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.
Looking through a number of recently acquired cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a Tuscan beef stew called peposo (peppery) owing to its liberal use (up to 6 tablespoons) of black pepper. As I researched the recipe both in my books and online, my mouth started to water. But the more I read, the more it appeared that this tasty dish was better suited for winter than early summer. So, I placed peposo on the back burner and began to search for a more seasonal recipe, which eventually led me to Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s insightful collection of authentic recipes, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.
I know that braised meat dishes serve typically as cold-weather fare, but I had some lamb shanks in the freezer that were reaching their use-by date. Moreover, since I usually prepare lamb for Easter dinner, I thought that Mario Batali’s recipe for “Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes” from his book Molto Batali was a good choice.
What I found interesting about the recipe was the absence of any herbs. So many lamb recipes use at least one, most often rosemary, but this had none. Even the seasoning was minimal: just salt and pepper. In addition, I was intrigued by the addition of red grapes at the end of cooking, which I thought would serve the same role as a mint sauce or red-currant jelly does with a lamb roast. I should perhaps note that until my husband mistook a garlic clove for a grape, I hadn’t realized that I had failed to stir in the grapes at the end of cooking. Consequently, I stirred them into the sauce after serving and then placed a few on each plate.
“Serve immediately. . .” When I read these words at the end of Lidia Bastianich’s recipe “Lamb Chunks with Olives” in Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, I had second thoughts about preparing this dish—especially since it was for a first-time dinner guest. I didn’t want to be cooking after our guest arrived or while cocktails were being served, and now I wasn’t sure if this stew-like dish could be prepared ahead.
Moreover, an online review claiming that, although tasty, “the lamb was not tender,” gave me additional pause. While other recipes for stewing lamb shoulder called for up to 90 minutes of cooking time after browning the meat, Lidia’s recipe appeared to require only 45 to 50 minutes in total.
While paging through an old cookbook the other day, I came upon a printout of a recipe that I found in December 2006. Titled, “Roast Lamb for One,” it was Nigella Lawson’s recipe for roasting a single lamb shank, a perfect meal for the bachelor that I was back then and why I had tucked it away.
No longer single, however, I decided to double the recipe and make roast lamb for two. The only ingredient that I didn’t have was a red currant jelly for the finishing sauce, so I decided to check out the recipe online to see if any readers had suggested an alternative. That’s when I discovered that the recipe had received a considerable number of negative reviews that shared a common problem; in the words of one reviewer: “. . . just a burnt mess on the bottom of the pan and no juices left at all to make a gravy. The meat was nowhere near tender. . .”
Inspired by a recent post on Diane Darrow’s blog, Another Year in Recipes, last night I prepared its featured recipe, Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary. Because I had by accident left my rosemary at the market, I substituted fresh chopped thyme, supplemented by some herbes-de-Provence infused sea salt. Nevertheless, the dish turned out splendidly. The lamb was the proverbial fall-off-the bone tender and was smothered in silky, buttery onions. The deeply flavored braising juices were deliciously soaked up by some whole-wheat couscous.
Owing to time constraints, we didn’t take any photos until after the lamb was cooked. However, the photos we took come close to conveying exactly how good this braise was.
At the end of her post, Darrow wondered why lamb has become so unpopular in the US. Indeed, since the early 60s, when per-person lamb consumption was about 4.5 pounds per year, today it hovers around 1 pound. In the comments section, readers suggested several reasons ranging from lamb’s gamey flavors to its high price and even to its limited availability.
Like Darrow, I too am puzzled about lamb’s decline in popularity here. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, at home I was served more lamb than beef. A roast leg of lamb was often the main course of a Sunday supper; broiled lamb chops with lemon wedges were a frequent weeknight meal; and one of my favorites was my aunt’s lamb breast stuffed with eggs, cheese, and herbs.
Maybe with the arrival of the more affordable New Zealand lamb in our supermarkets we may see an increase in consumption. In any event, I’ll be posting plenty of lamb dishes here.
