Watson's melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan almond curry

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Sean Cooper
November 1st, 2015
Watson's melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan almond curry

'Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson' is a collaboration between IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. As part of an ongoing series, we'll be preparing one recipe from the book until we've made all of them. Wish us luck.

While it's no great surprise to see Watson conjuring up unusual flavor blends, I was surprised to find such subdued in this Moroccan almond curry. On paper the recipe looked to be leaning toward bland, but its clever combination of all the elements worked. Traditional Moroccan lamb curries have intense flavors highlighted by garlic, onion, sometimes ginger, cinnamon and then sweetened with honey and dried apricot to balance lamb's strong taste. Here, though, Watson prescribes small amounts of cardamom, cumin, turmeric. All told, the recipe is comprised of four separate parts, which you'll later pile together. These include: the curry-braised lamb, a pea puree, green salad and plain old basmati rice. This is a great choice if you want to show off for guests, and yet it's easy too: Because the meal is broken up in stages, much can be done the day before. It's also mild enough that even the pickiest eater will find some joy in the dish. I fed it to a couple kids under ten and they both ate it up.

Gallery: Watson's melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan almond curry | 95 Photos



With the exception of the pea sprouts, which I had a devil of a time finding (they are so good on sandwiches, by the way) everything else can easily be found at your local grocery store. If you have a local butcher I'd suggest you visit them before browsing the frozen food aisles for the lamb shanks -- fresh is always tastier. Lamb is one of the least consumed red meats in the US, perhaps because of the strong tang which some complain can at times verge on cloying. Here that "strong" taste is nicely balanced by the dead-simple but tasty green salad and even augmented by the sweet pea puree.

Oh, and for those from the UK, not to worry: these aren't your granny's mushy peas.

Preparation and cooking are a breeze; no special tricks or gear needed. The most important skill you'll bring to this dish is patience. There are so many steps to follow: braising, blending, chopping, toasting and then the assembly. Sure, it's a pretty lengthy process but you'll be rewarded by the 'oohs' and 'ahhs' for spending the time and effort.

Cooking the lamb is undemanding. Just toast the spices until they start to smell, well, toasty (you'll know when that is) and then put them aside. Heat some oil and brown the lamb on all sides to add Maillard reaction flavors to the dish (without that, you'd just have boiled lamb). Then it's just a matter of sautéing the celery and tomatoes in the leftover lamb juices, deglazing the pan with orange juice, adding the zest and toasted spices.

I was surprised at this point to find that onion was absent from the ingredients list. I re-read the recipe to make sure I wasn't mistaken, as this is a very strange omission in a curry. Still, it didn't seem to hurt the flavor. To finish the lamb, dump the shanks in a big oven-safe dish with a tight-fitting lid add the deglazing juice and then top it up with water so the lamb is covered. Fire up a stove-top burner and bring the mix to a boil before putting it in the oven, then cover with foil and its lid in the oven at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for about five hours. It's a good idea to leave the house during this time because the ridiculously delicious smells will drive you up the wall.

Lamb can be fatty, so once cooked you'll need to chill it for a few hours so that the fat can set, making it easier to remove. Of course, feel free to skim it off with a spoon if you're in a hurry, but chilled will definitely yield better results. While the lamb cools, that's a great time to make the pea puree and chop the salad ingredients. Once we were set to eat, the lamb went in the oven to warm and I reduced the leftover sauce from the braising process while I started the rice. I reheated the lamb in a tajine because I had one kicking about but any covered oven safe dish is just fine.

To serve, I just brought everything to the table and had all the taste testers build their plates (actually, bowls). The curry was an all-around hit. The lamb in particular was as unctuous and fall-off-the-bone tender as I have ever had. But that wasn't Watson -- just great lamb. Where the AI's magic was revealed was in the meat's mild curry flavor and acidity. Though, the toasted almonds might have been too subtle. I wouldn't have missed them if they'd been omitted.

The pea puree was a complete surprise considering it's just peas and water, but may be my favorite part of the dish. Somehow their sweetness really boosted the cohesion of the whole meal. Consider that dish on its own: those same peas blended with water would likely have been just cold blended peas. So here is a shining example of where Watson delivered a combination of flavor and texture that when part of a larger whole transforms from something mundane to magical. Lastly the salad, while simple, provided crunch with the lettuce, celery leaves and pea shoots in direct contrast with the soft lamb, puree and of the rice along for the ride to catch the extra sauce.

I'll make this again for sure, though I might consider augmenting the sweetness provided by the tomatoes with some kind of fruit or honey and perhaps throwing whole blanched almonds in during the long cook. If you've been waiting for a more "user friendly" Watson dish to serve up to friends, then this is one you should seriously consider.

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