My boyfriend and I have kinda crappy schedules. Crappy in that they don't mesh well with each other. We therefore make an effort to have at least one night a week where we have an "us" night, which usually involves me making some kind of dinner and then we go see a movie or go out with friends. It's a nice way to make sure we get some quality time in during the busy week.

I was cruising Whole Foods yesterday (one of my favorite past-times), just seeing what looked good, and happened across a package of fresh-ground merguez lamb. I adore cooking with sausage. It almost feels like cheating, because you're already starting with so much flavor in the dish you barely have to do anything to the rest of it. I snapped up the lamb and decided that this was going to be the basis of my "us" dinner tonight. I've been on kind of a Mediterranean kick lately so I wanted to make something with heavy Greek influences. For the side, I didn't want something that would fight with the merguez so I found some white bean and basil ravioli at Whole Foods that looked just right.

Halloumi is fun. It's traditionally a Greek sheep-goat blend cheese, heavily brined (salty to taste). You might see halloumi billed as the "grilling cheese." Halloumi's primary characteristic is its absolute refusal to melt under heat. Oh sure, it'll get flat and kinda soft, but it will NOT bubble and melt. You'd have to put this stuff under some sort of blowtorch I think if you really wanted melty halloumi, but why would you? I bought a brick and cut it into 1/4" thick slices for grilling. I like to use grilled halloumi in place of bread for a bruschetta-style appetizer. It doesn't take too long to grill, and I grilled some baby bella mushrooms with them while I was at it and arranged them on top of the finished halloumi with a side of feta-stuffed olives. Pretty simple, but a very nice easy little appetizer.

I paired some whole-wheat pita chips with it for the people who simply have to have their cheese on some sort of bread product.

For the main course, I dipped into my Spice Basket and developed a spice paste that I felt was properly Mediterranean and would go well with the spices already present in the merguez.

Mediterranean spice paste:

1/4 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbl dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried anise
1 tsp dried fennel
1 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried dill
1 tsp dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary (I like rosemary)

Combine all ingredients in a mortar and mash together to form a paste. Refrigerate any unused portions afterwards. I found that this made just enough paste to do dinner for four people with a smidge left over, so your mileage may vary. If you're a garlic fiend do 3 cloves.

While the ravioli was cooking up, I halved a package of grape tomatoes and started sauteeing them in a pan with a dab each of safflower and olive oil. I really like cooking with grape tomatoes. I think they look adorable and class up any kind of dish rather than chopping up big ol' tomatoes and using that instead. Not that there's anything wrong with big ol' tomatoes, but if the tomatoes are going to be a big visual presence, I prefer using grape or cherry tomatoes. I sauteed them for a while, adding in the spice paste as they cooked and more olive oil. As the tomatoes cook they stew up a bit, releasing their juices and helping to form a sort of light sauce with the olive oil and the spice paste. Feel free to flatten a few to release as much of the tomato juice as you can during the process. I sauteed them for about 5-7 minutes on medium heat.

While all this was going on, I had the lamb cooking in my large wok, working it around on medium-high heat and breaking it up into small chunks. Once the lamb was properly cooked through and broken up, I turned off the heat and mixed tabbouleh into the lamb. You can make your own tabbouleh or you can be pressed for time like me (we had to make it to a movie at seven) and cheat by buying some tabbouleh and using that instead. Fortunately we are blessed in Cleveland to have excellent options for Lebanese food so if you do buy local ready-made here you're generally getting a good product.

I took the sauteed tomato-spice sauce (should I even call it a sauce? It almost seems too light to be a "sauce") and spooned it onto the raviolis, and added the lamb-tabbouleh mixture to the plate. Garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary.

The finished product. It turned out really well, much better than I anticipated. The lemon and parsley in the tabbouleh complemented the spices in the merguez beautifully and the white bean and basil was a nice mellow and slightly sweet addition to the tomato mix. My boyfriend proclaimed this the best meal I've made to date yet. I was pretty happy because this was one of the first dinners I've really developed on my own in terms of tastes and pairing.

In other news, my little Greek basil plant who I have named Socrates has a new friend. I purchased a sweet basil plant to help supplement my fresh basil fixation, and have named this latest addition to my menagerie Virgil. Socrates and Virgil seem very happy together at the moment, blissfully unaware that I am fattening them for the slaughter.

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