Having now lived in San Diego for just over a year, I’ve come to accept as a given that we really don’t have the typical four seasons here. Sure there are some changes as the year goes by, but the variations in weather are never as dramatic as in New York. Recently, when our local weather reporter announced that fall had arrived, she claimed there was a “chill in the air.” “Chill!” I shouted back at the television, “It’s 69 degrees and sunny.”
Despite Mother Nature’s lack of cooperation here, I’m determined to keep seasonality in my kitchen throughout the year by cooking the same seasonal dishes here that I did in New York.
Such was the case last night, when I chose to prepare an Abruzzese lamb stew from a recipe I found in the “Fall” section of Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. (The book is now available in a Kindle version on Amazon.)
Like many authentic Italian recipes, it uses only a few ingredients and requires minimal preparation. In fact, the only work I had to do was to slice some onion, chop some parsley, and toss it into a heavy-bottomed casserole together with a little olive oil, a few sage leaves, and a couple of pinches of salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir everything together, cover, and set over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. That was it.
I must admit, however, that the recipe caused me some concern. I read it several times. Where. I thought, was the cooking liquid? No wine? No stock? Not even water? No browning of the meat? The authors did say it was “close to effortless,” so I took them at their word. I decided that if things didn’t look right after the first 30 minutes of cooking, I’d add some wine to the pot.
But after the first half hour of cooking, I was happy to find that the lamb had started to exude what looked like an adequate amount of its juices and the thinly sliced onions had softened. To maintain a moist cooking environment, I limited my stirring to every 30 minutes. Each time I uncovered the pot, everything looked right; the meat was browner, the juices a little darker and more concentrated, and the aroma. . . ah . .We couldn’t wait to sit down to dinner.
I followed the recipe pretty closely; however, because I was unable to get bone-in stew meat or a peperoncino rosso, I settled for boneless lamb chunks and substituted crushed red pepper flakes. Moreover, since I was cooking only for two, I reduced the amount of meat from 3 pounds to 2; also given the size of my casserole, I added an extra tablespoon of oil. I also thought that the dish could use a little more salt than the recipe called for, but that’s always a matter of individual taste. Finally, I opted for polenta to capture the dish’s sauce rather than toasted bread.
Ultimately, this had to be one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever made. With so few ingredients, the flavors of the lamb were robust and were nicely complemented by the sweetness of the onion and the heat of the red pepper. The rich sauce was deeply flavored and went perfectly with a simple polenta.
Abruzzese Lamb Stew (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds boneless lamb stew meat (do not dry the meat; the stew needs its moisture.)
1 cup thinly sliced onion
4 large fresh sage leaves
3 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
Place all the ingredients in a heavy bottomed casserole. Stir to coat the meat and the onions with the oil and evenly distribute the ingredients.
Set over low heat and cook for 2 hours, stirring about every 30 minutes.
When the lamb is tender, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on warmed plates or a platter. Optionally, skim off any excess fat from the sauce and pour it over the lamb. Serve with polenta or toasted country bread.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese, or if like me you prefer well done lamb with a dry white, opt for an Abruzzese Pecorino or a Sauvignon Blanc.
While today’s recipe may not readily be associated with late spring, it turned out to be the perfect dish for a mildly chilly San Diego evening. The real impetus behind it though was an incredible sale on lamb shanks at the supermarket that I couldn’t pass up.
When I started to look for recipes I immediately turned to books for slow cookers, but then I came across one for a slow oven braise by Ina Garten that adds orzo to the dish in the final step. As with the aforementioned sale, I couldn’t pass it up.
One thing I realized after making this dish is just how different lamb tastes when braised in the oven for two and a half hours as opposed to being cooked in a slow cooker for eight. Although I can’t deny the convenience of the latter method, the former yields in my opinion a better textured lamb with deeper flavor.
