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Apr 26, 2011
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Wine With . . . Moroccan Spiced Lamb Patties

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

We love the way Moroccan seasoning is able to perk up the flavors of even the dullest foods.  In the same way that a good conversationalist can enliven a party by contributing subtle dashes of wit, intelligence and keen observation (without hogging the limelight), a traditional blend of Moroccan spices can invigorate appetites and satisfy taste buds. 

There is no set formula for making Ras El Hanout, the Arabic name for the blend.  For good flavor complexity, a minimum of four different spices should be included, but traditional Ras El Hanout may contain up to thirty.  The basics in all the recipes we’ve seen include paprika, cinnamon, cumin, and powdered ginger, plus cayenne or black pepper.  Other ingredients often mentioned range from saffron, to coriander, to cloves and turmeric.  Making your own blend can be a cinch, but you can easily find commercial Ras El Hanout in stores that carry North African foods.  (It also can be purchased from any number of online merchants.)  Use it with pork, seafood, vegetables, or any other food that might benefit from the sunny flavors of North Africa.  For this dish, we used it with ground lamb, and made spicy, sophisticated dinner sandwiches.

Morocccan Spiced Lamb Patties 

Makes 4 patties

1 ½ pounds ground lamb

4-5 teaspoons mixed spices*

1 teaspoon harissa (optional)

salt and pepper

2 cups diced ripe tomatoes

1/3 cup unflavored yogurt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon cumin

1/3 cup coarsely chopped black olives such as kalamata

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh mint

salt

individual baguettes or 1 baguette divided into 4 pieces

* We use about one teaspoon each of cumin, ginger, paprika, cinnamon and saffron.  Instead of cayenne, we like to add a generous teaspoon of harissa, a very spicy North African chili sauce, the mix, but you could substitute a quarter teaspoon cayenne  (or more, to taste) for that extra pungency .  Be judicious with it however, for searing hot spicy food makes wine pairing more challenging, while a soft buzz of heat actually will make a pleasurable taste connection with the right wine.

Preferably three or more hours before cooking, combine the lamb, spice mixture and harissa (if using).  Form into four patties and arrange them on a platter or shallow pan.  Season both sides of the patties with salt and pepper and store them, uncovered, in the refrigerator until ready to cook.  Meanwhile, place the tomatoes in a bowl.  Mix together the yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, cumin, olives and mint, and season with salt. Slice the baguettes in half lengthwise, pressing down hard to flatten each half somewhat.  Grill or sear the patties to desired doneness and place each one on one of the baguette halves.  Spoon a little tomato mixture over each, and top with the other baguette halves.  Pass the remaining tomatoes at the table. 

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A conventional way to think about pairing wines with savory-spicy foods emphasizes sweetness, which is why you’ll often find German Rieslings or Alsatian Gewurztraminers recommended with dishes containing a substantial amount of spice.  One problem, however, is that many spicy dishes turn out to be too full-flavored for these wines.  We knew that would be the case here, as the forceful flavor of the lamb could overwhelm any off-dry white.  As a result, we only opened red wines with our lamb patties, fourteen in all, ranging in weight from a light-bodied Chianti to a heady California Zinfandel. The wines that worked best fell between those two extremes, being substantial enough to hold their own with the dish but not hot or heavy themselves.  They also all displayed ripe fruit flavors, and had pliant tannins that did not interfere with the Moroccan spices.

We had thought that wines with an earthy tanginess of their own might be good matches, but the few we tried (that Chianti, a Rhône blend, and a Rioja) proved disappointing.  It turned out that, with this sort of spice, whatever wine you choose needs to provide contrasting refreshment even more than a complimentary echo.     

Selection

 

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Foppiano, Russian River Valley Valley (California) Petite Sirah “Estate Bottled” 2008

 

 

$20

 

Softer on the palate than many Petite Sirahs, this wine still has a firm structure, something that prevents its vivacious blue and black berry fruit flavors from seeming excessive.  That bright fruit character is what made it such an attractive partner for this dish.

 

 

Gascón, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec Reserva 2008

(Importd by Gascon USA)

 

 

$25

 

Hints of sweet black licorice enhance the vibrant fruit character of this wine, which while soft on the palate is nonetheless well-balanced so in no sense candied. We were impressed.

 

 

Hess, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Allomi” 2008

 

$28

 

We feared that this wine might prove too powerful for the spicy lamb, but it worked just fine, being supple rather than astringent, and full of juicy red and black fruit flavors.

 

 

Lee Family Farm, Alta Mesa, Lodi (California) Rio Tinto Silvaspoons Vineyard, 2008

 

 

$16

 

Made by Dan Lee from Morgan, this is a Portugese-inspired red blend of Touriga Francesa (56%), Alvarelhao (24%), Touriga Nacional (13%), and Tinta Roriz (7%).  It tastes lively, with a delightful freshness to its forward fruit flavors, and just enough tannic “bite” to give it a satisfying structure.  That combination of ripe fruit and structural integrity is what made it such a good match for the spicy lamb.

 

 

 

James Oatley, Mudgee (Australia) Shiraz "Tic Tok" 2009

 

 

$20

 

Unlike riper and more jammy renditions of Aussie Shiraz, this wine is genuinely medium-bodied and tastes both lively and refreshing, which is just what this particular dish wants.