Wild Thyme Leg of Lamb

Tunisian FlagToday is Tunisia’s celebration of gaining their independence from French colonization in 1956.  The almost 60 years since then have been an ongoing  process of self-identification, but that is really no different from any other nation.

With the shocking terrorist attack at the Bardo museum this week, the mood in the city is quiet and pensive.  I wonder how liberated Tunisians are feeling today.

People are staying close to home and family or are outdoors seeking healing from the vernal countryside.  Woody wild thyme branches can be found sprawling on wind swept knolls.  Used in a rub for lamb, it is just the flavor to capture the untamed, emerging spring.

Thyme

Leg of LambWild Thyme Leg of Lamb

  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted, coarsely ground
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin, toasted
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt
  • 3 lbs lamb, legs or shoulder
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 liter lamb or chicken stock

Combine the cumin, coriander, garlic, thyme, zest, and salt.  Rub all over the lamb, then set aside at room temperature for 2 hours.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Heat the oil in a large roasting dish, over high heat, then brown the lamb all over.  Add the stock and cover with a tight fitting lid or foil.  Transfer to the oven for 2 hours.  Uncover and roast for a further 30 minutes or until tender, then set aside to rest before carving.

Pearson, Jo. “From the Source.” Cuisine NZ Mar. 2015: 98-99. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Land of the Lotus-Eaters

Fishing Village

“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.” Odyssey

Our own Djerba island, in southern Tunisia, is thought to be this seductively enticing island fabled in the Odyssey.  Also called the Isle of Forgetfulness, I could easily see how one could become part of this peaceful vibe and lose track of time.  A simple 1 hour flight and inexpensive taxi ride from Tunis brought us to the heritage hotel Dar Dhiafa.  The owners of this boutique hotel have gathered together several neighboring historic houses, then connected them, creating small, peaceful nooks throughout the meandering property.  Wandering through, you round corners and duck through thresholds that open to benched alcoves, small, shaded pools, or a sitting room with a beehive fireplace.  Taking to the village streets, the distinctive dome-roofed houses seem to have been formed from clay, by hand.  Where ceiling height is wanted, a dome is placed overhead.  If a fireplace is needed, it is patted into a corner or wall.  Spot skylights, no more than 12 inches in diameter,  are intentionally placed to put a beam of direct lighting on a work area or to show off artwork.  All of this surrounding architecture, with so much evidence of human hands, is comforting, like a nest.

Dhar Dhiafa EntryEntry, Coffee

 

 

BenchPool at DuskPatinaArchitecture

We were not offered any lotuses to eat, but plenty of fish and lamb.  The fish auction at Houmt Souk is a spectacle.  Village men have created egos around their auctioneering of the daily fish catch to restauranteers and house-husbands.  The crowd is worked over each string of dourade or octopus until the market price is finally established.

The Fish Auctioneer

Fish Auction

Fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dar Dhiafa has a good restaurant with plenty of fish dishes, but if you make your request a day ahead, they will prepare another Djerban specialty for you:  Lamb in a Clay Jar.  I wrote about this dish before, and It was a thrill, not to mention dramatic, to have this home-style dish on Djerba.

I am already dreaming about wandering off to Djerba again.  I can imagine some time when I find I have an unexpected week off (does that really ever happen?).  I would sit with a thick book, perhaps the Odyssey,  by that quiet pool, and then, when I needed exercise, I would plod, anonymously,  around the village hidden beneath a cotton caftan, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and enormous sunglasses.  If I ever go missing, you might start looking for me there.

Octopus Pots

 

Getting off Auto

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I want to take photos.  I am so weary and mortified by the silly representations of things and life I have posted on the internet.  I have gotten by with some close up trickery, but I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.  I took the plunge last summer and bought a true DSLR with a couple of lenses.  Having not had lenses before, I read research and then bought what I thought would be great for me:  an 85mm macro lens and a wide-angle zoom, something I have wanted for years for taking shots of my carpets and room interiors.  It turns out that I have lenses for two extremes now:  super close and super wide.  My son says it’s like I am trying to dig a hole and I have a teaspoon and a backhoe.  Surely, my next camera purchase will be a mid-range telephoto lens.

But lenses aren’t my biggest challenge.  Using the settings on my camera is.  I had an introduction to settings last fall through a technology class I was taking and now, some colleagues at school have formed a little club.  We meet once a month, bringing a photo to share along a certain theme or technique.  The first meeting in January, I brought a photo I had taken in Vienna in November.  It was nice and showed a good use of the “proportion of thirds”.  But at the end of the meeting, a fellow photographer tossed down the gauntlet, “Let’s always post our camera setting when we show our photos.”  I was outed.  I was still just shooting my new fancy camera on Auto.

Second meeting, the theme was “love”.  I figured out how to adjust my shutter speed and aperture and I did spend a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon photographing a still life of Tunisian food products I had gleaned from the countryside and the markets that weekend:  things I love.  I tried every aperture setting and a few different shutter speeds and in the end, I just had a picture of some food sitting on my kitchen counter.  I complained to my son, “I did all of this adjusting and I still didn’t get an amazing photo.”

He challenged, “Well, what were you trying to use the settings to do?”

I didn’t exactly know, and there was the problem.  It was getting late and I needed to email my photo to the organizer so she could make a slide show for the next day.  I said, “I just won’t go to the meeting.  I’ll wait until I know what I’m doing and can take a better photo.”

