A MIDDLE EASTERN FEAST Marinated lamb with timbales magically turns evening barbecue into one exotic Arabian night

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When a group of culinary professionals was asked to name the most important ingredient for a successful party, their unanimous answer was: Guests should have a good time. For most of us, good times are synonymous with casual ones. Gathering friends in the backyard around a flaming grill is a relaxed and fun way to entertain. But when a theme is added, success is guaranteed.

Call your friends and invite them to this Middle Eastern style barbecue, as you always do. Or, mail an invitation written on brown paper with burnt edges requesting they lift off on their magic carpet for an Arabian Nights barbecue. You might even browse through your local import store for a small genie bottle and roll the invitation up and insert it into the neck. Guests will know they are in for an extraordinary evening when they receive an invitation in a small box in the mail.

Add sparkle to the table by strewing costume jewelry -- necklaces, bracelets, pins, jeweled belts -- from ornate boxes or bowls, or use copper or brass trays or plates. Drape colorful Oriental, Indian or Arabic fabrics down the center of the table and nestle shimmery trinkets in the folds.

The menu for this affair is filled with recognizable flavors in new combinations. The appetizer shrimp are marinated in three citrus juices -- lime, lemon and orange -- with a touch of garlic, tarragon and Pernod. They are grilled on skewers and at the last minute, coated lightly with a sprinkling of feta cheese. They are great accompanied by thin, crunchy slices of garlic toast.

When lamb is marinated overnight in yogurt and creme de menthe, it becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender and very mild. When you purchase a boned, butterflied leg, it may remind you of a hilly road in need of repair. But when grilled, the bumpy terrain results in varied degrees of doneness, ensuring that your guests receive their choice. The lusty, fig-studded sauce is a bonus to further dress up the meat. It can be made ahead and frozen.

Couscous, a granular form of semolina wheat popular in the Middle East, is among the fastest grains to prepare. To mold into timbales, pack the mixture into small paper cups, refrigerate them until firm, then turn out onto a plate and heat in the microwave.

Serve this menu with a refreshing salad. For the sweet tooth, make or purchase baklava, and offer sliced dates mixed with summer fruits and melons topped with a sprinkling of pistachios.

This dinner is designed to serve eight, but can be doubled to serve 16. Note that during these dog days of summer, none of these recipes need to be baked; the kitchen chef remains cool, while the grill chef feels the heat.

To further ensure your guests' good time, serenade them with Scheherazade or In a Persian Market.

Shrimp mezze

with citrus and feta

Makes 8 servings.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Marinade time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Grill time: 3 to 5 minutes

1 1/2 pounds extra large or jumbo raw shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails left on (about 32 extra large or 16 jumbo)

3 tablespoons orange juice

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Pernod

2 teaspoons dried tarragon

freshly ground pepper to taste

about 1/3 cup feta cheese, finely crumbled

lime wedges for garnish

Using 8 skewers, thread 4 large or 2 jumbo shrimp on each. (If using wooden skewers, cut them to fit.) Place skewers in a shallow non-metal dish. To make the marinade, in a small bowl whisk together the juices, oil, garlic, Pernod, tarragon and pepper. Spoon over shrimp, turning to coat both sides. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Turn and marinate at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes more.

While shrimp marinates, soak mesquite, apple or other wood chips for 1 hour before grilling. Prepare coals. Add wood chips. Grill shrimp 3 to 4 inches from hot coals, covered, for 3 to 5 minutes on one side; timing will depend on the size of the shrimp. Turn, sprinkle with feta, pressing it in lightly, cover and cook for 3 to 5 minutes longer or until cooked through. Do not overcook. Serve from skewers or on small plates. Garnish with lime wedges.

The lamb marinates overnight, so be sure to plan accordingly.

Grilled leg of lamb

' with cabernet fig sauce

Makes 8 servings.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Grill time: 16 to 20 minutes

Advance prep: Marinate lamb overnight. Sauce can be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen.

FOR THE LEG OF LAMB:

1 boned and butterflied leg of lamb (4 to 5 pounds net weight)

2 cups plain low- or non-fat yogurt

3/4 cup light creme de menthe liqueur

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

salt to taste

FOR THE CABERNET FIG SAUCE:

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 bay leaf

1 medium leek, diced into 1/4 -inch pieces (about 1 cup)

1 cup dried figs, stems removed, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (figlets preferred)

1 1/4 cups chicken broth

2 cups cabernet sauvignon

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water

salt and pepper to taste

Place lamb in large zipper plastic bag or shallow, non-metal dish. In a medium bowl, mix yogurt, liqueur and pepper. Pour over lamb, turning to coat both sides. Close bag or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate

overnight, turning once.

To make the sauce, heat oil in a medium saucepan over moderately high heat. Add bay leaf, leeks and figs; saute, stirring for 4 minutes. Stir in chicken broth, wine and honey. Lower heat and boil gently until reduced to about 2 3/4 cups, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cornstarch paste. Return to heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (The sauce may be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen. Reheat before serving.)

One hour before grilling, remove lamb from marinade and blot dry with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Soak wood chips in water. Prepare coals. When hot, add soaked wood chips. Grill lamb covered 3 or 4 inches from coals for 8 to 10 minutes per side. Do not overcook; the meat will continue to cook off the heat. The thin parts should be medium-well, thick parts rare. Let rest 5 minutes and slice thinly. Pass sauce.

Couscous timbales

( with chick peas, walnuts

Makes 8 servings.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Microwave time: 2 to 4 minutes

Advance prep: Refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen.

1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped

8 walnut quarters or large pieces

1 cup couscous

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 can (8 ounces) garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained ( 3/4 cup)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 cups boiling water

4 green onions including tops, finely chopped ( 1/2 cup)

5-ounce paper cups for molding

Toast chopped and quartered walnuts in toaster oven or regular oven at 350 degrees until golden, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, stir couscous, oil, cumin, salt, chick peas, lemon juice and boiling water in 3-quart microwave safe bowl. Microwave uncovered on high (full power) for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir, cover and let plump at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Place a walnut quarter or large piece in the bottom of eight 5-ounce paper cups. Sprinkle a light layer of green onions around the nut. Stir remaining green onions and chopped walnuts into couscous. Place scant 1/2 -cup mixture into each cup, packing it down. If serving immediately at room temperature, invert onto serving plates.

(The cups may be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen. Defrost in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature at least 1 hour before serving. Invert onto microwave-safe plate, arranging them around the outer edge. Before serving, place plate in microwave and heat on high for 2 to 4 minutes or until heated through, rotating the plate after each minute.)

Marlene Sorosky is the author of five cookbooks. Her book "Season's Greetings" will be rereleased in September.

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