We came back from Greece, where the heat nearly felled us as we attempted to see the Acropolis, to a Berlin that had a chill in the air, not unlike the one that usually hits New York in early October. You know, when the sky is blue, but you find yourself needing not only a wool jacket, but a scarf, too, while brittle leaves crunch and scatter on the sidewalks. Okay, I thought, time to haul out the winter suitcase from the basement, time to put the warmer comforter on the bed, time to pick apples for apple butter and pull out the heavy pots for stew.
I couldn't stop thinking about my grandmother's pot roast, you see. Or about shredded pork. Lamb stew. Pot au feu served with hot mustard and grated horseradish. In other words, meat, meat and more meat. From one day to the next, salads and light dinners made up of flatbread and meze were out the window, gone the way of the mosquito and the drippy peach. Now was the time of thickened gravies and spoon-tender meats.
Well, at least until the next heatwave hit. Today, sitting in my office with hot sun streaming through the window, it feels a little silly to tell you about this lamb stew that requires cold temperatures and at least one article of wool clothing to be worn by the cook at the time of preparation. But I swear that last weekend it was just the thing to spoon over deep plates of couscous and eat, gathered at the table with friends who tried to guess every single ingredient in the pot.
Since that's a rather dull exercise anyway, I'm going to come straight out with it for you guys. It's a crazy mix. There's lamb shoulder and butter and onion. There is a trio of warm spices (cumin, coriander, cinnamon) and apricot jam and red wine vinegar and garlic. There are chickpeas and red pepper flakes, prunes and parsley. In short, this stew holds everything but the kitchen sink.
The recipe comes from John Willoughby's article in the New York Times on how to make savory stews without that tedious first step of browning meat (which, beyond the tedium, also spreads oily filth around my kitchen, irritating me to no end). (In fact, I'd say the step of browning meat is probably at the top of the list of reasons why I hardly ever, ever, ever buy meat to cook at home.) (Do you guys now think I'm insane for calling the gentle spatter of browning meat "oily filth"?) (Oh, parentheses, I like it in here.)
His lamb tagine has you basically simply dump all the ingredients into a pot at once before stewing everything together until the meat falls apart with a gentle nudge. Now here's the funny thing: I wanted to cook the stew for a dinner party on Saturday night, but because I didn't want to waste any time on Saturday cooking (my Saturday hours are preshus), I decided to make the stew the day before, figuring that all stews benefit from a little ripening. Wouldn't you say? But on Friday, as my stew-cooking drew to a close, I was rather taken back as I stared into a pot of lamb soup that looked absolutely nothing like the lush, moody photograph of the stew in the paper.
My stew was wan and gray, even a little thin. Vaguely gruel-like. Instead of looking like the kind of lusty fare you'd imagine gorgeous women in a harem feeding each other, my stew looked like boarding-school stew. (I've never attended boarding school, but I'm pretty sure I read every English book ever published on the subject before I turned 16 years old and have also been blessed with an active imagination. Therefore I am an authority. Also on Moroccan harems. Thank you, good night.)
Huh, I thought. That is peculiar.
Was my German lamb shoulder to blame? Or the low lighting in the photographer's studio? I stared at my tagine-style stew for quite a while on Friday afternoon, completely stumped. Food coloring? I thought. Molasses? Did I miss the red wine? Finally, at a loss, I resigned myself to serving our guests a grayish dinner. This hardly qualified as a kitchen disaster, but all the same, I told myself that worse things had happened. I'd survive the humiliation. It might even taste good. I put the stew in the fridge and went on my way.
The next evening, I pulled the pot out of the fridge and carefully scooped off the top layer of bright orange fat that had risen and solidified overnight. I don't think you have to do this step, but lamb fat can sometimes taste a little...barnyardy and I didn't want that adding to the already unfortunate visual. Then I started to warm the stew, adding chopped prunes instead of the apricots that the original recipe called for. They swelled and plumped in the fragrant gravy, adding sweetness to the air. Just before serving, I added lemon juice and some chopped parsley. Somewhere in a Moroccan harem, someone's stomach growled.
And wouldn't you know. In that last half hour, the stew changed color entirely, going all mahogany-colored with little shimmering dots of oil, bobbing chickpeas and nuggets of prunes and lamb in varying shades of rich, warm brown. Just like the photo. Just in time.
A few minutes later, doled out to a table of hungry guests who seemed especially charmed by the prunes, that whole pot of stew was gone. The chickpeas and prunes all velvety-soft, the lamb swollen with flavor. I even had to bring out spoons for some of our eaters who had been staring rather forlornly at the sweet-savory gravy, brightened by the lemon and parsley, pooled at the bottom of their plates after the couscous and bulk of the stew was eaten.
Just like a bunch of English boarding-school students, really, heading for warmer climes.
John Willoughby's Tagine-Style Lamb Stew
For the original recipe, click here.
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, grated (about 1/3 cup)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup apricot preserves
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 20-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped prunes
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Cooked couscous, for serving
1. Trim excess fat from the lamb and cut into 1-inch cubes. If your shoulder was sold to you with the bone and joint still in it, add it to the pot while you stew the meat for additional flavor (discard before serving).
2. In a Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the lamb, onion, garlic, pepper, salt, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, red pepper flakes, apricot preserves and vinegar and cook, stirring frequently, until the aroma of the spices is strong, about 5 to 7 minutes. (Do not allow the meat to brown.)
3. Add chickpeas and stock, bring just to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer gently until the lamb is very tender, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.
4. Twenty to thirty minutes before you're ready to serve, pull the pot from the fridge and gently scoop off the orange layer of fat that will have risen to the top. Put the pot over medium-low heat, adding the chopped prunes, and bring the stew to a very low simmer. Continue to cook, uncovered, until the pieces are nicely plumped, about 10 minutes more. Remove from heat, stir in the parsley and lemon juice, and serve with couscous.