Cheap Eats:
Afghan Pelau
  (Lamb and Rice)

What do chili con carne, curry powder, and German sausage have in common? Cumin.

Indigenous to Egypt, this venerable spice appears several times in the Bible, featured commonly in recipes of ancient Rome, (actually, Rome liked pretty much any vividly flavored spice, primarily because cooking in lead pots kind of killed your taste buds over time—and didn't do much for your overall health, either), and was immortalized by Classical poets. Celts along the Atlantic coast of France were using cumin for preparing baked fish in the first century BC, and cumin appears in the earliest documents of English cooking; however, because England wasn't exactly on the major spice routes, I'm guessing it was dragged along by the Romans when they invaded.

Cumin, for reasons unknown, was associated in ancient times with greed or miserliness, and it is reported that Marcus Aurelius was called "Cumin" behind his back, because of his avarice. However, in the Middle Ages, it was transformed into a symbol of faithfulness—in Germany, for example, it was common for brides and grooms to carry a little cumin on their wedding day, to symbolize their commitment.

The strong, warm, spicy-sweet taste of cumin is unmistakable—which could be helpful if you also have caraway seeds on hand, because the two look similar. Of course, the reason cumin looks a bit like caraway seeds is that these two, along with anise, chervil, coriander, fennel, dill, and parsley, are Umbelliferae; that is, they are all members of that large family of plants with lacy, umbrella-like flowers that includes domestic carrots and Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrots).

It's easiest to simply buy ground cumin. However, if you're going to use it only once a year, you can buy whole and grind it fresh as needed. (No spice lasts forever, but they all last longer if kept whole. I go through cumin at a pretty good pace, because it appears in so many dishes I like, so I buy it ground.) If you do have whole cumin, toasting it slightly ahead of time brings out even more flavor and makes it easier to grind. A mortar and pestle is effective, specialty spice shops can sell you grinders, or you can just use your coffee grinder.

There are innumerable cuisines that necessitate keeping a jar of cumin on hand. Cumin is the traditional seasoning for chickpeas in Spain. In Germany, it appears in dishes from sauerkraut and pickles to sausage and Muenster cheese. Elsewhere in Europe, it pops up in baked goods and liqueurs. Cumin forms the strongest background note of Mexican chili, and is popular throughout Latin America (though Latin American cooks will know it as comino). Fish soups in the Canary Islands are flavored with cumin. Across North Africa and sweeping up through the Eastern Mediterranean, it can be found flavoring couscous, kebabs, lamb, rice, vegetables, and yogurt. In India, cumin is almost inescapable. Today, this native of the Nile Valley is grown widely in China, Iran, Turkey, India, and the Americas.

The recipe that follows is from Afghanistan—and it contains cumin. Afghanistan is mountainous, but has incredibly fertile valleys. During the first half of the 20th century, before drought and invading Soviets tore the place up, and before warlords decided to grow drugs to finance their activities, rather than food crops, the rich fields of Afghanistan were able to feed the population. Afghanistan was even able to export food—primarily a wide variety of melons, nuts, and grapes. (And melons and grapes would make a nice accompaniment for your Afghan meal.)

While this is not a terribly complex recipe, there are a number of important variables to consider, so be sure to read the “Notes” that follow. Enjoy.

Afghan Pelau
(Lamb and Rice)

6 lamb shanks (see note)

1 large onion, chopped

1½ tsp. salt

½ cup butter

3 tsp. ground cumin

3 cups long-grain rice

Place the lamb, ½ the chopped onion, and 1 tsp. salt in a large (12 or more quart capacity) pot, and cover with water. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until lamb is tender, about 1½ hours.

Lift lamb from the broth. Reserve broth. (At this point, you may wish to let the lamb cool and remove it from the bones. It is more authentic on the bones, but, if you have large lamb shanks, the dish is easier to finish, and easier to serve, if it's off the bone.) Melt butter in a large frying pan. Fry the lamb in hot butter until brown. Remove lamb from butter and set it aside. Brown remaining half of onion in butter in which lamb was browned, adding more butter if necessary.

Degrease the broth if necessary. Boil for 10 or 15 minutes to reduce slightly and concentrate flavor. Measure 6½ cups of broth into a saucepan. Add fried onion with butter, cumin, ½ tsp. salt, and rice to broth. (If there is too little broth, add water. If there is leftover broth, it makes a lovely soup—just add a little onion, celery, carrot, maybe some barley, and you're set.) Bring the broth and rice to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and cook until broth has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Place lamb in an oiled or non-stick baking pan, about 10" × 14"; cover with cooked rice. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes in a preheated 425˚F oven.

Serves 8-10.


If you have trouble finding lamb shanks at your regular grocer (some stores only have them for holidays), check with an ethnic grocer or a butcher. I find that ethnic grocers, especially those that cater to Mediterranean or Middle Eastern clienteles, have lots of lamb and lots of cuts year round.

If lamb is fatty, you might want to trim some of the visible fat—animals in countries like Afghanistan tend to be lean. Plus, it's easier than skimming the grease off the soup later.

Though I'm cooking for one, when I prepare a recipe that involves a couple hours of cooking, I like to make sure I end up with something for the freezer. Hence, for this recipe, I pick the largest, meatiest lamb shanks I can find. The amounts in the recipe above are all planned for such hefty shanks (the ones I use average around 1.35-1.45 pounds each). If you want less food, or if you simply don't have cookware that will handle really large quantities, you could buy smaller lamb shanks—I've seen them around 1 pound apiece. If you do, there are a couple of considerations. First, if you are going to leave meat on the bone (which is more manageable with smaller shanks), you want them to all be about the same size, so they cook at the same rate. Second, you will probably want to reduce the amount of rice, to keep it proportional; use 2 cups rice to 4½ cups broth. Also, reduce the cumin slightly (2 tsp. should be enough). Prepared at this level, the dish will serve 6-8.

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