Donna was recipe developer for Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s acclaimed book, SEVEN FIRES. She worked alongside the chef on location at his exquisite little hotel in Garzon, a tiny village in rural Uruguay, in order to translate his grand designs into workable recipes, then returned to her New York City apartment to tweak them. (Read a review of SEVEN FIRES here.)
Fuel for the fire. Donna Gelb uses olive wood to prepare coals for grilling lamb on my patio in Spain. She came to Spain from Languedoc (France), after teaching grilling classes there, preparing guinea hens over vieilles souches (aged vines).
Donna inspired me to get out the grill, hardly used for several years, and cook up a meal for friends. Instead of grilling over charcoal, she suggested we make a fire using small branches of olive wood that I had stacked for use as kindling in the fireplace.
I planned the menu using some of her recipes and she provided the expertise.
Salad of cucumber granita, avocado and watermelon
Boneless leg of lamb with onion marinade
Smashed potatoes with green olive tapenade
Grilled Leg of Lamb with Onion Marinade
In Spain, lamb is generally smaller than what is found in American meat markets. We used the thick part of the leg, without the shank end. Donna boned it, opened it flat and, skin side down, cut through the thickest muscle, then pounded it with the side of her hand so that the meat was approximately the same thickness. Boneless leg of lamb, opened up, is always a somewhat ragged, uneven piece of meat.
An Iranian cook introduced me to a marinade for lamb kebabs that I have adapted and used for grilling leg of lamb. Grated onion in the marinade both tenderizes and flavors the meat. I use a food processor to grate the onion.
Grate 1 large onion and combine with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon fresh minced thyme, pinch of chopped rosemary, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place the lamb in a non-reactive container and spread the onion mixture on both sides. Marinate at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours. Bring the meat to room temperature before grilling.
Here are Donna’s grilling notes:
I scraped off most of the onion marinade so that the meat would crisp rather than steam.
I let the coals get very hot - hand just above the grate til about "3 mississippi" (or “3 matador” as we said in 7 Fires). The lamb was grilled directly over the coals. The grate was about 3-4 inches above coals. I let it get a good char on the first side without moving it (about 5 minutes) before flipping it. You can rotate it 90 degrees to cross hatch for another 3-4 minutes before turning it. Same on the second side until it feels almost but not quite done. It should still yield somewhat to the pressure of your finger. You can cut into an edge with a knife if you are really not sure, or use a instant read digital thermometer - about 120º F for rare BEFORE resting. Take it off BEFORE you think it is done - it keeps cooking while it rests, and it must rest about 5 minutes for juices to redistribute. You can always throw it back on if you need to.
Grilled lamb, a little charred on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside, with grilled tomatoes and tapenade-crusted smashed potatoes.
Smashed Potatoes with Tapenade Crust
Adapted from Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallmann/Peter Kaminsky (Artisan 2009).
Donna used small (2 ½ - 3 oz), all-purpose white potatoes for this recipe. They can be par-boiled in advance, but are best “smashed” while still warm. For the tapenade, we used my home-cured green olives, somewhat mushy after all these months, instead of black olives. The trick, Donna said, is to use a fair amount of olive oil so the potatoes crisp really well. They are really delicious!
8 to 10 small potatoes, scrubbed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ cup olive tapenade (recipe follows)
Put the potatoes in a pan and add the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the oil, bay leaf, peppercorns and salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are tender enough to be pierced with a skewer, about 12 minutes. Drain in a colander, but do not cool the potatoes.
Place a potato on a clean dishcloth on a work surface, cover with another cloth and, using the palm of your hand, slowly and gently press the potato to flatten it. Transfer to a tray. Repeat with the remaining potatoes. Spoon the remaining 4 tablespoons oil over the potatoes.
Heat a plancha or cast-iron griddle over medium-low heat until a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Put the potatoes on the hot surface, oiled side down, and cook until they are crisp on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Don’t move them! Transfer to a tray, crisp side down.
Spread a heaping tablespoon of tapenade on top of the potatoes and press down lightly to compact the crust. Slide a wide spatula under a potato and, with one quick move, flip it over onto the hot plancha, tapenade side down. Lower the heat slightly. Repeat with remaining potatoes. Brown them for about 7 minutes, until the tapenade forms a crisp crust. Remove the potatoes as they are cooked and invert onto a serving platter, tapenade crust facing up. Serve immediately.
Black Olive Tapenade
This is the recipe from Seven Fires, but, as noted above, it can be freely varied. We used green Spanish olives, chopped in a food processor. Tapenade, a French condiment/sauce, also goes well with vegetables, grilled tuna, hard-boiled eggs or spread on toasts.
Makes about 1 ¾ cups.
1 cup pitted Kalamata olives, minced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and minced
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the olives, capers, zest, juice and thyme in a bowl. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with pepper. The tapenade can be kept, refrigerated, for up to 1 week.
I invented this this cucumber ice to serve as a garnish for tomato gazpacho. I froze part of it in ice cube trays and used it in salad combos. For this meal, I chunked up the cucumber cubes a bit and combined them with chunks of watermelon and avocado and dressed them with salt and pepper, a little lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil. Purple basil makes a fragrant garnish.
Serves 8 to 10 as garnish for gazpacho or salad ingredient.
2 cucumbers, each about 11 ounces
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup chopped green pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3 sprigs mint
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup water
Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Cut into chunks. Puree the cucumbers in a blender with remaining ingredients.
Pour the cucumber puree into two 9-inch metal cake pans (or ice cube trays). Freeze.
To serve, remove the granita from freezer 5 minutes before serving. Use a fork to scrape ice into mounds. Add scraped ice to gazpacho immediately before serving. Or, if using cubes, cut them into chunks and add to salad immediately before serving.