Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Playing with Fire: Campfire Stew with Lamb Patties, Beets, and Eggplant

I really got the most out of my campfire with this dish—I roasted beets, charred peppers, grilled eggplant, seared lamb patties, and toasted bread (and when it was all over I smoked a trout over the waning coals). It’s a bit of an elaborate preparation, but much of it is pleasantly, passively accomplished while you sit by that glowing campfire as the cool autumn evening comes on, barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day and touch the stubble plain with rosy hue, hedge crickets sing, gathering swallows twitter in the skies, and all that sort of lovely Keatsian stuff.

The original of this incredibly flavorful deconstructed stew was a recipe in Saveur magazine a year or two ago, and I’m thinking the country of origin was Syria. But I consulted no recipe for this version, merely retaining the combination of beets and lamb, with spicing no more exotic than a teaspoon of sambal and a little cumin. The wonderful flavors of the fresh, seasonal ingredients, intensified by the fire of hardwood coals, are what take it well above the ordinary.

I consider it as much a pleasure as a challenge to create a complex, sophisticated dish like this using caveman technology. Doing a lot with little is the mark of the good cook, I believe—and a lesson that applies in many areas of life other than the culinary. You could make this in a civilized kitchen, broiling the eggplant, roasting the peppers under the broiler or on a burner, pan-searing the lamb and oven roasting the beets before bringing them all together to simmer and meld at the end. It would still be a great dish. But there’s no question that uniquely rustic flavors develop in cooking over hardwood coals, and your appetite gets a boost from all that fresh air.

Since everything warms together at the end, the various parts are all made ahead, which takes a lot of pressure off. You could even roast your beets a day or more ahead, taking advantage of the remnants of one night’s campfire, as Amy “Sourtooth” Thielen describes so evocatively, cutting down the cooking time for finishing the dish. At Bide-A-Wee we grill at pretty much every opportunity—or cook over the campfire by other means, with cast iron skillet or dutch oven.

This is the perfect time of year for ambitious campfire cooking: the days are still long enough that there’s adequate daylight to illuminate your efforts, and the cool evenings make us yearn for hearty fare. From the equinox on it’s a slippery slope—diminishing daylight, evenings more chilling than bracing; once we fire up good old Haggis, our woodstove, we’ve ushered in the braising season (though we’ll still grill until the firepit is covered in snow).

The lamb “burgers” could be served as just that, a stand-alone main meat course on plate or bun, topped with well-grilled onions and/or other grilled vegetables, a ratatouille, cucumbers in sour cream or yogurt, couscous or a pilaf, what have you. On a bed of lentils, perhaps?  The "secret ingredients" in the lamb patties:  excellent sourdough breadcrumbs; a grated apple.

Why don’t I use ground lamb more often? Sourced from a small local farm (Shepherd’s Song in Connorsville, WI, in this case, though Minnesota’s Sheepy Hollow and Hill & Vale are also excellent), it is wonderfully flavorful, versatile, and affordable. I’m gonna do more with ground lamb.

Chickpeas would be good in this in place of the cannellini beans, and heighten the Middle Eastern inflection.

Campfire Stew with Grilled Lamb Patties, Fire-Roasted Beets, Eggplant, and Cannellini Beans
Serves four

For the lamb patties:

1 pound ground lamb
1 small onion minced
4 cloves garlic minced
1 teaspoon sambal chile paste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 small apple, grated, skin and all, about ½ cup
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a 10- or 11-inch cast iron skillet and add the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it is translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the contents to cool for a few minutes, then mix it into the ground lamb along with the apple, bread crumbs, sambal, cumin, salt and a few grinds of black pepper. (No need to wash the pan, as you’ll use it again to simmer the final preparation.) This mixture can be prepared up to a day ahead. Just before grilling, form the lamb mixture into meatballs about 1 ½ inches across, then flatten the balls slightly to form plump patties—they’ll brown nicely on the grill this way (and not roll away…). You should have 8 patties, 2 per person.

½ cup dried cannellini beans
1 small, firm eggplant
1 large red bell pepper
2 medium hot banana peppers
4 small beets
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup red wine
3 cups water
1 cup chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil

Cook the beans to tenderness by your preferred method, drain and set aside (or substitute a generous cup of canned cannellini beans).

Down at the campfire: wash the beets and wrap them in foil, two to a packet. Place the foil-wrapped beets in the coals and roast for 40 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes. Remove from the coals and allow to cool, then slip the skins off and quarter the beets.

Slice the eggplant the long way into ½-inch thick slices, and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then grill until soft and brown, and coarsely chop. Roast the peppers over the coals until the skin is blackened on all sides. Place the peppers in a paper bag or a covered bowl for 10 minutes to help the skin release. Scrape off the black skin and remove seeds and veins. Roughly chop the pepper.

Grill the lamb patties until well browned on both sides. To the cast iron skillet set on the grill grate (or use the stovetop, if you prefer; I finished this version on our Coleman camp stove), add 2 tablespoons olive oil, then the onion, and cook until it is translucent. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook gently until the tomatoes have reduced to something of a paste. Add the wine, 3 cups of water, and then all the precooked ingredients, along with a ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with grilled bread.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


Anonymous said...

Brett - Lamb, beets, eggplant AND campfire? So many of my favorite things wrapped into one tasty experience! Looks amazing!

Trout Caviar said...

Those are some of my favorite things, too, Alyssa! This one's definitely worth the trouble, and it's as good the next day as it is just made.

Cheers~ Brett