Flavorful lamb filling
Pita that holds together
Crisp bread surrounding perfectly cooked, juicy filling
Lamb is a staple in Middle Eastern cooking; roasted leg of lamb, shanks braised in heady spice mixtures, flavorful stews, and meatballs are all common. But I recently encountered another application from the estimable Lebanese cookbook author Anissa Helou: ground meat sandwiches known as arayes. What makes these sandwiches—a popular street food found across the region—so intriguing is that the meat gets cooked inside the pita. In Helou’s version, she seasons ground lamb with parsley, onion, cumin, and cinnamon; spreads it over the pita; and places the sandwich on a hot grill (baking the sandwich is also common). As the lamb cooks, its flavorful juices and fat soak into the pita, which turns crisp and toasty.
As I’d hoped, the lamb plus seasonings made for a juicy, flavorful filling. And I loved the thin bread, which let the lamb take center stage but also lent a satisfying crunch where the edges had crisped. But stuffing the pitas was a challenge: As I cut each pita halfway around its circumference and spooned in the meat mixture, I found it tricky to spread evenly, especially into the edges of the pita pocket; more than one pita tore in my hands. Also, I needed to develop a more detailed grilling process. Helou’s version didn’t indicate how hot the fire should be but merely said to grill the sandwiches for about 5 minutes per side until the filling was cooked and the bread crisp. The bread cooked up a bit dry and tough toward the center rather than crisp, a problem that I suspected had to do with the heat level and cooking method. Tasters also found the meat a bit thin, and I wondered if, though flavorful, the filling couldn’t stand a little bit more seasoning to better balance the lamb’s richness.
The first thing I did was work out an easier way to fill the sandwiches. Since it was hard to reach deep into the pocket without tearing the bread, why not separate it into two pieces by running a pair of scissors around the bread’s circumference? I worried that creating two pieces might make the bread separate from the filling, but the ground lamb proved sticky enough to hold on to the pita pieces both during cooking and once the sandwiches were done. To further ensure that the bread remained intact, I used the freshest pitas I could find, since older pitas are drier and thus more brittle, and I spread the meat mixture over the less fragile of the two sides since it would be less likely to break.
Next, I dealt with the meat. I upped the ratio of ground lamb to pita so that each sandwich was thicker. And to better balance the lamb’s richness, I added a little lemon juice and swapped out more neutral, grassy parsley for brighter, more aromatic cilantro. Bigger pieces of cilantro and onion were distracting, so I pulsed them together in the food processor until they were finely chopped. And paprika and cayenne contributed both pepper flavor and heat that balanced the richness of the lamb.
As for the grill setup, a medium fire didn’t toast the bread sufficiently, while a very hot fire burned it before the meat cooked through. A medium-hot fire worked best, but I noticed that the bread tended to dry out rather than toast. To fix this, I needed the meat to render its fat more quickly, as the fat would cause the bread to fry a bit. To jump-start the rendering process, I started cooking with the grill covered to create an oven-like environment that would heat the filling from the get-go. With these changes, I had a juicy, flavor-packed lamb pita sandwich.
Now my sandwiches just needed a few accompaniments. Arayes are traditionally served with yogurt, so I created a tart, minty yogurt-tahini sauce to serve alongside. I also made a simple Mediterranean-style parsley salad with cucumber, pomegranate, and feta.
What's in Ground Lamb?
When buying ground beef, you’re provided with a number of choices and plenty of information: the cut used (chuck, sirloin, or round, for example); the fat content, which can range from 7 to 20 percent; and if the meat is grass-fed or conventional. But when you buy ground lamb, there’s usually only one option and little information provided. So what’s in the package? After talking to a number of butchers and supermarkets, here’s what we found out: It’s typically American lamb, which is preferred in the United States to lamb imported from Australia or New Zealand because of its milder, less gamy flavor. Leg and shoulder are ground most often, and the fat content falls between 15 and 20 percent.
Keys to Success
Flavorful lamb fillingAlong with the traditional cumin, coriander, and onion, we add lemon zest to our meat mixture as well as cayenne for heat and paprika for its complementary pepper flavor. Aromatic cilantro also helps balance the lamb’s richness. The grill makes the pita extra-crisp, providing contrast to the texture of the filling.
Pita that holds togetherPitas can be prone to falling apart, especially when you’re trying to load them with a heavy filling. To avoid this, we cut open the pitas completely so that we can simply spread the paste evenly on one piece. We make sure to spread the meat mixture on the thicker piece.
Crisp bread surrounding perfectly cooked, juicy fillingTo toast the bread and cook the filling through simultaneously, we found that a medium-hot fire was best. We start cooking with the grill covered to promote rendering of the fat so that the bread crisps rather than dries out.
Fresh accompanimentA yogurt-tahini sauce serves as a cooling contrast to the rich meat.