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August 2011
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October 2011

John Willoughby's Tagine-Style Lamb Stew


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.



Within two days of arriving in Greece, all the worry and anxiety of the days before evaporated. We traveled by ferry from Athens to an island called Serifos, staying in a house that a cousin of my mother's lent to us. With no Internet connection and no phone line and hardly a soul around us, there was nothing to do but swim, read, contemplate the impossible beauty around us, eat sun-warmed figs plucked off the tree next to the front door, swim and read some more. Thank goodness.


I read five books in the first week. Actually, if we're going to get technical, five books in five days. Yes, this is the kind of crazed bookworm I am. If given some free time and a stack of books (or a Kindle, as the case may be), I will plow through them like a house on fire. Look out.


We walked through hilltop villages where everything was as white-cubed and blue-domed as in the picture books.


We held our breath as we swam, goggled, through crystal-clear water. We saw black sea urchins, holding on tightly to the rocks, and schools of fearless small fish that darted towards us again and again.


We met Greece's silent majority: Street cats.


We photographed every sunset and felt a million miles away from everything we'd left behind. It was just the two of us. Just the way it should be.


Whenever we saw horta on a menu, we ordered it. There was feta galore and there were tiny fried anchovies and, by the side of a small beach one day, a plate of pork meatballs that could redefine the genre. We dragged the meatballs through a smear of tzatziki and munched, hot, cold, crunchy, smooth, while we watched a teenager walk in from the water, a speared octopus in hand.


It occurred to me at some point that in my adult life, I have never had a vacation that lasted for two whole weeks. The Europeans are onto something here. As the days melted into another and I started forgetting if it was a Monday or a Thursday, I practically saw the tension lift off my body like steam and gently float away.


When our time on Serifos came to an end, we took leave of the impossibly clear water, the sprawling fig tree, the stone floors and the dirt road in front of the house and boarded a ferry, heading to Milos and then Santorini.


It was lovely there, but we missed the stark, lonely beauty of Serifos. Our quiet little beach. Our dirt road. Our fig tree. The sound of waves each night as we fell asleep.


But really, that's just splitting hairs. I still found it possible to fall more in love with my husband every single day. Feeling like I hit the jackpot for getting to spend the rest of my life with him. In fact, even when the trip came to an end, it was hard to feel sad. We got to go home together! Our lovely, cozy, homey home.


Honeymooning, man. It's pretty great. In fact, I've decided we'll be needing a honeymoon every year. Stopping at one just seems silly. Wouldn't you say?


I'll be back with new posts, recipes and more in a day or two. It's so good to be back.

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam


You know what's funny? It just occurred to me that in a little less than 24 hours, I'm going to be on my honeymoon in Greece. What's not so funny is that that sounds terrifying. Because in the meantime, sometime in the course of this day, I have to attach the manuscript of my book (at last count clocking in at just under 100,00 words) to an email and send it to my editor. And then I have to get up from my desk, turn off the computer and go away for two whole weeks.

Sometime soon, when I have a little more time, I'd love to tell you more about what a psychological trip this whole writing-a-book experience has been. There have been so many moments of absolutely hideous self-doubt, treacherous late-night thoughts about failure and a lot of real frustration, anger and sadness. But there have also been these strangely exhilarating moments, too, like the other night when I was really killing a chapter and I suddenly felt so seized with energy and power and happiness, yes, that my hands started to tremble as I typed.

That feeling, in that moment, was worth all of the other ugly stuff that came before. And right now, now that I'm scared stiff once again and am stuck trying to scrounge up a few more final words from my tired old brain and it's like squeezing water from a stone and I'm once again convinced that I am a hack and a fraud and should just go ahead and change my name to spare myself the humiliation of publication, I am trying to remember how glorious the other night felt.

Because that night I thought,

This feels so good that I never want to stop writing.

You guys, that was in the top five best feelings of my life, I'm sure of it. Right up there in the Number 2 spot.


I'm nowhere near done; my manuscript still needs a lot of work. There will be edits, rewrites, more edits, tears, self-doubt, misery and hopefully, along the way, a few more moments of that exhilarating happiness that crop up when you least expect them. But I did it. I got the first draft done, bird by bird, drip by drip.

I did it.

I did it.


Now because, as I mentioned, my brain right now is like a dry old stone, like a pumice stone that's been abandoned by the side of your bathtub for about three years and is practically cracking in half it's so dry, I'm going to keep the rest of this brief. (You have been so patient and so kind while I've been so quiet here lately that I feel awful leaving for two more weeks, but you understand, right? You know? That this isn't just a honeymoon for me and Max, but also the world's best-timed and most-needed vacation? That directly after pressing "send" on the most terrifying email of my life, I luckily have no choice but to go away and not turn on a computer for 13 whole blessed days?)

We are flying to Greece tomorrow to spend a week at a cousin's house on an island in the Cyclades and then, because we are honeymooners, we're going to spend an entire second week on the islands, too. Two entire weeks of vacation. I don't think I'll quite realize what kind of a luxury that is until we're there. We did not, when we booked the trip long before my appendicitis struck, have any idea that I would be writing up until the day before we left. I've never gone away on a vacation so unprepared. All I know is at what time the ferry to the island leaves Athens. I guess we'll figure out the rest when we get there.

A few weeks ago, back before I dove under entirely, I made a batch of this tomato jam. I'd come into some plum tomatoes for cheap and they were really good ones, thin-skinned and deep red and flavorful. I made the jam, barely paying attention, as with most things lately, other than writing. I filled two small jars with it and had just enough left to tide me over through lunch.


Tomato jam is a funny thing; sweet when you're expecting salty, savory when you're expecting sweet. I spread it on a piece of crusty bread and topped it with a fried egg, the gooey yolk sort of swimming into the hot, sweet jam. It made for a very tasty lunch-for-one-standing-up-at-the-counter and would have been an even better breakfast, especially if I had taken the time to sit down and eat like a civilized person. And perhaps added a few strips of bacon to the plate.

The original recipe says you have to consume the batch within a week or so, but I canned it with no ill effects by simply filling the very hot jam into sterilized jars, screwing the lids on tight and turning the jars upside-down until fully cooled.

I'm doing my best to hoard one jar for the depths of winter when we have no sun and no tomatoes and the pink sunsets that still steal across the sky these days are long gone. But I don't really get to complain yet. After all, I've got two weeks of sunshine awaiting me. Two weeks of beaches and books and walks and balanced meals and more tomatoes than I will probably know what to do with. Two weeks to spend time with Max and sleep in and go swimming and let the knot in my back unwind at last. Two weeks to remind myself every day that I did it, I did, and that that is the whole thing, the work, the accomplishment, the thing I set out to do. Two weeks to be grateful and happy for the chance.

And with that, I should go. I have to gather myself, have to let go, have to tell myself it's okay, have to tell myself to be proud, have to press send, have to howl with glee and terror, have to cry, just a little, have to pack, have to go.

I'll see you soon.

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam

Makes 2 small jars with a little left over
Click here for the original recipe

1.5 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon fresh grated or minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or cayenne 

1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.

2. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, then pour into hot, sterilized jam jars, screw the lids on and turn the jars upside down to cool completely.