Spicy lamb kefta with buttery couscous

Last Trip to the Abattoir.

Her name was Alice. She had a ready and endearing smile, deep brown limpid eyes, an easy walk, and a fine sheath of white wool along her jawline. Alice was a Romney ewe, age about one and a quarter (a teg, a sheep in its second year). She was born and raised on our small family farm when the kids were young, along with some ducks and chickens and other experiments with animals. She was a good sheep, one of the first to come to you through the pasture for a neck rub.

On this appointed afternoon, I loaded her and another ewe, whose name I forget, into the back of our tin can of a Datsun 610 station wagon to drive them north about an hour to their final destination. I lay down a tarp in back, with some water, grain and hay, and we were on our way. I’d done this trip several times before, so that we’d have meat in the freezer down cellar.

The ewes bleated for awhile, then calmed down. They looked out the windows at new worlds sliding by. Lay down, ate a bit, maybe pooped. One time Alice poked her head over the seat, and I patted her and talked to her.

We finally got to the farm that did the unpleasant work, pulled in the driveway. The abattoir building was still a hundred yards off, but now Alice came forward again and rested her muzzle on my shoulder and bleated. She smelled the blood of the abattoir. Her muzzle on my shoulder! She bleated. I slowed the car, patted her, rubbed her neck. And then I kept going, where the men were waiting for their new delivery.

I nearly turned around to call the whole thing off, but I didn’t.

Afterwards, when I drove off, I started to cry a little, and vowed, this is the last time. And it was. Forever. Later, at dinner, the kids wanted to know where Alice was, and I told them. It never occurred to them that this could happen to one of their favorite farm animals, and maybe it hadn’t occurred to me and my wife either. How could we do this?

All three kids stopped eating meat soon after this, and one of them, thirty years later, is still a vegetarian. My youngest wouldn’t eat lamb for several years. My oldest eventually returned to being an omnivore. As for myself, I’ve had a love-hate view of lamb since that day and am dead certain I will never eat a creature I’ve ever known.

Our neighbor, down the street here in South Thomaston, is the same way with his dozen or so Belted Galloways. I asked him once if he sold beef, and he said, “Nah, they’re just pets.” Good for him. Every year we give him bags of corn husks and cobs to feed them, maybe as some indirect penance for what happened to Alice.


Tagine-cooked spicy lamb balls, and buttery couscous with toasted almonds (my pic)

Spicy lamb kefta with buttery couscous – another tagine adventure!

All the aforementioned being said, lamb is still a favorite for many people, including my wife and me, and this is a remarkably tasty dish.

To make this dish, it’s helpful to have a tagine (or tajine), like this —

— but not essential. You can get pretty much the same effect in a dutch oven or iron pot with a loose-fitting lid so everything steams very nicely. But the tagine makes it easier, and it’s fun to look at. Make sure you have a heat diffuser to sit under the base of the tagine so it doesn’t explode and send earthenware shards rocketing into the faces of your guests.

So here’s how to make it, in two parts:

The lamb part

  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 tsps. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander

(The last three are optional. Use them if you want a true Moroccan taste. Frankly, I’m not wild about these flavors with lamb, but I’ll leave it up to you.)

Mix all these together in a bowl and roll them into walnut-sized balls, or kefta, and set aside. The original instructions for this dish ask you to “pound the meat with your knuckles in a bowl.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not into knuckling meat. The ground lamb is tender enough already, so it doesn’t need to be knuckled.

Wait – there’s more!

  • 1 tbsp. each butter and olive oil
  • 1 more onion, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 red chile, sliced
  • 2 tsps. turmeric
  • small bunch cilantro leaves
  • small bunch mint leaves
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • lemon wedges from yet another lemon
  • water

Again, leave the mint out unless you want a shock to your taste buds.

Here’s what to do:

Heat the oil and butter in the tagine base, with a heat diffuser underneath. Add onion, garlic, ginger and chile and cook until they start to brown. Add turmeric and 1/2 of the cilantro and mint (optional), and add about 1 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil. reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Now add the lamb balls (kefta) in the liquid, cover and poach for 15 minutes over low heat. Roll them around a couple of times to make sure they’re cooking evenly. Now pour in the lemon juice, season the liquid with salt, and tuck in the lemon edges amongst the lamb balls. Poach covered for another 10 minutes.

Sprinkle over the remaining cilantro and mint leaves (optional!), and serve with buttery couscous, below:

The buttery couscous part

  • 2 cups couscous
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 2/3 cups warm water
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter cut into small pieces

For the top, when it’s done:

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 4-5 tbsp. slivered almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 350. Pour the couscous into a mound in an ovenproof fish. Stir the salt into the water, and pour it gently and evenly over the couscous mound. Let this sit for about 10 minutes until the couscous has absorbed all the water.

Using your fingers, gently rub the oil into the couscous to break up any lumps. Scatter the butter pieces over the mound and cover loosely with foil. Put the dish in the oven and cook for 15 minutes until the couscous is hot.

Meanwhile, saute the almond slices in the butter until golden, and drain on paper towels. Remove the couscous from the oven, fluff with a fork, scatter the almonds on top, and bring the serving dish to the table, along with the tagine of lamb balls. Have people serve themselves, spooning the lamb over the couscous.


Again, I’m not crazy about the popular Moroccan spices of cinnamon, cumin, and mint with a savory meat like lamb, so next time we’ll probably use herbs and spices that are more savory. But if you want the real Moroccan thing, there it is.




Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.