Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
When you’re trying to get a lot of flavor with few ingredients, sometimes you need one power-punch element to do most of the work. For this recipe, I relied on ajvar to handle the heavy lifting.
Serbian in origin, ajvar is a roasted red pepper relish that may include other ingredients such as eggplant, garlic and chile peppers. Despite the exotic-sounding name, it’s surprisingly easy to find in many grocery stores. (Sometimes it hides under alternate spellings, or even simply as “Roasted Red Pepper Spread.”) Bright red-orange in color, it has a sweet-smoky flavor and a creamy texture. It comes in hot and mild versions; here, I stuck to the mild, as heat can present extra complications for wine pairings.
Ajvar is delicious served simply as part of a meze platter; a Serbian friend of mine will often bring this to parties to serve with a meat and cheese plate. When I first discovered it, I began to use it occasionally in place of tomato sauce when I wanted a twist on a dish. Essentially, that’s what I did here: Rather than use tomatoes, I employed ajvar as the flavor base for an Israeli couscous salad.
If you’re planning for a dinner party, the whole salad can be made well in advance. Kale is wonderful for this purpose, as dressing it ahead of time only improves the consistency and flavor. Massaging the leaves helps to break down their tough texture and give them a silkier mouthfeel, making a world of difference. Dig right in and work the leaves between your fingers; they should turn a bright, dark green.
For the protein, I decided to make very simple kebabs. I really like the flavor of the lightly charred lamb here, but feel free to use other meat or vegetable options. To accompany the lamb, I found beautiful mini sweet peppers in a variety of colors; they framed the lamb chunks like little jewels and echoed the flavors of the ajvar. (If you can’t find mini peppers, substitute chunks of regular bell pepper.) Thin slices of red onion, for a little more punch, rounded out the skewers.
Lamb is extremely wine-friendly, and a classic pairing recommendation for most medium- to full-bodied reds. Nonetheless, this dish has enough flavor components to present a challenge: sweetness from the ajvar, bitterness from the kale, acidity from the lemon and saltiness from the feta.
I chose three Old World red wines to try: from Italy, an Aglianico del Vulture; from Spain, a Rioja; and from France, a Grenache-Carignan blend from the Fitou appellation in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Predictably, all three worked quite well with the lamb on its own, but it was a different story with the dish as a whole.
The Aglianico had high highs and low lows, turning tart and bitter with some bites. The Rioja generally held up, not suffering much against any of the dish’s elements, but it stood apart, its flavors never really integrating with the food. Thankfully, the Fitou fared much better, its rich, ripe fruit shining through and complementing the flavors in the food.
Pair with a Grenache blend, such as Gérard Bertrand Grenache-Carignan Fitou 2013 (88 points, $19, 12,000 cases made)
Total time: 75-80 minutes Prep time: 35-40 minutes Cook time: 40 minutes Approximate food cost: $31
1. Heat 2 1/2 cups of water, seasoned liberally with salt, in a large pot until boiling.
2. While water is heating, whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together until the mixture emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Season the lamb with salt and pepper, then pour one-third of the lemon juice–olive oil mixture over the cubes. Marinate for at least 5 minutes.
4. Combine the sweet peppers and red onion quarters in a bowl and pour one-third of the lemon juice–olive oil mixture over them.
5. Use the remaining lemon juice mixture to dress the kale, adding just enough to lightly coat the leaves. Toss the kale to combine thoroughly, massaging the leaves until they turn dark green and take on a silkier texture. Set aside.
6. Add the Israeli couscous to the boiling water. Cook until just al dente, approximately 8 minutes. Drain the couscous and run under cold water to stop cooking. Set aside.
7. While the couscous is cooking, assemble the eight skewers. Begin with a slice or two of red onion, followed by a pepper and a cube of lamb, and repeat 3 times per skewer.
8. Heat a grill pan on medium-high. Cook the skewers 2 to 3 minutes per side (for medium-rare), flipping once. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan; work in batches as needed. Season skewers with salt and pepper, if desired, as they are removed from heat. Tent with aluminum foil and set aside to rest.
9. In a large bowl, combine the Israeli couscous with the ajvar spread. Once the couscous is evenly coated, add the kale and feta cheese and toss lightly to combine.
10. Mound the couscous salad on a platter and top with the lamb skewers. Serves 4.