Lamb Merguez & House Made Harissa – North African Specialties

My friend David Berkowitz is a true renaissance guy; on any given day, he might be mixing sound at Wolf Trap, or building guitars of truly sublime beauty and power; often enough, he follows that up with some very inspired cooking. I’ve seen great dishes with influences from French, through Middle Eastern and North African come from his talented hands. The former launched this question the other day.

“Do you have a good recipe for lamb merguez? The ones I’ve found around here are mostly beef and then end up having kind of a gritty texture. Not sure why that is.”

As always, big thanks for asking; first, let’s look at that grainy issue. Merguez is highly spiced, and on top of that, if those makers close to Dave are using mostly beef, I can see a few potential issues. My first suspect would be not processing at cold enough temperatures – With as much dry spice as merguez boasts, you need to make sure that everything is really cold – Meat semi-frozen, spices fully chilled, and all vessels frozen throughout production. If those steps aren’t taken, then I’d think the chance of ingredients separating is quite high, and that’s the number one reason sausage will get grainy. Secondly, beef is quite marbled compared to lamb, or at least the most common sausage making cuts are, so potentially one could have a meat/fat ratio issue there. And finally, for a relatively heavily spiced sausage like this, you pretty much gotta add a bit of liquid after grinding and work that into the mix before stuffing.

Merguez is a French derivation of the Berber word for sausage, mirqaz. This is a fresh sausage, bright red before cooking, made from mutton or lamb, and heavily laced with North African spices – chiles, garlic, fennel, and cumin are dominant notes. The characteristic red color comes from paprika and harissa, a Tunisian chile paste. While some recipes just add chile flake or powder, as far as I’m concerned it’s not the real deal unless it includes harissa, and that too should be home made. We make ours with roasted red Hatch and Serrano chiles, and it’s got all the heat you need – Knowing David as I do, I’ll bet his version will have Habaneros in it, if not ghost chiles – He’s that kinda chile head…

Traditionally, Merguez is stuffed in lamb casing, and you can get those online from Butcher & Packer, Amazon, etc, but frankly, there’s nothing wrong with using beef or even synthetic if that’s what you like. Served with a nice couscous and a cucumber salad with yoghurt sauce, you’ve got a truly fabulous meal.

First off, here’s the harissa; refrigerated, it’ll last a couple weeks in an airtight container. It’s great with all kinds of meats, veggies, and even eggs.

Harissa - Tunisian Chile Paste

Urb’s Harissa

5 red Hatch New Mexican Chiles

5-7 fresh Serrano Chiles

3 cloves Garlic

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 teaspoon Coriander

1 teaspoon Caraway Seed

1/2 teaspoon Cumin

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

Set oven to broil and a rack on the highest setting.

Place whole chiles on a dry sheet pan and roast, turning steadily, until skins are blackened uniformly.

Pull chiles from oven and set aside to cool.

Combine coriander, caraway, and cumin in a spice grinder and pulse until uniformly blended and powdered.

Remove skins and stems from cooled chiles. If you’re a heat weenie, use gloves when processing them, and you might want to remove some or all of the seeds, (but you should feel shame for doing that, because this stuff is meant to pack a punch.)

Smash garlic, peel, and remove nibs from both ends.

Load all ingredients but the salt in a blender or processor and pulse to a uniform paste.

Add half the salt, pulse again and taste; adjust salt as needed.

Store refrigerated, in an airtight, glass container.

 

And here’s the sausage. If you have access to local grass fed lamb, that’s what you want; the benefits of that far outweigh commercially packed stuff. Whatever you get, make sure it’s as fresh as can be. Lamb gets a bad rep for being funky, but to be honest, that has far more to do with how the animal is raised and fed than it does the meat itself. Lamb fat is more piquant than beef, but the beauty of lamb is that the fat isn’t marbled into the meat nearly as much, so when you trim, you can remove exactly as much of the fat as you like, and end up with beautiful, lean meat to work with. Lamb fat is traditional for Merguez; you can add some pork or beef as well, if you like. I use 50% – 50% lamb and pork fat; that balance makes a sausage that many folks really enjoy.

NOTE: I use a Kitchenaid grinder and stuffer attachment, so I’ve got a stand mixer basically set up when I build this sausage. If you have a dedicated grinder, prep your stand mixer with a paddle blade attached before you start.

 

Real Deal Merguez Sausage, (Makes 4 pounds of pre-cooked sausage)

3 Pounds Lamb Shoulder

1 Pound Lamb, Pork, or Beef Fat

1/2 Cup Harissa

1/4 – 1/2 Cup Ice Water

6 cloves Garlic (pick uniformed sized ones)

2 Tablespoons hot, sweet Paprika

2 Tablespoons Sea Salt

2 teaspoons Fennel Seed

2 teaspoons Cumin

2 teaspoons Coriander

1-2 teaspoons Sumac

Natural Casings, 28mm to 32mm

NOTE: Sumac has a tart, citrusy flavor that is potent and complex. Try a dab on your fingertip and decide how much you like it, then add either 1 or 2 teaspoons.

 

Have all spices and Harissa refrigerated and thoroughly chilled.

Meat needs to be semi-frozen prior to production; I usually trim and size it, then lay it on a small sheet pan and put that in the freezer. All bowls need to be frozen as well.

Trim all gristle and connective tissue from lamb and fat.

Trim meat to size so that it’ll feed smoothly through your grinder.

Set grinder up with a coarse plate for your first run.

Casings should be thoroughly rinsed, inside and out, then soaked in warm water for 30 minutes prior to stuffing.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add fennel, cumin, and coriander; toast spices, (staying right with it, ’cause they can burn really quickly), mixing with a fork for 1 – 2 minutes until their fragrance tells you they’re done. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.

Smash, peel, trim ends from garlic, then mince and set aside.

Transfer cooled spices to a grinder and process to a uniform powder.

Transfer ground spice to a small mixing bowl, add sumac, paprika, and sea salt, blend thoroughly, and set aside.

Set one of your chilled bowls up inside a slightly larger bowl with plenty of ice in it – snug your receiving bowl down into the larger so it’s well iced.

Run fat and meat through your grinder.

Add spice blend, harissa, and garlic to ground meat and combine thoroughly by hand. Return grind to freezer.

Set your grinder up for a second run with a fine plate, with the same iced set up for your receiving bowl.

Set a small sauté pan over medium high heat.

Transfer bowl with sausage grind to your stand mixer with a paddle blade attached. Add half the ice cold water and process at fairly low speed, (2 or 3), until you’ve fully incorporated the water, about 1 minute. Sausage should be moist and slightly sticky; if it’s not quite right, continue mixing and add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until you get there.

Hand form a small patty of the sausage, (about 3″ around and 1/4″ thick), and return the rest to the fridge. Cook the patty through, 1 – 2 minutes per side. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. If you add more seasoning, blend with the paddle on the mixer. You can add another teaspoon or so of water, if needed.

Set up your grinder for stuffing; fill about 3/4 full and twist into 6″ links. Coil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to cooking.

Merguez - Spicy North African Sausage
Merguez stands out with its bright red color

Merguez should be cooked over wood or charcoal. Once you’ve got nice, glowing coals and a preheated, brushed, and lightly oiled grate, grill to an internal temperature of 155° F. Allow a 5 minute rest prior to serving.

Merguez - Spicy a North African Sausage