I had a birthday yesterday. My 25th. It went by quickly; I was in a haze all day from the black sea bass with syrah sauce that I had at Daniel the night before. A swooning, satiated haze. Daniel has recently been redecorated; the white, Greco-Romanish dining room is enough to make you woozy and the 15th anniversary three course with wine pairing event (offered weekdays from 5:30 to 6:30) will without-doubt knock you off your feet. If you can go, go. And email me to tell me all about it, please. And order the black sea bass with leek royale and chived potatoes. And don’t worry if it makes you teary-eyed with happiness; I totally understand. But this has nothing to do with lamb tava, which has nothing to do with my birthday since I made this a few weeks ago, but I just reached a quarter century, and I think that’s worth mentioning, no?
So on to the lamb tava. The recipe is from Tessa Kiros’ Falling Cloudberries, a deliciously gorgeous book that was featured in Gourmet’s Cookbook Club a month or so ago. Gourmet called it a memoir, though it’s nothing like the other food memoirs that I love. There’s not much in the way of food writing; Kiros’ life is revealed through the recipes. I’ve spent hours reading recipes from all the places that Kiros has lived, or visited, and been inspired by, beginning with Scandinavia and ending with a mélange of worldly dishes from her traveling.
The food is simple but polished—the kind of recipe that seems like it was passed down by generation upon generation of wise old grandmothers, tweaked but never messed with, resulting in the most perfect milk tart, dilled pickles, or lemon-vanilla jam. They aren’t recipes that you need to follow to the tee, but you’d benefit it you did.
This tava (tava refers to both a kind of round griddle—not used by me here—and a kind of cooking) features lamb chuck (the recession-friendly lamb), whole cumin seeds, and oven-roasted tomatoes (as well as red onion, crispy potatoes, and butter). It’s easy to put together, you just layer everything in a roasting pan, and once you cook for a few hours the result is a heady combination—very savory, buttery, and scented. The cumin seeds offer up all their flavor, mixing into the potatoes. The lamb is tender and falling apart and it also flavors everything else (this is why you shouldn’t substitute another meat for lamb, its mild goatey flavor is important.)
It’s probably the most interesting one-pot meal I’ve ever made; one to serve to guests, maybe with a dressed butter lettuce salad on the side, a glass of wine, and some good music. We’ve had this a few times now and I’m never disappointed, even if the potatoes don’t crisp up as well as the last try, or if the lamb is not cooked perfectly; it’s one of those if you mess up it’s still good dishes, and who doesn’t need a few of those up her sleeve?
Tava (Cypriot Baked Lamb and Potatoes with Cumin and Tomatoes)
adapted from Falling Cloudberries
2 red onions, chopped roughly
2lb 12 oz new potatoes, quartered
2lb 4oz lamb, cut into chunks
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly crushed
1/2 cup olive oil
4-5 ripe tomatoes, sliced
2-3 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350F. Put the onion, potatoes, and lamb in a large roasting pan or baking dish. Season (generously) with salt and pepper, then add parsley, cumin and olive oil. Using your hands, mix everything up well. Place the sliced tomatoes on top of mixture, season lightly with salt and pepper, and then dot with butter. Pour about a 1/2 cup of water around the edge of the pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, tilting every once in a while to distribute the juices.
Remove the foil and increase the oven temperature to 400F. Cook for another 45 minutes or longer, until the tomatoes and potatoes are golden browned and the liquid has all but evaporated. This is delicious served hot or at room temperature.