Pinchos morunos. Skewers of lamb or pork heavily seasoned with a mixture of cumin, ginger, sweet paprika, saffron, turmeric and coriander. It’s a dish that shows the North African influence in Spanish cuisine. It’s a dish that brings me back to Café Iruña in Bilbao.
Café Iruña dates back to 1903. Inside, there’s a long, U-shaped marble bar lined with plates of pintxos – those intricate assortments of meat, fish, vegetables or cheese, usually atop a small round of bread, pierced with a toothpick to hold the pieces together. The waiters wear clean, pressed white shirts and bowties. They frown slightly when I take out my iPhone to capture a quick snap of the setting. It’s the kind of place that feels like it hasn’t changed from the outset. And that’s why I like it. They serve a house cava in champagne coupes (the wide, shallow glass that was supposedly modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breast) and to the tune of $3 euros per glass, I always ordered a second or third without feeling like an overindulgent little lush.
In the evening, skewers of lamb were grilled over a charcoal barbecue near the large front window of the café. The lamb was doused in an Arabic mixture of spices and the smell wafted out of the window, tempting passersby in the pedestrian-only street outside. These skewers, pinchos morunos, were a perfect pre-dinner snack, served with a hunk of crusty bread.
There are many things I miss about Bilbao. I miss riding my bike next to the river, less than a mile, to get to work at the restaurant each day. I miss the look of the city – the rows of historic buildings along the river Nervion flowing through the city center, and the backdrop of green mountains in every direction. I miss climbing out the window of my fifth floor apartment and sitting on the rooftop, looking down on the dusky purple buildings and seeing lights poking out from the mountains in the distance. We would sit out there after I got off of work, drink cold white txakoli wine and smoke rolled cigarettes until it was time to go to bed. Everything seemed so peaceful, anything seemed possible, from that height.
And most importantly for this post, I miss those pinchos morunos too, which led me to attempt to recreate them in my own tiny, East Village apartment. Unsurprisingly, my apartment lacks a charcoal grill, so I roasted the lamb instead. Plus, I’ll share a secret with you: you can be a complete kitchen fool and it would still be hard to mess up roasted lamb. It’s one meat that can be cooked past medium-rare (how I usually like it) and it’s fatty enough that it stays juicy and delicious.
The key elements of this recipe are good cuts of lamb – chops of lamb shoulder with the bone in, which you’ll later cut around – and the spices. You can mix up your own medicine or buy some Ras el Hanout, a pre-made mixture of 12 or so spices. Today’s sandwich – a lambwich if you will – is lamb prepared pinchos morunos style, combined with my favorite things: steamed buns, avocado, lots of cilantro and spicy sriracha mayo. My ode to Café Iruña. Cocinamos!
- 1 half pound lamb shoulder chop, bone in (not a lamb fan? try pork tenderloin)
- spices – either:
- a mixture of cumin, coriander, sweet paprika, turmeric, ginger, ginger and saffron
- Ras el Hanout
- Berbere spices (purists may disagree, but I think this works fine in a pinch and it can be found at Whole Foods)
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 bunch cilantro, stems removed, leaves whole, washed thoroughly and dried
- 2 frozen steamed buns (you can find these at Asian grocery stores like M2M if you’re in NYC)
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise mixed with 1/2 tablespoon sriracha
- crunchy salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- Place your lamb chop in a large bowl. Add olive oil to coat on all sides, then coat with spices on all sides. Use your hand to rub the spices into the meat. Then sprinkle crunchy salt on all sides. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Remove lamb from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 15-30 minutes (depending on how cold it is). Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Sprinkle lamb with crunchy salt and cook in a baking dish lined with tinfoil for 25 – 30 minutes, flipping the lamb about halfway through. Cut into the middle to test for doneness to your liking.
- While lamb is cooking, boil 2 cups of water in a small pot. Place buns in a steamer basket and place the basket in the pot, then cover it. Let buns cook for a couple minutes then remove to a plate.
- Cut lamb chop in half and cut out any bones or excessively fatty parts. Each lambwich gets a half.
- Assemble your lambwiches and eat immediately.