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May 7, 2008 at 11:15 AM

“Beyond the Great Wall”: Why I love this book

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid don’t just write cookbooks, they take you on an extraordinary voyage to places you never knew you wanted to see — then make you so much better for having seen them. Reading about this couple’s travels, and absorbing the photographs in each of their six cookbooks, I feel as if I’m sharing their senses: seeing, tasting and smelling along with them while learning so much more than how to prepare the recipes. Their latest effort, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, may be their best effort yet. And that’s saying a lot:

More good news? They’re coming to Seattle May 22 to promote it, signing books and showing slides from the “other” China — the one that takes us far beyond moo shu pork and General Tso’s chicken — at a Cooks & Books event to be held May 22nd at Culinary Communion.

I spent much of the weekend poring- and “peering” over Beyond the Great Wall— when I could pry it out of my husband’s hands. (Their Seductions of Rice is his favorite cookbook.) And on Sunday, I cooked from it for the first time, making Uighur Lamb Kebabs after learning that the Uighur people of Central Asia speak a Turkic language, cook over a wood or charcoal fire, and that their sheep and goats forage in the hills and oases of Xinjiang. You can view the results, below.

In preparation, I went foraging at my local supermarket, where I scored the few ingredients I didn’t have on hand: one pound of boneless lamb leg or shoulder, and pomegranate juice. I could have substituted a 1/4-cup of fresh lemon juice mixed with a teaspoon of sugar to approximate the (far more expensive) pomegranate juice, as noted in the recipe. And I bought closer to two pounds of lamb shoulder than the single pound specified, which was a good thing, as I’ll soon explain.

The success of these kebabs involves a quick prep and two-hour marination, followed by a brief grilling (2 minutes on one side, 7 to 8 on the other). Which made this an easy meal on that rare sunny day, when I’d so much rather be out and about than spending time indoors. First, I trimmed the meat from the bone, cutting it into chunks, leaving some fat as directed, though you can certainly choose not to if you’re persnickety about such things:

I made sure to save the scraps and the marrow-filled bones for roasting — “Waste not, want not” and all that. This is something I often do when trimming a roast for dishes like my friend Vijay’s incomparable Sri Lankan beef curry recipe. The dogs love the rendered fat, and I love the little roasted bits. I’d show you a photo of the roasted lamb, but my fingers were too greasy to touch the camera. The marrow, by the way, was divine. It looked like a mini-version of those bodacious bones they’re selling at places like Quinn’s and Cremant. (Don’t tell my cardiologist, OK?)

Next, I processed one coarsely-chopped medium onion in my mini food-processor until it formed an oniony paste, transfered it into a glass bowl and stirred in the remaining marinade ingredients: 1/4-cup of pomegranate juice, 1 teaspoon each of salt and fresh-ground black pepper, 1 Tablespoon of finely chopped garlic (which I chopped in the food processor because it was set up, empty, already in need of cleaning, and I could), and 3/4-teaspoon of ground cayenne:

Then I added the meat to the marinade, stirred it around till all the meat was coated, covered it and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours while I went about my business:

Nate had invited a couple of pals over, and we ended up asking them to stay for dinner, so I threw a pot of pasta on to boil, concerned the kebabs might be too spicy for Kosta, who eats here a lot, and seeing as Jolene said she’d never tasted lamb before. Then I grabbed some small bamboo skewers, soaked them in water for 30 minutes as directed, and threaded the meat onto the bamboo. You can also use metal skewers, if that’s what you’ve got. For a side, I put together one of my favorite quick-and-easy salads, dicing sweet red pepper, Persian cucumbers, sprinkling them with dried mint and tossing with a little oil and rice-wine vinegar:

Mac fired up the Weber kettle grill, using a mix of Kingsford, natural wood charcoal, and some cuttings from our dried fruit-tree stock — which helped keep the recipe authentic. We’d used the kettle Saturday night, otherwise we’d probably have gone the lazy route and just turned the knob on the gas grill:

Those spicy kebabs, as promised in the recipe’s headnote, were “succulent” and had a “tart-edged garlicky taste that could almost have come straight from Istanbul.” Jeffrey and Naomi would know, and I sure wish that someday I’d get to savor kebabs like these in Istanbul or Xinjiang:

Till then, my family and I thought they tasted wonderful right here in the picturesque Pacific Northwest. Kosta and Jolene thought so, too:

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