Growing up at the foot of the Ruahine Range in Southern Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, you needed a lot of wood for the fire. Not only was it going to be wet and raining for what seemed a continuous nine-month period, but bitterly cold too.
The wood came in a good two or so months before it really got cold, around March or April. When my two brothers and myself heard the truck backing up into the driveway, we knew summer and autumn were officially over, and the battle against winter had begun.
Our mother usually ordered two cords to begin with; “a well stacked woodpile 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long”. Altogether 336 damn cubic feet of wood to be stacked; with a third cord delivered a few months later, usually wet and heavy, just to match the weather that was pouring from the heavens when it arrived.
The operation started with the big blue tarpaulin being laid down the side of the shed. This was spread over the top of blocks of wood that had never made it inside the past winter; a creepy graveyard of gnarled, misfit, bark covered hunks, with bugs, dirt, slaters and worms crawling amongst these sorry pieces of misshapen wood. With tarpaulin in place, the arduous task of stacking began. Sticky sap, splinters, cuts and bruises were to be endured not moaned about, because believe me; no one ever listened anyway.
Sometimes a particular piece of wood would catch our eye, and like modern day Michelangelo’s we would cast our discerning gaze over it, before declaring it would make a good table. Later on, sitting in the garage with the rain pouring down, we would hammer these bits of wood together and fashion tiny chairs and tables, then leave them at the back of the garage until the wood had almost run out. We’d break them apart, take out any nails, and as they lay smoldering in the depths of the fireplace we’d think that perhaps next year we would find a better piece of wood. There were always plenty to choose from.
There was some order amongst the chaos of the woodpile; larger pieces, to be chopped up later were at the back, smaller, intermediate pieces towards the top. There was a separate area for the driest pieces fit for kindling, and of course a small, earnest pile of future tables and chairs. There was a pile of the driest wood inside the shed, and the wettest pieces out on the tarpaulin, hopefully drying. Once finished with the stacking (which seemed to take hours) we would go back through the wreckage of bark and splinters littering the backyard, searching for suitable pieces of kindling, anything to ease the burden of the daily ritual of chopping wood and setting the fire.
The first fires were lit just at night, around when the wood first arrived in mid-April, early May. By June we were lighting it by early afternoon, one of the first chores to get out of the way after coming home from school. Through July, August and September (when apparently spring had arrived) we would have the fire going all day. By October it was back to only nighttime again, and by November, hopefully, summer was starting to take effect. But then again, as our neighbour once told my mother, “it snowed here on Christmas Day, you know”. It was a daily ritual, chopping kindling, stacking the wood basket, dragging it inside, setting the fire, lighting the fire, keeping it burning. I think my Ma put it rather succinctly: “it f*#*ing ruled my life, wood did, in Dannevirke”.
I don’t remember it snowing Christmas Day, for the 13 years I grew up there it only snowed once. It was at night; I’m not sure who was the first to notice the flakes coming down, but soon enough we were all outside under the street lamps running around in the snow. Most the neighbourhood was out too, so rare for us it was to see snow this far away from the ranges. We saw it up there all the time, a kind of advanced warning system for knowing that it was about to go from really cold, to really cold and miserable.
Unsure of what to do with all the snow falling, we eventually, predictably, built a snowman; carrot for the nose, some twigs out the side for arms, and some old hat on it’s head. Early the next morning, as the snow gave way to mud and sludge, Ma took a photo of the three of us around the snowman. Working for the local paper, she was able to have it splashed on the front page of the newspaper, small town fame for us all. Unfortunately, having ordered some shoes for my twin brother and I earlier, only one pair had arrived, which I was wearing. So there, on the front page, was my brother out in the snow and sludge wearing jandals … with socks on. Oh the humanity … It was some time before she heard the end of it at work.
Twenty odd years on, living now in Queensland, winter seems to be a slight interruption to those long hot days of summer. No stacks of wood to worry about here, and certainly no snow. When I hear people complain about the cold I just smile and nod, casting my mind back to those bitter mornings when the rain had hardened into ice pools on the side of the road. Where you huddled around the fire trying to waken the sleeping embers of last night’s fire. Which was after you had worked up the courage to fling the bed sheets off and dress as quick as you could, your breath steaming in the air. You could barely move your arms, you had so many layers of woollen clothing on. Buckets of hot water were thrown over the bonnet of the car in an attempt to get the motor started, for a good three or four minutes the only sound was the stubborn ignition trying to start. We would bike to school, ears burning and hands all but frozen tight. We would thaw them out on the old coal heaters running along the sides of every classroom (great for melting crayons on, though my brother, in perhaps his first culinary experience, preferred eating the crayons. We always knew it was him, marked as they were with two massive buck-teeth grooves). Warming up we would watch outside as the rain cascaded down again for what seemed the second month in a row. Winter back home informed almost every part of your waking day and through into the night; a constant cold companion, wet and unwelcome.
Back here in Queensland though, there’s no denying that winter is finally settling in. So for the past three or so hours I’ve had some lamb slowly braising away on the stove, one of the best ways I’ve found to ward off any kind of cold. On those nights, back home, when the wind was up, rain coming down, the fire roaring away, and the four of us huddled under blankets, it was the smell of something cooking away on the stove that let me know at least something’s going to be warm tonight. Comfort food, there’s a reason it’s called that.
