Lamb with celery and cumin

Sautéed and quickly braised with whole cumin seeds, garlic, lemon juice and crushed red pepper flakes, normally mild-mannered celery upstages the supposed star of this dish, ground lamb.

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    Celery is woefully underrated, cooked, it can become a valuable ensemble player.
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First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Celery? Stealing the spotlight from lamb? Yes. As I sit here writing this post about this dish cooked and eaten last night, I am Pavlov’s dog, and he is going to town on that bell. And it is because of the celery.

Celery is woefully underrated, I think, largely because people mostly eat it raw. Cooked, it can become a valuable ensemble player. In soups, it adds a fresh note; in a pot of chili, it amplifies the taste of the cumin and provides nice, slightly crunchy bites. And, as in the case of lamb with cumin and celery, it can burst with big, bright flavor. 

I often talk about what inspires the dishes we cook and share here. This one started with a smell. We were shopping in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. As we approached the appropriately named Cumin – a “modern Nepalese Indian” restaurant – the unmistakable, powerful fragrance of celery and cumin filled the air. Even though we’d just had lunch, I was prepared to eat again, asking them to just bring me whatever was causing that amazing smell.

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Instead, we dutifully finished our shopping, and I tucked that flavor/scent combo away in the culinary lobe of my brain, knowing I would try to do something with it. Poking around online, I found a number of recipes using celery and cumin, but interestingly, only one Indian-inspired recipe, for a side dish. I used that recipe as a starting point, but wanted to turn it into a main course. One of our favorite cumin dishes is lamb with cumin we’ve had in a few Chinese restaurants. Lamb sounded like a perfect addition here.

And it was. It added an umami-rich protein base to the dish, making it a satisfying one-dish meal. But the celery stole the show, with big, lemony, crunchy bites made even livelier with the cumin and garlic. Wow.

Lamb with cumin and celery
Serves 2 to 3 (or more, see Kitchen Notes)

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, divided

12 ounces ground lamb

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup water

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 large clove garlic, minced

7 ribs of celery, sliced into 1/3-inch pieces on a diagonal (3-1/2 cups)

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more, see Kitchen Notes)

2 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal

Cooked basmati or white rice (or noodles, see Kitchen Notes)

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium flame. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the cumin seeds and the ground lamb. Season with salt and pepper and brown the lamb, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until just browned, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer lamb to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Drain fat from pan and wipe with a paper towel, but don’t wash.

2. Combine water, lemon juice, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and set aside. Heat remaining oil in the same pan over medium-high heat. Add remaining cumin seeds, crushed red pepper flakes and celery to pan and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Reduce heat to low and pour water/lemon juice/garlic mixture over celery. Cover pan and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Return lamb to pan, cover and cook until lamb is heated through 2 to 3 minutes. Serve over rice and top with sliced scallions.

Kitchen Notes

How many servings? As a main course, served with rice, it easily serves 2 (and possibly 3) diners. As part of a multicourse meal, it can serve 4 to 6.

Spicing things up. We like things hot here, but for this dish, we used just 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes. That gave it a nice little bit of heat that sneaks up on you, almost politely. Feel free to turn up the heat with more pepper flakes.

Rice? Noodles? Rice is an easy call for this dish, but you could also cook some spaghetti or other noodles and toss them with the finished dish at the end, perhaps adding a little pasta water if things get too dry.

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