Of the many ethnic cuisines to be found in Soho, that of North Africa is one of the least well represented. One mediocre couscous house does not a souk make. There is, however, a very real connection in my work, because my supplier of dry goods for the last twenty years is a small company run by a complete madman called George de Bono. Of Italian descent, but raised in a colonial family in Libya, items like couscous, harissa and pickled lemons have always been stocked by him. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet too much, but dishes with a definite Maghreb feel to them have been lurking on my menus for two decades. This isn’t one of them, but a relative newcomer. In the restaurant we do it with lamb shank instead of leg. This is simply for our convenience, as it is easier to dish out a portion-sized shank than carve the leg. (Ask your butcher to half cut through the knuckle so you can fold it back and fit it in the casserole.) Most of the donkeywork on the spice mix was done by Richard Whittington for his book, Fusions.
Incidentally, George de Bono’s brother worked at Bifulco Stores on Old Compton Street where he was at least partially responsible for the excellent spicy sausages known as merguez.
Preheat your oven to its maximum. Rub the lamb generously with salt, pepper and oil, then place in a casserole big enough to hold it comfortably. Brown the lamb in the very hot oven. This should take about 20 minutes, and it will need turning often. Toast the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, salt and chillies in a small frying pan over a medium flame until aromatic (a couple of minutes only). Transfer this mixture to a pestle and mortar, or spice mill, and grind to a paste, adding the garlic as you go.
Take the lamb out of the oven when it is nicely brown all over, and remove it from the casserole. Tip the onion, carrot, celery and spice mix into the hot casserole, add the rosemary and
Add the tomatoes with their juices to the casserole and mix in. Continue cooking in the oven, but this time you are braising, not roasting, for another 20 minutes. Turn the lamb once more during this time. The lamb has now had 1 hour’s cooking, and it is time to add the chickpeas.
Once more remove the lamb from the oven and lift the leg out. Drain the chickpeas, add to the vegetable, spice and tomato mix in the casserole, mix thoroughly and replace the meat. Return the pot to the oven and continue the braising for a further hour, turning the lamb a couple of times during this time.
Lift the lamb out of the casserole and transfer to a carving board. Check the seasoning in the mixture in the pot; if fine, spoon the chickpeas etc. on to a serving dish. At this point you can plonk the lamb on the vegetables and send out whole, to be carved at the table. However if you are a little unsure of your carving skills, then hack away in the kitchen, laying the slices on the bed of spiced vegetables and chickpeas. The meat in this recipe is well done, and does not take kindly to delicate carving techniques, so I’m not exaggerating when the word ‘hack’ is used.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.