The Pine Brothers

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When I played recreational softball, I did not always start. I sat with a few of my teammates, at the ready in case we were needed as substitutes. We called ourselves the “Pine Brothers,” after the wooden bench that was our home.

Cooking is another pastime that occasionally relies on good substitutes. Long gone are the days when I abandoned a recipe because I didn’t have the particular brand called for (“Gee, I wonder why I have to use Fleischmann’s margarine?”). These days, it’s all about winging it with whatever is in the cupboard.

This happened with the Christmas lamb. My son in law scored a fresh leg from a local farm and I had just the recipe, from Food & Wine magazine. The problem was that it called for eleven additional ingredients – and one of those was something called a “Nine-Spice Mix.” Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. You’re cruising along following the cookbook when you realize that one of the ingredients is something you have to first make separately.

Yet, I felt reasonably confident. I have an impressive spice collection, especially if you don’t care about silly things like expiration dates. I had eight of the nine spices for this mix, lacking only the “two blades of mace.” After reading that mace is similar enough to allspice with a hint of ginger, I substituted a dash of ginger, to go along with the allspice already in it.

Note that the Nine-Spice Mix calls for lots of whole berries that you can pulverize in a spice grinder, or by hand with a mortar and pestle. I used powder where I had it, and ground the rest in my mini food processor.

I was still lacking two other items: pomegranate molasses and sumac. First, I had never heard of flavored molasses, but I mixed fig preserves with regular molasses and was quite pleased. As for sumac, I added some finely grated lemon zest and black pepper for a fair approximation of this mild Middle Eastern spice.

Before tackling the leg of lamb, make the Nine-Spice Mix first – you will have plenty left over for other uses, such as rice, meats, or simply to sprinkle on your potpourri. It supposedly keeps for three months, but in my spice cabinet, it might be riding the pine for decades.

Nine-Spice Mix


6 tablespoons whole allspice

6 cassia bark sticks or cinnamon sticks

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

10 whole cloves

2 blades mace 

1/2 whole nutmeg, crushed

Stir together all ingredients in a large skillet over medium-low, and cook until very fragrant but not burned, about 10 minutes, stirring often for the first 4 minutes and stirring constantly during the last 6 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool completely, at least 1 hour.    

Working in batches, transfer spice mixture to a spice grinder, and grind until mixture becomes a fine powder, about 30 seconds. Transfer to an airtight container.

Spiced Leg of Lamb

8 large garlic cloves, divided

3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground dill seeds

2 teaspoons sumac

1 teaspoon Nine-Spice Mix

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 (4 1/2- to 5 1/2-pound) bone-in leg of lamb (shank end)

3 fresh bay leaves

1/2 cup water, plus more as needed

1. Mince 4 of the garlic cloves. In a small bowl, whisk minced garlic, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, salt, coriander, cumin, dill, sumac, Nine-Spice Mix, and cayenne until a smooth paste forms.

2. Using a paring knife, cut slits all over lamb. Rub spice mixture over lamb, pressing into slits. Smash remaining 4 garlic cloves. Tuck bay leaves and smashed garlic into 4 of the slits. Transfer lamb to a wire rack set in a large roasting pan. Refrigerate, uncovered, at least 6 hours or up to overnight. Let lamb stand at room temperature 1 hour before roasting.

3. Preheat oven to 425°F. Roast lamb, uncovered, in preheated oven until spice mixture just begins to brown, about 15 minutes. Remove lamb from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Add 1/2 cup water to roasting pan, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Return lamb to oven, and roast at 325°F until tender and almost falling apart, about 3 hours, adding more water if necessary. (Water in pan may evaporate too quickly.)

4. Increase oven temperature to 425°F. (Do not remove pan from oven.) Uncover roasting pan, and continue to roast until top is browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer lamb to a cutting board; tent with foil, and let rest 15 minutes. Pull meat into large chunks and serve.

The finished product came out splendidly. Thanks to Palestinian cookbook author Reem Kassis for letting me test my substitution skills, and helping to make our Christmas meal a memorable one.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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