Again, my son, who has been a vocal performance major for the past three years said, “Yep, that’s what singers think, too.  They think they will just continue working on their own in a practice room and only come out when they are good enough.  It’s intimidating to go in front of your peers when you know you’re not very good, but you grow a lot by showing what you can do and also by studying their work.”

So I went to the meeting and I cringed when my photo came up, but I made a new vow to work at this.  It’s not just going to come easily to me, but I want the skill.  I am mortified, at the moment, because I can clearly see the difference between what I want and what I take, but hopefully, that vision will help take me toward a better photo.

This made me think about teaching children.  Sometimes I get frustrated with kids who won’t put aside trying to cover up their reading and writing deficiencies.  It looks obvious to me that a learner must just jump in and start practicing the skills at whatever level he or she is at.  That is the way to make progress.  But kids don’t automatically know that or believe you when you tell them that.  And as I relived this week, it is embarrassing to put your deficiencies out in front of peers.  It is good to have re-experienced this.  I hope I can keep that empathy with my struggling learners.

I am going to post photos here, frequently.  And I am going to post my settings as an act of accountability, until I find it so pretentious that I can’t do it anymore.  (All of these pictures were at a shutter speed of about 200 and aperture of 2.5-2.8).

I have been brining this week and when I think of brining, I picture a 20 lb. turkey in a 5-gallon bucket set out in a cold garage a few days before Thanksgiving.  It was a small revelation to me that I could brine a smaller cut of meat, such as a lamb shoulder, in a pot that can nicely fit in my refrigerator.  It took nothing to mix some salt and sugar with water, plop in my piece of meat, and leave it for a couple of days.

Simple Brine

1/4 cup sugar, 3/4 cup kosher or course sea salt to 10 cups water

 

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This is the second of the fantastical broccoli found at the market this week.  Now and then, we get this purple-tinged variety and I try to find a use worthy of its beauty.

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Here is how I used both the brined lamb shoulder and the broccoli.  Bon Appetit did an article, in the February issue,  on the Saltimporten Canteen in Malmo, Sweden.  The intent of this sliding-metal-door-fronted restaurant is to bring up the simple qualities of excellent ingredients, without much culinary trickery.  That is something I need reminding of in both food and photographs.  I would love to enjoy this Lamb and Broccoli Stew on a cold Saturday, sitting outdoors at long wooden tables with fun people.

Lamb Baked in a Clay Jar

Late May and June can hold some melancholy weeks for international teachers.  Our life overseas is very closely related to working/living at a summer camp.  We come in together with a particular group of teachers and maintain a social support net for one another as we learn the ropes of working at our new school and living in our new country.  Your cohort or class is a group of colleagues that remains significant to you no matter how many other friends you have on staff.  The first of our cohort is leaving in June and we had a Sunday afternoon garden dinner together with our group.

Even though my husband is the director of the school, we were as green as everyone else when we all flew in to start our new lives here.  Allan and I had actually been here a few days when the others arrived and we knew that they would be very challenged to even feed themselves for a few days so we started what I think will be a tradition for us which is having all of the new arrivees to our house to dinner the first night they’ve landed in the country.  They are usually booked to arrive over just a couple of days, but once they get dropped off at their new house and have a nap and a shower, it’s kind of nice to come over to a meal and a chance to start getting to know their new colleagues.  That first year, when we didn’t have our shipment yet, we had to host “bring your own plate” parties because we were each issued only replacement level numbers of plates in our houses.  Only one of the smart implementations Allan has made in the two years he has been director of this school is to issue new teachers a few extra plates.

Our friend, Karen, who is leaving, has invested herself in Tunisia, travelling all over the country.  In her honor, I selected a main dish that reflects the ingredients and techniques of deep Tunisia.  This is a recipe from the island of Djerba.  The story goes that this dish is cooked in an amphora-shaped, unglazed, terracotta pot called a gargoulette which can be stuffed with fish or meat, saffron, herbs, olive oil, and vegetables and then left in the embers that warm the water at a traditional bathhouse to cook slowly while the women bathe.  Following this session, the cook brings the pot home where her husband breaks off the top and she pours the contents into a serving bowl.  It’s almost a Tunisian TV dinner.

Cooking the food in a clay pot imparts a particular flavor and clayware being so cheap in Djerba, the pot is merely crushed and returned to the ground.  I used a method of sealing the pot with bread dough which was interesting, but frankly, I could have used super glue which would have been easier to remove.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2  pounds bone-in shoulder of lamb, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 12 chunks
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped, plus 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 large sprig of rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 small green or red bell pepper
  • 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Flour, water, and oil ribbon for sealing the clay pot
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Procedure

1.  Rinse the meat; drain and mix with the small onion, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and a good pinch of saffron.  Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 5 or 6 hours.

2.  Core the tomato, cut in half crosswise, and gently squeeze out the seeds.  Slice the tomato.  Core, seed, and thinly slice the bell pepper.  Peel and halve the potatoes.  Mix the vegetables with the olive oil and the marinated meat.  Pack into a 3-quart clay pot and mix well.  Cover with foil.  Seal with a ribbon of dough made with flour mixed with water and a drop of oil and set the lid on top.  Place in a cold oven, turn the temperature to 450 degrees F.  Bake for 1 1/2 hours.  Turn off the oven and leave to continue baking for 30 minutes.

3.  Pour the ingredients into a deep serving plate and correct the seasoning.  Sprinkle the lemon juice, chopped onion, and parsley on top and serve.

Recipe from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert