chili bean paste. Cut the scallions into pieces 1 inch long, add them to the lamb, and mix together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, if you don’t have metal skewers, presoak some wooden ones in water for a good 30 minutes (but even so, beware of them catching fire; metal are better).

Take the lamb out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking so that it comes up to room temperature. Thread the lamb onto your skewers, alternating with the scallion. Cook on a hot barbecue, or a smoking hot ridged grill pan on the stove, for a few minutes each side so that they are charred and cooked through but not burned. Serve with a cooling salad.

From Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, 2015)

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It happens, every once in a while – a book comes along and I can’t keep my hands off it.  I start testing even before I’ve pitched it as an assignment, and then, once I’ve got the assignment, I can’t stop testing more and more, beyond what duty calls for.  By the time I’m done – if I’m ever done – the book is a porcupinish hash of Post-its and scrawled notes and mysterious stains.  Afterward the resulting monstrosity takes its permanent place on the kitchen shelves, a battle-scarred altar of 70 or 80 titles I refer to regularly.  The other 900 live upstairs.

Chinatown Kitchen is not a perfect book, but I adore it even with its flaws.  I find myself returning to it again and again, even though I may have other plans or better ideas.  That’s love, I suppose.  As with death, taxes, and that last bit of pork belly, what use resisting?

Click here to read this week’s review of ‘Chinatown Kitchen’ in the Washington Post.  

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