The recipe is from Garten’s cookbook Barefoot Contessa Foolproof but can also be found on the Food Network’s website. My only variations were substituting olive oil for the recipe’s grapeseed oil and, as I was cooking for two, halving the number of lamb shanks. Note that I did not reduce any of the other ingredients as I figured any left-over orzo would make a good weeknight supper.
1 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 lamb shanks (1 to 1 1/2 pounds each)
3 or more tablespoons grapeseed oil (I substituted olive oil.)
2 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cups chopped yellow onions (2 to 3 onions)
2 cups medium-diced carrots (4 to 5 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced celery (3 stalks)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, including the liquid
2 cups canned beef broth
1 1/2 cups dry white wine, plus extra for serving
2 bay leaves
2 cups orzo (Use a good quality orzo that will stand up to long cooking.)
1-Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2-Combine the flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and dredge the lamb shanks in the mixture, shaking off the excess.
3-In a large (13-inch) Dutch oven such as Le Creuset, heat 3 tablespoons of the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add 2 lamb shanks and cook for 10 minutes, turning every few minutes, until browned on all sides. Transfer the shanks to a plate, add more grapeseed oil, and brown the remaining 2 shanks. (Don’t rush this step; make sure to get a good brown on the lamb.)
4-Wipe out the Dutch oven with a paper towel, add the olive oil, and heat over medium to medium-high heat. (Do not be tempted to skip this step as it really does reduce the amount of fat in the final dish.)
5-Add the onions, carrots, celery, and rosemary and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute.
6-Add the tomatoes, beef broth, wine, 4 teaspoons salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper. Add the lamb shanks, arranging them so they’re almost completely submerged in the liquid. Tuck in the bay leaves and bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
7-Cover the pot and place it in the oven for 2 hours, turning the shanks once while they cook.
8-Stir in the orzo and return the lamb shanks to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the orzo is cooked and the lamb shanks are very tender. Discard the bay leaves, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of white wine, and taste the orzo for seasonings. Serve hot.
Last week, we acquired a new (“used” would be more accurate) kitchen appliance, a vintage Farberware open-hearth grill and rotisserie. Actually it is a replacement for the one I had in storage, which hurricane Sandy “washed” away a while back. I came across this one on e-bay while I was searching for something totally unrelated to cooking, which made me feel that fate brought us together.
The fact that this rotisserie cooks a hefty roast or whole chicken without any smoke and a minimum amount of heat and is easy to clean and store makes it perfect for a NYC-apartment kitchen, where smoke alarms are overly sensitive and space is at a premium.
The first food I cooked on this one is the same that I made on my last one: a roast boneless leg of lamb. Because I wasn’t sure if this used appliance would work, we didn’t take any photos of the lamb and its preparation until its final minutes of cooking. But after a little more than an hour of steadily turning over the glowing cooking element, the roast was a thing of beauty.
The recipe I used is by Joshua Bousel on Seriouseats.com and is relatively simple. That it uses only a marinade to flavor and baste the meat, as opposed to making holes in the meat for stuffing it with herbs and garlic, keeps the leg juicer during cooking on the spit. Basting it every fifteen minutes with some reserved marinade and a brush made from fresh herbs also helps. While the original recipe is for an outdoor gas grill/rotisserie, I adapted it for my indoor one.
Because we had plenty of meat left over from this 4.5-pound roast, I turned to one of my older cookbooks for a recipe. Published in 1967, a time when America seemed to rediscover serious cooking, Michael Field’s Culinary Classics and Improvisations is a collection of classic recipes for meats, poultry, fish, and vegetables, each of which is followed by a variety of improvisations for the leftovers from the classic dish. Many of these improvisations, like the one I chose for my leftover lamb, reflect America’s fascination at that time with international cuisine. Today, however, many may question these recipes’ authenticity or their ethnic accuracy. Yet one must remember that when Field wrote his book, a lot of the imported ingredients and spices we readily find today, not only in gourmet shops but even in supermarkets, were not widely available.
