When I get invited to parties by close friends, I am often encouraged to bring a dish or to come early help out with cooking. It’s such a pleasure to have the ability to contribute to the meal, and I’m usually happiest in the kitchen, anyway. When the wife of one of my closest friends asked me if I’d be interested in bringing a lamb dish to his birthday dinner, I was thrilled to help out. I remembered seeing a recipe that looked amazing in my copy of Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table, and decided to give it a go. I was (over)due for a Dark Days meal as well, so made sure to use local produce and lamb from a local Sonoma producer.
The recipe looked really interesting–who would have thought of mint, cardamom and curry in a French recipe? I did end up making a few changes from the original recipe. I started out by browning the meat before cooking down the onions–the recipe called for adding them to the onions and spices instead. There were 3 lbs of meat, so I just wanted to be sure it got that lovely flavor going from the browning. The key to good browning is to keep the meat from getting too crowded, as you see above. For the 3 lbs of lamb meat, I did four rounds of browning. After each batch, just set it aside to rest. One you’re done, remove the last of the lamb and start cooking the aromatics. I also decided to add a few other local ingredients, as I had some local parsnips and sweet potatoes that needed to be used. So I cut the number of fingerling potatoes in half, added a cubed sweet potato and tossed in a few parsnips as well. They were a great addition, and also helped to stretch the stew for a crowd.
One of the nice parts of starting with the lamb is that you have a dark and flavorful fond–the brown crusty goodness that develops in the bottom of the pan–that creates a lovely depth of flavor in the meal when it breaks down into the liquid. All of the spices, garlic and onions go in, and cook down until the onions soften, about what you see above. Then toss in the seared lamb, potatoes and onions, and enough water to cover, and you’re almost there. When I initially read the recipe, I was surprised to see the addition of honey, apples and figs to a stew like this. I was uncertain how I would like those sweet flavors initially, but then I thought of the age-old tradition of pairing lamb with mint jelly, and figured I’d trust Dorie. I’m so glad I did. The sweet was just right, and really paired well with the gaminess of the lamb.
The diced apples went in along with a couple tablespoons of local honey. The recipe called for dried figs, but I didn’t have access to local dried figs, so I used a few tablespoons of local fig jam I had made earlier this fall. The recipe is pretty simple after that. I started it cooking on my stove, closed up the cast iron pan and swaddled it in kitchen towels, and drove it 45 minutes north of Oakland to my friends’ home, where it finished cooking.
My only problem was that the party–as parties often do–didn’t quite start on time, and we ended up eating about and hour and a half later than planned. I was a bit worried, as the pan stayed simmering on the stove that whole time. Though aesthetically it wasn’t as pretty, since the potatoes and apples broke down into the sauce, the dish still tasted fantastic. This was a discerning crowd (a lot of folks who work in the Napa wine and restaurant industry), and I heard many rave reviews for the stew. We served it over the birthday boy’s legendary polenta, and I saw many folks take seconds. This is my favorite kind of party food–prep and begin cooking well in advance, then it’s waiting for you when you are ready to eat. It’s also wonderful for winter weekends like this one!
Braised Lamb with Cardamom and Curry
Adapted with a few changes from Around My French Table
1 small bunch mint (about 6 sprigs)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil (to brown the meat)
3 pounds boneless lamb leg or shoulder, fat removed, cut into 1-inch cubes and patted dry
2 large onions, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
2½ tablespoons curry powder (I used Madras, as Dorie recommended, and it was lovely)
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
4 crushed cardamom pods (optional)
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
3 parsnips, peeled and sliced on a bias
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 2″ squares
5 small potatoes (like fingerlings) cut in half or quarters
1 cup water
2 teaspoons honey (optional)
3 dried figs, sliced (I used my local fig jam, as I didn’t have local dried figs handy)
2 tart-sweet apples (I used pippins)
Preliminaries: Tie the mint stems in a bundle with kitchen twine. Pull off the mint leaves (reserve the stems) and chop the leaves.
Put a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat and pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. When it’s hot, brown the lamp in 3-4 batches. Remove the lamb to rest, then stir in the onions, garlic, curry, cardamom powder and optional cardamom pods (I ground mine in a mortar and pestle). Heat, stirring, just until the onions are translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then pour in the water, toss in the mint bundle, and stir in half of the chopped mint, and, if you’re using them, the honey and figs. Scatter the potatoes, parsnips and apples over the meat, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, put a piece of aluminum foil over the casserole, and cover it with the lid. Braise for 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes, or until the meat and potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of knife. Check at the one-hour to see if it needs more liquid: ideally, the stew will not be watery at all, but will still have a bit of a thick sauce.
Taste the juice and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Sprinkle over the remaining chopped mint.