Saturday, January 17, 2009

Albania Almighty

You know, I don’t usually like lamb.

It kind of falls into that realm of “the 3 meats I don’t tend to eat” which, at this point, are: Veal, Lamb, and Pork Chops. Veal for ethical reasons, Lamb because it tastes weird, and Pork chops because they’re boring as all hell. But I digress. In my entire life, there’s been a total of, MAYBE, 2 times I’ve enjoyed lamb.

Like I said, me and Lamb just don’t get on that well. Kind of like peanut butter and pickle sandwiches… we just don’t fit.

Then, something happened.

I discovered, I think, a whole new level of lamb-a-licious deliciousness in the form of something called Tave Tiranse. What is tave tiranse, you ask? I asked myself the same thing. Then I turned and asked my roommate and BFF Erjona (Air-ee-oh-na) because she’s the one who suggested it. Being Albanian and a pretty damn good cook to boot, I figured she could enlighten us all about this mysterious dish from the homeland, and that’s when the ball got rolling as the kids say these days.

You know, I have a lot to thank Albania for.

Not only has it given us the kindness in the form of Mother Teresa, the humor of the Belushi Brothers, and the kick-assedness of Eliza Dushku (does anyone remember seeing her first slay vampires in Buffy???) But most importantly Albania has granted me a great friend in the “lovely and talented” Erjona (as my Father calls her). Now, after 8 years of wanting to try Albanian food, I also have tave tiranse. Yeah. Somehow I lucked out on this whole LIFE deal, and I’m not sure why, but I’m grateful just the same. And it’s time to spread the love, you lucky beasts, you.

Oh…and I’m also kind of obsessed with my rambunctious group of work friends, and had been looking for a way to combine the two “friend-worlds” I’d been balancing myself between, so I decided to bring them together in one night of Mediterranean culinary pursuits. Armed with a bottle of wine each, these guys trooped into the apartment, parked themselves wherever they could find an open seat or window sill, and initiated poor Erjona into our dysfunctionally wonderful family. I, meanwhile, annoyed everyone with the intermittent whir of the food processor as I made some pretty fierce Hummus (while boldly ignoring the dirty looks from those who were actually trying to have conversations), and also subjected everyone to the sweltering heat of the oven as I made Lemon-Roasted potatoes.

What’s that saying about coming out stronger through the fire? Well, I think the heat performed some sort of magical chemical bonding action because the complaints were minimal (if any) and we had a grand ol’ time in such a tiny little space. To add to the din and general goings-on of the evening, I put on Devotchka’s Mad and Faithful Telling Album, mostly because I’m in love with their Eastern-European/Gypsy sound, but also because Erjona said it reminds her of home, and what’s an Albanian dinner with no music? Exactly. It’s just kind of impossible, you see.

I hope I’ve taken long enough to whet your appetite. And now. On to Albania and her majestic culinary traditions!

Before anyone got to the apartment I purchased two absolutely beautiful red bell peppers from the Harris Teeter around the corner. I don’t usually “ooooh” and “aaaah” over bell peppers anywhere, but man… these were gorgeous, and I was excited by such a serendipitous find in the produce section. I cored then chopped them into one-inch pieces and in a big pot, heated up some olive oil and put it on medium-low with a very slight sprinkling of salt. I basically cooked the living life out of these peppers for a solid 35 minutes, and they got nice and soft and turned only a little brown (props to me for not burning them!) I suppose this is similar to what the Italians call a soffrito, a very slow frying process over low heat that softens veggies and allows their flavors to develop.

From new year, new food

That’s when Erjona came home, took over the tave tiranse, and basically made the magic happen

Now, before you go all judgemental on me for not actually making this dish, I decided to be a supporter and feed people in other ways (Hummus! Potatoes!) and watch Erjona’s moves with the accuracy of a hawk. And this is what I witnessed:

After taking some lamb chops and cutting them away from the bone, she removed the excess fat, cut them into one-inch pieces, then added the lamb to the peppers on the stove and browned the meat.

From new year, new food

Roni then added a can of diced tomatoes and let it stew for a good bit.

From new year, new food

THEN she took a large block of feta cheese, crumbled it up into the pot, and let the whole thing simmer for good hot minute, tasted the dish for salt, and added some freshly cracked pepper.

We found a ceramic square dish, poured in the stew, and baked it at 400 degrees for a solid twenty minutes or so till it got a little brown on top and looked like the most delicious thing I’d seen in weeks. Roni tortured us all a bit more and let it cool on a windowsill for about 12 minutes to let things settle down a bit.

From new year, new food

And then…then my opinion changed forever regarding lamb.

It was a warm, slightly sweet dish from the peppers, but with a good hearty acidity from the tomatoes and saltiness from the feta. And the lamb? It was melt-in-your mouth good. I mean, I tried to chew it, but it just kept being all great and dissolving in my mouth like warm butter on hot bread, and I was simply forced to get two helpings. And the lamb didn’t taste weird at all! All of us grew quiet for a second or two (a miracle by itself), until someone piped up that this was going into their permanent recipe arsenal and everyone started talking about how fantastic it was all at once.

Mostly I couldn’t believe that something THIS GOOD came from about 5 ingredients and just a bit of effort and stove/oven time.

Make sure you have some crusty bread to mop up all the delicious juice with. We ate it with spoons, almost like a stew, and in this arctic weather we’re currently experiencing on the East side of the country, I can’t think of a heartier way to warm up those winter-chilled bones of yours.

You can thank me, Erjona, (and Albania) later.

From new year, new food

**As a side note, I’d like to point out there has been a large discussion in Erjona’s family regarding the actual name of the dish. Her mom, Merita, thinks it’s fergese tiranse, while Erjona and another cousin swear up and down that it is, indeed, tave tiranse. Literally, this has taken days and at least one trans-Atlantic phone call to the motherland and still has yet to be determined. I think after a record Googling session, Erjona decided that this was, actually, tave tiranse and not the usurper summer dish, fergese tiranse. Despite the dissension amidst my favorite Albanian family ranks, I just want to say Thanks Mama Merita for the recipe, and I’ll be calling soon for more Albanian dishes!


Kari said...

i can't wait to share this recipe with my family who have all, incidentally, loved lamb since their respective babyhoods (that makes me the er, vegetarian black sheep). i can't speak to the lamb, but the veggie version of this was fantastic! thanks again, ladies!

Erin said...

Gorgeous photo of the wine glass! But as to the guts of this post - yummmmmm. "Mouth-watering lamb" can't get any better than this. I'm desperately in need of a new meat dish and being a lamb lover and hard core devotee to feta (courtesy of Erjona), I'm sold! Thank you so much!!!