(My) Moroccan Lamb with Harissa
- Lamb (find the gnarliest, fatty, sad looking and sinew filled cut you can find. The beauty is in the transformation. Shanks or shoulder seem to work best, my mother likes mutton, but really, any cut will do)
- Two Cinnamon Sticks
- Dried Apricots
- Preserved Lemon (I’ll be honest, half the time I forget this, but if you have some lying around, it’s a great addition)
- Smoked Paprika
- Sweet Paprika
- Ground Ginger
- Cumin Seeds
- Coriander Seeds
- Chilli Flakes
- Orange Zest and Juice (I just use the one orange, you could use two)
- Lemon Zest
- Tinned Tomatoes (I use Italian)
- Chicken Stock (around 500 ml)
- Fresh Bay Leaves (if you use dried bay leaves, I’d suggest you use the whole lot …)
- Fresh Thyme
- Fresh Coriander (roots and all)
- Fresh Mint
- Good Quality Olive Oil
This may seem like a lengthy list of ingredients but I like to think of it as every member of the team is pulling their weight. Its the flavour at the end you should remember … You’ll also need to put aside two to three hours for the cooking time. Meanwhile, you could stack some wood …
First … A Bit of Mise En Place:
For the harissa, toast some cumin and coriander separately in a hot pan. I use about two tablespoons of cumin, and about half a tablespoon for the coriander. In a mortar and pestle or small hand blender, grind each up separately, and then set aside.
Peel and roughly chop the garlic, slice the onion. Wash the coriander thoroughly, then finely dice the root, reserving the leaves for later.
You’ll need to trim the lamb, getting rid of as much of the fat as you can, don’t be too concerned if you can’t get rid of all of it. Once it is trimmed, cut the lamb up into cubes. If it’s the shank or shoulder, just trim the fat and tidy it up.
Next … Those Three Hours …
First you’ll need to heat some oil up in a large pot (which is one of the great things about this dish: everything is contained in that one pot). Once heated, start browning off the lamb; try avoid braising it at this point, you don’t want it to stew the meat, you want to get some good caramelisation going on. All those sugars you are building up on the outside of the lamb are going to help the dish later on. If the lamb is starting to stew, try turning the heat up some more. After four to five minutes, or when you see it has coloured nicely, remove the lamb from the pot and set aside.
Turn the stove down to a lower heat and then start sweating off the onions and garlic. Once they are nice and translucent (hopefully not burnt …) add some of the chicken stock to de-glaze the pan, being careful to scrape all the good bits off the bottom.
Now it’s the kitchen sink time … Add the coriander root, the lemon zest, orange zest and juice, preserved lemon, cinnamon stick, pinch of saffron, about two teaspoons of honey, two teaspoons of ground ginger, same again for the ground cumin, ground coriander, sweet paprika, and smoked paprika. Add a little more chicken stock and stir all the ingredients together. After a minute or two add the tinned tomatoes, the rest of the chicken stock, a few fresh bay leaves and thyme (I use the whole bunch), the dried apricots and the nicely browned lamb. Stir these all in together. There should be a good amount of liquid in the pot, if not, add some water. If you have shanks or shoulders in, they should be completely covered. Bring this up to a simmer then pop on the lid and turn it down. You’ll need to leave this here for a good couple of hours, the longer, the better. Gives you time to finish that stacking …
Next … The Harissa:
You should have some ground cumin and coriander left over, if not toast some more. I would love to give out exact quantities here, but mine change almost every time I make this. Roughly though, I use about a 3 – 1 quantity of cumin to coriander. Its quite important here that when you are pounding away at the pestle or blitzing with the blender, that you do a thorough job. The coriander husks can get a little gritty which in the final dish will have you wondering if you didn’t wash your herbs properly. Which you did right? You did wash your herbs?
Once you have ground down the spices, do the same with one to two garlic cloves. Add about a teaspoon or more of smoked paprika, and about quarter a teaspoon of chilli flakes. I used to use a whole red chilli, or half a birds eye chilli, or whatever hot thing I could find in the produce section, but eventually I found it to be more consistent to simply add flakes, a little bit at a time. It works for me. You can Russian Roulette it with the birds eye if you want …
Once you have the mixture nicely blended, add a little salt and pepper, a good dollop of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and stir it all about. Deep breath, taste, re-assess and adjust. More often than not this is used in North African cuisine as a condiment, so usually I slightly under season the lamb, and slightly over season the harissa. And remember, if its a little too salty, too garlicky, or too hot, it’s only going to be drizzled over the finished dish. Its meant to pack a punch, so don’t be shy. Once you think you have the balance right, set aside.
Finally … The Assembly:
Its been three hours: the woods stacked, the shanks are sliding off the bone, the shoulder has fallen apart, or whatever cut of lamb you bought is now indistinguishable from the rest, that’s when you know it’s time to serve.
You need to get rid of a few extraneous items from the pot however, no one likes a large piece of cinnamon in their mouth, so fish the sticks out (which isn’t that easy, they’ve probably broken up into smaller pieces by now, have fun with that …) the bay leaves and bunch of thyme. Don’t forget to check for seasoning.
Usually I would serve this with some cous cous, lightly seasoned and with a squeeze of lemon juice, chopped coriander and mint mixed through. Recently though, with this whole Paleo thing my brother’s been doing, I’ve been serving it with some steamed sweet potato and pumpkin. You could use rice too. Hell I’d even pour this over some roast potatoes; it tastes so good. But by serving this with the sweet potato and pumpkin I can also proudly call this a Paleo dish. Yay for me.
All that’s left now is to sprinkle over some chopped coriander and mint, drizzle the harissa over that, and settle down in front of the fire, watching out the window as the rain comes down, the snow builds up on the mountains, and winter slowly settles in. Hope you enjoy it.