Field titled this improvisation for leftover roasted lamb, “Lamb in a Skillet with Fresh Tomatoes, Scallions, and Parsley in the Turkish Style.” I must confess that I cannot explain what is Turkish about this dish. Nonetheless, it has long been one of my favorites for repurposing a leftover roast.
In his recipe, Field calls for peeled, seeded, and cut tomatoes and provides instructions for peeling. However, while I cut and seeded the tomatoes as directed, I opted to skip the peeling.
Lamb in a Skillet with Fresh Tomatoes, Scallions, and Parsley in the Turkish Style (from Michael Field’s Culinary Classics and Improvisations)
2 cups roast leg of lamb cut into ¾- to 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into julienne strips 1 inch by ½ inch
½ cup scallions, cut into paper-thin rounds (include some of the green stem also)
½ cup parsley (flat-leaf is possible), coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon peel, grated
Combine in a small bowl the pieces of lamb, the chopped garlic, salt to taste, and the freshly ground pepper. Mix together thoroughly.
Choose a 10-inch traditional sauté pan or any deep heavy frying pan attractive enough to bring to the table.
Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan until it almost begins to smoke. Add the seasoned lamb and, over high heat, brown the pieces quickly, turning them with a large spoon or spatula for about 8 minutes, taking care not to let them burn.
Toss in the tomato strips* and, stirring continuously, cook them for about 3 minutes with the lamb; they should be barely cooked through and should retain more than a hint of their original texture and freshness.
With a spatula, push the meat and tomatoes toward the center of pan and surround them with the scallions and parsley, arranged in a ring. Sprinkle meat with the lemon peel and cover the pan tightly.
Turn off the heat and let the residual heat in the pan warm the herbs through. Serve directly from the pan after about 5 minutes.
Lemon quarters are the perfect accompaniment to the lamb and French or Italian bread should be served to sop up the tomato and herb-flavored olive oil.
*Note: To prepare the tomatoes, drop them into boiling water for about ten minutes. Peel them at once and cut them into quarters. Run a small sharp knife under the pulp of each quarter and cut it away, leaving the thin outer shell of the tomato. Cut the shells into julienne strips and use the tomato pulp for other purposes.
As I said earlier, I skipped the blanching and peeling of the tomatoes to preserve their texture. I also added a bit of cumin to the initial seasoning of the lamb and, as may be seen in the photos, took some liberties with measuring the ingredients. Finally, rather than serving bread, I opted for basmati rice to sop up the delicious sauce.
You’ve probably been counseled by other food bloggers or cooking enthusiasts to let what looks good on any given day at your market determine what you’ll cook that night. I more or less agree with this advice, but I must admit that it definitely helps to have high-quality markets nearby. Fortunately, I live in downtown New York, where I’m surrounded by some of the city’s finest fish mongers, green grocers, and butchers, which makes being inspired by their offerings relatively easy.
Such was the case the other day when I went to my butcher, Dickson’s Farmstand Meats located in Chelsea Market, looking for inspiration. They’re know for locally sourced, humanely raised meats, and I wasn’t there long before I espied and bought some meaty lamb shanks.
As I walked home, I started to consider how to prepare them. For me, braising was the obvious choice, but I wasn’t quite sure what to braise them with. So when I got home, I looked through some of my go-to books for braising and found an appealing recipe in Michele Scicolone’s The Mediterranean Slow Cooker: “Lamb Shanks with Sweet and Sour Onions.”
The recipe calls for just a few ingredients with which to cook the lamb: red onions, garlic, rosemary, red wine, and balsamic vinegar.
The minimal prep also made the recipe attractive: browning the onions and then combing them with the garlic (minced), the rosemary (chopped), the red wine (dry), and the balsamic vinegar. Since the vinegar plays a leading role in flavoring this dish, I recommend using a good quality balsamic.
Cooked on low for 8 hours, the shanks become tender and succulent and their distinctive meaty flavors are perfectly complemented by the sweet-and-sour onions and braising liquid.
I served the shanks with polenta, made creamy with butter, cream, and Parmigiano Reggiano.