A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
~A.P. Herbert

Merguez, which has Bedouin and then Tunisian and Moroccan antecedents, has some assorted Arabic spellings:  (mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ),mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ).  After the French invasion, occupation and colonization of the Maghreb (“sunset” or “west”) which are the lands west of Egypt in coastal North Africa, the lamb/mutton or beef piquante sausage naturally spread to France and elsewhere.  The Maghreb was cordoned off from the rest of the continent by the immense Sahara Desert and peaks of the Atlas Mountains also their ports, often built by Phoenicians, look out on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.  The area was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Italians, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Vandals, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Berbers, Islamics, Turks, to name a few at differing times.  Sadly, there is nothing like conquest to make cuisine sublime.

Merquez is often served grilled, with tajines and stews, next to couscous or lentils, and in baguettes or buns with pommes frites — now, the latter is a scrumptious charcuterie and street food both.

Not that there exist constraints or restraints by any of these culinary means — with the exception of personal imagination.

A must.

MERGUEZ

1/4 C+ extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds spinach, stems removed, washed and dried well

2 medium onions peeled and cut into small cubes
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 T harissa
Freshly ground black pepper
2 t  quatre epices (recipe follows)

2 C water
2 C chicken stock
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 lb dried garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained

2 lbs fresh merguez sausage
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring throughout, until all the spinach has wilted and browned slightly and all the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, harissa, black pepper, and quatre epices and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour in 4 cups water and stock and a dollop of dry white wine to the mix above, then add the garbanzos or cannellini beans. Stir, bring to a quiet simmer, and cover. Braise gently in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are nearly tender.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 T extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sear the merguez on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain well.

Stir the lemon juice into the beans and place the seared merguez on top. Cover and continue to braise until the beans are tender and the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes more. Season with salt to taste.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Bon appetit!

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You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.
~Aristophanes

Another crustacean deity.

True crabs are decapod crustaceans of the order Brachyura. Ranging in girth from a few millimeters wide to spans over 12 feet, crabs are generally covered with a hard exoskeleton, and display a single pair of chelae (claws), dactyls (movable fingers) and four other pairs of legs. If a predator grabs a leg, crabs simply shed it only to rejuvenate the limb later. They are found in all of the world’s oceans, although many species live terrestially and/or inhabit fresh waters.

Sexually dimorphised, males have larger claws and a narrow, triangular abdomen, while females have a broader, rounded abdomen which is naturally contoured for brooding fertilized eggs. Due to joint structure, crabs typically have a sidelong gait yet they can burrow and swim.

Despite a reputation for culinary purity, crabs are scavenging omnivores, grazing on algae, mollusks, worms, fellow crustaceans, fungi, bacteria, and decaying organic matter. Aimless, promiscuous bottom feeders. In spite of or perhaps by reason of their diet, crabs are ambrosial on the back end.

A gastronomic and not a biological phrase, soft shell crabs are simply those critters which have recently molted their old undersized exoskeleton (carapace) and are still soft, succulent yet slightly crispy in texture. Maryland Blue crabs molt between mid-May and late September, and the new shell is exquisitely tender. The crabs fast several days before molting, so their systems are relatively purified when retrieved. Remember: the season is quite short.

Soft shell crabs should be bought live and should be cooked the day they are purchased. Have your fishmonger clean them, but do not have him hack off their legs.

By the way, do eat the whole enchilada…barefoot (or more), with bare fingers and une flûte de champagne in the other hand, while your eyes roll back into your head.

SAUTEED SOFT SHELL CRABS

Soft shell crabs, cleaned and patted dry
Buttermilk and/or whole milk

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Quatre épices* or ras al hanout (August 11, 2009 post)
All purpose flour

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

In a large shallow glass or ceramic baking dish, cover the crabs with buttermilk or whole milk and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Season the soft shell crabs with salt, pepper, and a very light sprinkling of quatre épices or ras al hanout on one side only. Please do not overseason these delicate creatures. On a platter, dredge the crabs in flour, shaking off the excess.

In a large skillet, heat the oil, butter and garlic until shimmering and bubbling but not browned. Lay in the crabs, undersides up and sauté over moderately high heat, turning once, until crisp and cooked through, about 6 minutes total. Remove and serve immediately with an aioli, rouille, saffron mayonnaise, salsa verde or rémoulade.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix.

Pourboire: So many options here. For instance, season crabs with salt, pepper and any spices to your liking. Grill over a moderately high charcoal fire until firm, about 3-4 minutes max per side. Serve immediately, with a home crafted mayonnaise, aioli, or salsa du jour. Or create sumptuous sandwiches with the sautéed or grilled crab, bacon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, avocado and basil served on toasted or grilled artisanal bread.

The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
~Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Cover your eyes, vegans. This is meat, plain and simple, gnawing-bone-in-hand-Henry VIII stuff…a cruel image for some. To you, my apologies in advance.

For me, a pure and simple apotheosis. Lamb shanks are mentioned at my table much in the same exalted tones reserved for a local farmer’s fresh scrambled eggs, seared foie gras, roast pork belly, crispy skinned roast duck, rarefied pungent cheeses, foraged wild mushrooms and roasted bone marrow—all on “My Last Meal” short list. Just the names of these dishes are sweet nothings when whispered in my ear, and are sure to get me hot and bothered.

Once I experienced these succulent shanks as a child, they became the birthday meal request each year (usually roasted, sometimes attentively grilled). The long held passion I have for them is not unlike that profound and ceaseless lust you feel about the scent of an unrequited love. A yearning that stirs to the core…a kind of “can life exist without” lamb shanks?

The braising method below takes advantage of the high percentage of connective tissues that lamb shanks possess, slowly breaking them down to create juicy, tender flesh with tiers of evocative flavors and intoxicating aromas.

BRAISED LAMB SHANKS

Preheat oven to 450

1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

4 1-1 1/4 lb lamb shanks, not trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T brandy or cognac for deglazing

1 C or more of port
4 C or more chicken stock

1 C heavy whipping cream (optional)

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix.

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and then rub the spice mix all over the surface.

Place the shanks, standing heavy side down and narrow end up in a large, heavy Dutch oven or roasting pan. Roast in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour.

Transfer lamb to a platter or baking dish and tent. Place the pan on the stovetop on medium heat and deglaze briefly with the brandy, scraping up cook bits on bottom. Then, return the lamb to the pan, again standing on end. Add the port and stock. Cover the pan and return it to the oven. Braise until the meat is quite tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and again transfer to platter and tent. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve (chinois), then return to pan. Cook the braising sauce down until reduced and coats a spoon, adding cream and some more port to fortify throughout should you desire. The shanks and slow braising liquid produce a glistening, luxurious sauce.

Serve with the sauce in a boat and smashed potatoes, egg noodles or polenta. Of course, do not forget a lofty Cotes du Rhône, French Burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir.

A balanced spice mix for seasoning meat, stocks, marinades and sauces.

QUATRE ÉPICES

1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Store in an airtight container for several months.