Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mary Had A Little Lamb...well, Maybe Mitch Did

Lamb stew can be called by so many different names, in so many different languages. It can be a navarin, ragout or even a daube. It might be called mishmishiya in Egypt, where the name comes from the Arabic word for apricot, or mishmish; apricots make up a large part of the recipe. It can be a tagine in Morocco, both the name of the dish and the pot it's cooked in. And a calderete de cordero in parts of Spain. In Peru you might eat seco de cordero, lamb stew with vegetables, while lamb curries are popular in Africa, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, amongst other locales.

But whatever you call it, in whatever language you'd like, lamb stew is a great dish. Wanna use the neck or shoulder? Go right ahead. How about the breast? Be my guest. Is it a leg you prefer? Well, jump right in. That's what makes lamb stew so good (besides the taste) - you can use practically any part of the animal (though you wouldn't really want to use the loin) and be assured of a tasty, tender dish that will wow your friends and family. As a matter of fact, this month's issue of Saveur has a great cover and stories about lamb, and inside the mag is a pictorial guide to all the cuts of lamb - almost everything you need to know.

Me - I like the shoulder. The other day I popped over to my butcher, where I was able to procure basically the whole front part of a lamb - both shoulders and the neck, actually. I took both shoulders, about 10 pounds worth, and they were kindly boned out for me; the bones, of course, were used to make 2 quarts of delicious lamb stock...perfect to add another layer of flavor to my stew. Here's what I had to work with...

Now, after boning and trimming, I was looking at about 7 lbs. of shoulder, so I cut 5 lbs. into cubes for the stew, figuring that would be plenty for 8 guests, including Significant Eater and me.

The first step in making this stew is to brown the meat (you salted and peppered it first, right?) - and I mean, BROWN the meat. Don't skip this step or do it like a wuss. Brown the damn meat. It should look like this:

The whole process and reason for browning, which involves the Maillard reaction (thanks, Wiki), the cool technical term for, ummm, browning, is to add another layer of flavor to your stew. And it also creates a fond, another cool term (this time French) for the browned crap on the bottom of your pan. And as I said, you want brown, bordering on burnt. When you're done with all your browning, the pan should look like this:

That's some fond, baby. Now, of course you don't let the fond go to just went through all that trouble to make it. You need to deglaze the pan(s) that you've browned the meat in, with wine, stock or even water. If you don't know what deglazing is, it's heating the liquid in that same pan while scraping the bottom and getting all the fond up - it is like cleaning the pan, except you don't pour the results down the drain - instead, they go into the braise.

A cool thing to do is to use your mirepoix (there go the French again) to deglaze the this case, my diced onions and carrots, along with a couple of cloves of garlic, went into the pan...they release enough liquid while sweating to deglaze the pan. And then I added a cup and a half of white wine (you can use vermouth, too - Julia always did) and reduced it way down, put the meat back into the pan and added enough lamb stock to come about 2/3 of the way up the meat. I also added a bunch of parsley stems, a handful of thyme sprigs, a few black peppercorns and 2 bay leaves. Brought it to the simmer, covered and into a 325 degree oven for an 1 1/2 hours - after an hour, give it a good should look like this...

Next, remove the meat to a plate, and strain the liquid. That's gonna become the gravy/sauce/whatever for the stew. I like to refrigerate the gravy separately from the meat overnight; that way, all the fat will solidify at the top, and it can just be removed and tossed before finishing the stew. About an hour before serving, both the liquid and meat went back into a 4 quart pan, along with a couple of vegetables. Vegetables are a matter of choice, and for this particular stew, I precooked a bunch of small turnips and carrots. They were added after the stew came back up to a simmer, and heated along with the meat for the last 30 minutes or so.

Now, if your gravy isn't thick enough, there are a couple of tricks. I like to make a beurre maniƩ (trust me, the French know their stuff), and add a tablespoon or two to the sauce. It will thicken up in no time. When all is said and done, it will look like this...

Serve over some mashed potatoes, rice, noodles, whatever and be ready for the oohs and ahhs.

Oh...a couple of tips. I started out with 5 lbs. of boned and trimmed cubes and ended up with under 3 lbs. of meat. So, adjust accordingly - that's really only enough for 6 big eaters - if you're cooking for 8 or 10, I'd cook almost a pound of meat per person. Leftovers will not go to waste.

However, if you are starting with 10 bs. of meat and only cooking for 6, do what I did with the extra meat...grind it up and make some free-form merguez...these were as big a hit as the stew!

Lamb Stew (Serves 8)

6 lbs. boned, trimmed, lamb shoulder

2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot
1 1/2 cups white wine (or dry vermouth)
2 qts. lamb stock
6 cloves minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
handful parsley stems
8 thyme sprigs

For finishing the dish:

6 carrots, 2 inch pieces
8 turnips, quartered

Read the post above and follow those directions, please.


  1. You totally forgot to mention the native AMERICANS, who also make the stew all the time! ;) Although saying its a dish from Morocco or Spain sounds more appealing some how. My mom has made this since I was little and love it! I can't wait to try your recipe. Delicious!

  2. YUM. Merguez is becoming one of my favorite foods.

  3. dude. i made this in kansas city today to eat this weekend. used celery in the mirepoix, no carrots on hand. will post results, but i expect they'll be excellent
    don loncasty
    (recognize name?)