I’ve wanted to make these for about a year now.
A whole year – which is quite a long time, if you ask me. Sometime ago in 2008 (boy, doesn’t that sound like ages ago?) I wandered into a small Soho restaurant called Salt, a little cold and very hungry. I scanned the small menu and a merguez burger just called to me: it came with a mint-yogurt sauce and a salad inside a pita. It sounded perfect, considering it was a kind of day when you needed something filling and comforting, and especially, if you have a soft spot for merguez, like I do.
I told all my friends about these burgers, dragged them to the restaurant and even co-planned an engagement brunch for my friends there. And every time, without even bothering to sample anything else, I would order the merguez burger. It was and is that good, believe me.
And while I wanted to make them, I was kind of intimidated of what it would take to make this Moroccan specialty. Would it even taste authentic and what steps would it entail? And what if it didn’t taste just like the version I fell in love with? Typically, I’m shy and reserved and fear rejection and never had the guts to ask the chef for the recipe, so I was on my own in making it.
And just as I was ready to finally take the plunge, spring and summer came and put my plans on a seasonal hiatus. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for heavy lamb when it’s 90 degrees outside. I tend to stick to crunchy, cold things like salads and sweet, fruit-filled things like pies. Lamb in the summer – um, no thank you.
But, finally, winter settled in. Or more like winter barged in with snow and wind and sub-freezing temperatures. No polite knocking on the door or anything – it simply appeared one morning and decided to stay. All this has done wonders for my motivation, as all I want to do is just put on layers and layers of fleece, drink coffee and eat soup. Oh, and also, keep making these merguez burgers. Because these taste exactly the way I had them at Salt, and I’m over the moon with this recipe, courtesy of Melissa Clark. It’s a moment of triumph when you can recreate a meal exactly the way you had it elsewhere. A small, but solid victory, a jubilant “Yesss!!” you squeal to yourself in your kitchen. I love these so much, that it pains me to write about them and not have one for dinner tonight. In fact, I reheated these for dinner and while they were lovely, my heart is so with these merguez burgers that I doubt anything will eclipse them this winter season.
There’s everything in perfect balance here: the spiced, fragrant lamb; the cooling freshness of the minty-cilantro yogurt sauce; the crunch of the lettuce and juice of the tomato; the heat of harissa. It’s really, truly, wonderfully perfect – comforting, filling, warm, and yet quite different from the regular, expected winter fare. Portion control with these might be a challenge, but then again, if these get you through the brutal cold then my job here is done. You can make the portion control resolutions on your own – just don’t come back blaming me.
Adapted from the New York Times, courtesy of Melissa Clark
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 pound ground lamb
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped; more for serving
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Olive oil, for cooking (I used canola)
3 cups of chopped romaine lettuce
1-2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tsp fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tsp fresh mint, chopped
a pinch or two of salt
Harissa, for serving (optional)
1. Toast cumin, coriander and fennel seeds over medium-low heat, until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Transfer the spices to a spice grinder or a mortar and grind until seeds are finely ground.
2. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well together. This process works a lot better if you’re mixing by hand rather than using a spoon. Form the mixture into flat patties roughly the size of your palm. If you have unusually large palms, then use your imagination: your want to fit the patties inside a cut pita. The patties should be roughly 1-inch thick. Chill for up to 5 day, freeze for up to 3 months, or use immediately.
3. While your meat is chilling, mix together lettuce, tomatoes and the onion. Set aside.
4. Stir together the yogurt, cilantro, mint and salt and set that aside as well.
5. When you are ready to cook the burgers, brush patties with oil and grill or broil them until they are completely cooked through. You can also fry them in a bit of oil until they’re browned all over and aren’t pink on the inside.
4. Serve these stuffed inside a pita with a salad, drizzled yogurt sauce and harissa. I found it easier to fit inside a pita with all the accouterments if I sliced the patty lengthwise.
Yield: About 1 pound of sausages.