As Food52 gets older (and wiser), and our archive of recipes grows, we're making the effort to revisit some gold recipes and pick the brains that invented them. Today, it's longtime F52-er MrsWheelbarrow, on how a disappointing event turned into a career in food writing; she posted this lamb merguez recipe on our site in 2010.
Cathy Barrow, aka MrsWheelbarrow, has pretty much been cooking for her entire life. “When I was a young girl my parents got divorced,” she says. “My mom worked at night and I didn’t like TV dinners, so I just had to figure it out—I was about 11 years old. My grandmothers cooked, my mother was a great cook, and I learned from all of them.” And now the Food52 community learns from her. Whether her contest-winning recipes or her dozens of Community Picks, MrsWheelbarrow’s contribution to Food52 is significant—and goes both ways.
When her “lovely little landscaping business” shuttered after the economic downturn in 2008, she was stunned, and at a loss for what to do with herself. The members of her women’s group encouraged her to start teaching cooking classes. “I said aloud, ‘Well how the heck is anybody going to find out I’m teaching cooking classes?’ and someone said, ‘Have you heard about this thing called a blog?’ And I had no idea what that was, no idea.”
With the help of a friend who was a graphic designer, she started blogging about her cooking projects: learning to make sausages and croissants, or massive dinner parties where she explained all the dishes she cooked. She joined the Food52 community, where she met other like-minded home cooks—people who today she considers true friends. “At that time, I didn’t have any friends who cooked,” she says. “But Food52 allowed me to meet other people who had the same passion I did, here and all over the country. And then things just grew.” She won a pie contest that was judged by an editor at the Washington Post who asked her to start contributing recipes to the newspaper, and then an editor at the New York Times asked her to start contributing to that paper, too. Her first cookbook, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, was not only a Food52 Piglet Community Pick, but won an IACP award for Best Single Subject Cookbook. Her second book, Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet and Savory Slab Pies, is now available for pre-order.
What does she make of all this success? “It’s weird!” she says. “Who woulda thought? I still pinch myself and say, ‘How did this happen?’ And my husband says, ‘How did this happen?’ The punchline is that I’m 60 years old, so all this happened after the age of 50. And that’s the amazing part. I got another career when I wasn’t even looking for one.”
Sarah Whitman-Salkin: You posted this recipe in 2010. When was the last time you made this dish?
Cathy Barrow: 2010—I was so young and impressionable! But it is still something I make. I make merguez and a handful of other sausages a couple of times a year and keep them in the freezer. My husband is mostly vegetarian and I’m not, so having things like a little bit of sausage on hand is a way to make a vegetarian meal a little more meaty for me. So I do still make the merguez, and I use it in all kinds of ways.
SWS: What are some of your favorite ways to eat it?
CB: If I have leftover mashed potatoes I’ll make a little shepherds pie in ramekins—it’s like a Moroccan-spiced shepherd’s pie. I also like to make it into little meatballs and make sandwiches in pita with hummus and a little harissa.
SWS: You mention in the headnote that you make these sausages as free-form patties and as encased sausages. Is there a difference in flavor?
CB: Not at all, it’s exactly the same. It really just has more to do with how you serve it. We downsized recently so we live in a condo now and no longer have a grill. I used to make more of the big spirals of merguez; I would lay the whole thing on the grill and then serve it on a large plate because it was just so dramatic. But without a grill, I don’t bother to do that anymore.
SWS: The recipe makes an abundant amount of the spice blend (which is so delicious). What do you like to do with leftover spice blend?
CB: I have a few little spice blends that I make for dishes that I make frequently. I’m very profligate with them; I just sprinkle it on whatever I can think of: scrambled eggs, yogurt... I’m always trying to add them to something. That one is particularly nice with hummus.
CB: I had a merguez—this is gonna sound so pretentious—I had a merguez in Paris that I really loved and I came home and fiddled for a long time. At first, I had to learn the way to make sausage, and I took that from Ruhlman’s book and Henderson’s book and [Paul] Bertolli—that educated me. Then and I took a charcuterie class and that taught me more about all the elements of making a good sausage. So I was more focused on technique, and then the rest of it was just blending the spices until they tasted like that one that I had in Paris. I’d never had merguez before that moment. I mean, 8 years ago, it was vaguely familiar in places outside of New York; 15 years ago, when I had it in France, I’d never seen it in America.
SWS: What tips do you have for anyone making merguez for the first time?
CB: Always make a test patty and sample it before you start cooking or wrapping everything up and putting it away and freezing it. You want to know that it’s good before you declare it done. A lot of cooks don’t taste. And when you’re looking at a big bowl of raw meat, it’s hard to remember that you just need to make a little test patty and cook it off and see where you are.
Spice Mixture - will make plenty
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed, dry toasted
- 1 tablespoon cumin seed, dry toasted
- 1 tablespoon anise seed, or fennel seed, in a pinch, dry toasted
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon, I like Ceylon
- 1/2-1 teaspoons cayenne, depending on your harissa
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 pound fresh ground lamb shoulder
- 2 garlic cloves, minced fine
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon spice mix
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoons Salt, to taste
- iced water, as needed
What are some older recipes from Food52 you love, and want to know more about? Let us know in the comments!