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Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Lettuce Wraps for Springtime

A recipe to welcome warmer weather, from chef Adam Keough of San Francisco’s Absinthe
Photo by: Courtesy of Absinthe
Adam Keough changes up the lettuce-wrap option on his menu a few times per season.

Esther Mobley
Posted: March 27, 2015

Spring is here—officially, at least—and there’s no better way to usher in the new season than to indulge in its newly available fruits and vegetables. Whether it’s sunny and warm where you live, or rainy and gray, this is the time to reincorporate vegetable-based dishes and fresh ingredients into your cooking routine.

Those of us on the East Coast can live vicariously through Adam Keough, executive chef of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco. There, the sun is shining, and Keough is welcoming springtime by firing up his grill and eating outdoors. “Things lighten up in the spring,” he says. “The food I cook in the restaurant, and the food I cook at home, gets a lot more vegetable-driven.”

Year-round, Keough always keeps a variation on the lettuce wrap on the Absinthe menu. “The lettuce wrap is versatile, and it’s fun to eat something with your hands,” he says. “I do them a lot if I’m doing a barbecue; it’s a nice hors d’oeuvres at the house. Gluten-free people really dig it too.” At this time of year, to bridge hearty winter fare and fresh spring produce, Keough likes to fill radicchio-leaf cups with Moroccan-spiced lamb tenderloin, pickled vegetables and a spicy tzatziki sauce.

“It’s light; it’s acidic,” Keough says of the dish. “It’s not just a big piece of meat grilled on a plate.” The honey and brown sugar in the lamb marinade produce warm, sweet flavors, while the vinegar-laced pickling liquid delivers a zippy line of acid.

Keough emphasizes the importance of trimming the bottom of the radicchio cups, not only to give them a uniform shape but also to lessen their bitterness: The white part of radicchio is very bitter, while the red part is a little milder. Just make sure you leave enough of the white underside for the cup to remain intact.

The lamb marinates overnight, and the vegetables can be made a day or two in advance. “Day of, all you’re doing is getting the right radicchio cups fresh, and then making the tzatziki fresh,” in addition to quickly grilling the small tenderloins, Keough says.

Head sommelier Gretchen Buck, who stewards a Best of Award of Excellence-winning wine list at Absinthe, likes to serve the lamb wraps with a young rosé. “Some softer fruits balance the heat of the Moroccan spice and smokiness from the grilling process,” she says. “Rosé is what people want to drink as the weather warms up.”

Buck alternatively suggests pouring dry Riesling alongside the wraps. The aromatic white, she says, can offer “incredible lively acid that [is] absolutely fantastic with the dish.” In addition to its crispness, Riesling’s typical honeyed flavors are a good match for the sweetly marinated lamb. Buck looks to examples of American Riesling—she especially likes bottlings from Oregon and the Central Coast of California—for this pairing. Below, we provide a list of recently rated rosés and U.S. Rieslings.

Grilled Lamb Lettuce Wraps

Recipe courtesy of Adam Keough, executive chef of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

Photograph by Tara Blazona

Make sure to trim some of the bitter white underside of the radicchio leaf.

For the marinated lamb tenderloin:

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted, ground coriander
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted, ground fennel seed
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted, ground cumin
  • 1/2 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 12 to 15 lamb tenderloins

1. Combine all ingredients except for lamb and mix well. Pour over lamb and allow to marinate overnight.

For the pickled vegetables:

  • 1 1/2 cups Champagne vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 coriander seeds
  • 1 cup onions, shaved
  • 1 cup red bell peppers, julienned

1. On a stovetop, bring all ingredients except onions and peppers to a simmer for 5 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes and then pour liquid over the onion and peppers. Chill and reserve, up to a day or two in advance.

For the cucumber-yogurt sauce:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon jalapeño, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon mint, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon basil, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon ginger, grated
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
  • Salt, to taste

1. Combine all ingredients and mix well. Season with salt to taste. Reserve.

To assemble the dish:

  • 12 to 15 radicchio leaves, bottoms trimmed (about two heads of radicchio, depending on its size)
  • 15 to 20 mint leaves
  • 15 to 20 parsley leaves

1. Grill the lamb on high heat, 2 to 3 minutes per side for medium rare. Allow the lamb to cool for about 5 minutes.

2. Slice the lamb on the bias.

3. Set 1 tenderloin in each radicchio cup. Garnish with pickled vegetables, yogurt-cucumber sauce, mint and parsley. Serve immediately. Serves 10 to 12 people as hors d’oeuvres or 6 to 7 as light lunch.


Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More wines can be found in our Wine Ratings Search

U.S. Riesling

CHARLES SMITH Riesling Columbia Valley Kung Fu Girl Evergreen 2013 Score: 91 | $12
Crisp and sleek, with juicy, expansive nectarine and peach flavors that play against citrusy acidity, finishing with zing and a sense of softness that lets the finish keep singing. Drink now through 2020. 128,806 cases made.—H.S.

POET’S LEAP Riesling Columbia Valley 2013 Score: 89 | $20
This refreshing style plays ripe apple, lime, lemon blossom and green peach flavors against vibrant acidity, finishing tart, with finesse. Drink now through 2017. 4,125 cases made.—H.S.

RAVINES Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2013 Score: 89 | $17
This has good zip, with peach pit, green apple and jasmine notes that race along. Offers a pure, porcelainlike feel on the finish. Drink now through 2015. 5,000 cases made.—J.M.

HERMANN J. WIEMER Riesling Seneca Lake Dry 2012 Score: 89 | $19
Fresh-cut lime, Granny Smith apple and fennel notes ripple from start to finish, allied to a slate-accented spine. A textbook version. Drink now through 2017. 6,000 cases made.—J.M.

A TO Z WINEWORKS Riesling Oregon 2013 Score: 88 | $15
Generous and lightly sweet, with lip-smacking acidity to balance the sweet pear and crème fraîche flavors, lingering easily. Drink now. 3,508 cases made.—H.S.

DR. KONSTANTIN FRANK Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2013 Score: 88 | $15
Bright and crunchy, with a mix of green and yellow apple fruit mingling with honeysuckle and lemon pulp notes. Offers a refreshing,energetic finish. Drink now. 3,100 cases made.—J.M.

RED NEWT CELLARS Riesling Finger Lakes Circle Label 2013 Score: 85 | $13
Light and direct, with modest zip to the core of fennel, green apple and lime notes. Drink now. 5,400 cases made.—J.M.


ELK COVE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Rosé 2013 Score: 88 | $16
A light pink, modestly endowed but expressive, with pretty rhubarb, watermelon and floral flavors, finishing dry. Drink now. 2,500 cases made.—H.S.

JULIA’S DAZZLE Pinot Grigio Horse Heaven Hills Rosé 2013 Score: 88 | $16
This off-dry, pink-orange wine offers apricot accents to complement the light strawberry notes. Drink now. 5,100 cases made.—H.S.

WÖLFFER ESTATE Rosé Long Island 2013 Score: 88 | $17
This firm rosé delivers tangy flavors of berry and kumquat, with notes of spice and fresh herbs. Lively, presenting some depth and grip. Drink now. 17,200 cases made. 128,806 cases made.—T.M.

BODEGA PIEDRA NEGRA Rosado Alta Colección Mendoza 2013 Score: 86 | $13
Very dry, with good structure to the berry and smoked cherry flavors. Notes of cinnamon and white pepper show on the finish. Drink now. 10,000 cases made.—K.M.

ALAIN DE LA TREILLE Anjou Rosé La Grille Gwénaël Guihard 2013 Score: 86 | $13
A plump core of strawberry and white cherry is framed by a lightly tangy edge of watermelon rind. Reveals a whiff of tobacco on the finish. Drink now. 7,500 cases made.—J.M.

CÀNTELE Negroamaro Salento Rosato 2013 Score: 85 | $14
Light-bodied and floral, with ripe strawberry and white peach notes and juicy acidity. Drink now. 8,000 cases made.—A.N.

VIÑA MONTES Syrah Colchagua Valley Rosé Cherub 2014 Score: 85 | $14
A medium-bodied style, with plenty of meaty notes to the dried berry, currant and wild cherry flavors. Spicy finish. Drink now. 5,000 cases made.—K.M.

MULDERBOSCH Cabernet Sauvignon Coastal Region Rosé 2014 Score: 85 | $14
Has a slight off-dry hint, with cherry, watermelon and red licorice notes all lingering through the finish. Drink now. 120,000 cases made.—J.M.

BODEGAS PRÍNCIPE DE VIANA Garnacha Navarra Rosado 2013 Score: 85 | $13
This bold rosé is deep in color, with ripe flavors of black cherry and plum accented with orange peel and smoke notes. Tart acidity drives this through the smoky finish. Drink now through 2015. 29,000 cases made.—T.M.

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