Once again, I have to attribute the origin of yet another blog post to my better half. A couple of weekends ago, we were watching an episode of “Lidia’s Kitchen” on our local PBS channel. As she was cooking, I remarked that my only disappointment with Lidia Bastianich’s show is her neglecting to provide exact measurements for key ingredients to a dish.
While I continue to maintain she does it to promote sales of the cookbooks on which her shows are based, Andrew more forgivingly attributes it to Lidia’s being a “q.b.,” or “quanto basta,” chef, an expression found in Italian cookbooks that means “just enough” or “as much as you think you need.” However, when he recently surprised me with a copy of Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, which he “happened” to order after watching the aforementioned episode, I’m sticking to my “profit-motivated” position.
From the book, I chose to prepare her recipe for Lamb Stew with Saffron and Tomatoes, which appealed to me primarily for its use of saffron, a spice I always have on hand but seldom get around to using, but also for its relative simplicity and autumnal feel.
I must admit, however, that I found Lidia’s recipe confusing. I wasn’t quite sure whether the lamb was supposed to cook for 45 minutes or 75 minutes after the initial browning. Here’s the text that left me puzzled:
“Bring [the pot with lamb, garlic, tomatoes and seasonings] to a brisk simmer, and simmer, covered, until the lamb is tender, about 45 minutes. Add the saffron and water, and cook uncovered for the last 25 to 30 minutes to reduce the sauce so it glazes the meat.”
Were the 25 to 30 minutes part of the 45 minutes or in addition to them? Indeed, my lamb was nowhere near tender even after an hour. So, I chose to add the saffron and its steeping water after the first hour and then continued to cook the lamb for almost another 45 minutes.
While my cooking time may appear to some as excessive, I have to say that it yielded some of the most tender and juicy lamb I’ve ever had. Should you choose to prepare this recipe, test the meat for tenderness from time to time and let the meat, not the recipe, dictate the cooking time.
I also suggest that, unless you have a good butcher, rather than buying pre-cut meat, you start with a boneless shoulder of lamb and cut it yourself. Doing so will ensure having relatively even chunks of meat and less fat and gristle. To obtain the original recipe’s call for 2 pounds of shoulder chunks, I needed a 3¼ boneless roast.
We chose to serve the lamb accompanied by mashed potatoes blended with olive oil, butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and peas. They were perfect for sopping up the sauce’s deep and rich flavors.
Lamb Stew with Saffron and Tomatoes (adapted from Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking)
1 heaping teaspoon saffron threads (.020 ounces)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 ¼ to 3 ½ boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cartilage, and cut into 2-inch chunks. (This should yield approximately 2 pounds of chunks.)
2 ½ teaspoons Kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
½ teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes, or to taste
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand. (Reserve the can for use later.)
1. Steep the saffron threads in ½ cup hot water and set aside for at least 20 minutes.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.
3. Dry the lamb thoroughly with paper towels.
4. Season the lamb all over with 1 ½ teaspoons of the salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper.
5. When the oil is hot, add the lamb chunks and garlic. (Don’t over crowd the pan; if necessary do the browning in batches.) Sear the meat over medium to medium-high heat, adjusting the flame as necessary to brown the lamb on all sides, being careful not to burn the garlic. About 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Add the red flakes and distribute evenly.
7. Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices and the remaining teaspoon of salt. After adding the tomatoes, be sure to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
8. Slosh the tomato can out with 1 cup of hot water, and add that to the pot.
9. Over medium heat, bring to a brisk simmer, and simmer, covered, over low heat, until the lamb is tender. Depending on the lamb, this may take anywhere between 45 to 60 minutes. Test occasionally for tenderness with a fork.
10. Add the saffron and water, and cook uncovered for an additional 30 to 45 minutes to reduce the sauce so it glazes the meat. During this final cooking, adjust the flame as necessary between low and medium-high to reduce the sauce and achieve the glazing.
Serve in heated bowls, with crusty bread, polenta, or mashed potatoes.
Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir