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Mary Had a Little........

(post, Charles Pierce)


We were fortunate enough to be invited to a friend's house for dinner over the weekend which was a welcome event since our kitchen is still not finished and going out to eat all the time is becoming somewhat of a chore. This friend is an excellent cook and, without mentioning names, does so professionally at a very prestigious place. The main course was lamb and, of course, it was prepared expertly but simply with a wonderful sauce. It turns out that the lamb we had was from New Zealand, a huge exporter of this flavorful meat. One of the hosts grew up on a ranch so the discussion turned to how lamb is raised, butchered and cooked. All this talk of lamb piqued my curiosity and so I turned to the sage words of Richard Olney, an American food writer who lived most of his life in the South of France where, as is true in many parts of the Mediterranean, sheep has been the principle source of meat for thousands of years. Richard loved lamb and anyone who ever had the pleasure of sharing a meal with him at his simple yet alluring abode, nestled up in the hills of Provence on a wind-swept perch with an expansive view, will attest to his mastery of his cooking. I remember having a grilled chop, marinated with fine olive oil, pungent garlic and the most flavorful herbs you can imagine, while sitting under the canopy of an open dining area one summer's night years ago, thinking that if there is a heaven on earth, it must be here. The mistral was blowing an eeirie wind, the stars were bright and I was young and hungry. Hélas, I digress but I must say that it was there, during this particular meal that I really understood how good lamb could be. For whatever reason – maybe it was the climate, maybe because my father didn't like it or perhaps it just wasn't part of good Southern cooking – we never had lamb when I was growing up in Georgia. It was only when I went to France in my mid-20's that I came to love it so. 

Richard, in his book Simple French Cooking published in 1974, said in his usual cranky anti-American voice: "American habits of cutting lamb are a windfall to the stewmaker and disaster for the roaster." He actually has a point. Our cuts are different. Richard was also the chief consultant for the Time-Life Good Cook series of books that were published in the late 1970's/early 1980's. (These are wonderful books that cover a multitude of foods from candy to offal in 25-or so set of volumes. They are long out of print but I've seen some at yard sales and in old book stores lately. Snatch them up if you seem one --- each is a wealth of information and good recipes.) In the lamb book of this series, he says that American lamb comes from English breeds rather than the more flavorful breeds common in Europe. He also points out that most sheep are raised in the American West, where Spanish explorers introduced the animals as far back as the 16th century. These sheep, known as churros,  multiplied into huge flocks that populated the ranches of 17th and 18th century when dons ruled the Southwest. Most of these sheep were tended by men from the Basque country who emigrated there "to earn their fortunes by following their traditional shepherd's calling." 

It's in the butchering that our lamb is so different. European butchers cut along the muscle and bones, following the shape of the carcass. Americans make more use of electrical saws that cut across the fiber. Many cooks think that this divides the natural joints causing shrinkage and less juiciness. (For a look at how lamb gets from the farm to the consumer, have a look at  chef Geoff Gardner's great butchering article at Starchef.) 

Although most lamb today is bred for tenderness, American lamb tends to be slaughtered a little later than in some countries and older lamb is tougher and more gamy. Look for labels that say "spring" lamb, however, and you can't go wrong. Mutton, which comes from sheep that are over about 18 months, is hard to find and not very popular. That's a shame as mutton makes good stew and soup.

Speaking of stews, why not celebrate spring with that most wonderful of Fresh dishes, a navarin, or ragout of lamb made with potatoes and seasonal vegetables. It's easy to do in advance, it's not expensive to make and it tastes good. And since Mr. Olney (who, incidentally, died a few years ago), thinks that American lamb is so good for stew, let's take him up on it, use it for our navarin and pat ourselves on the back for "buying American!" 

This recipe is adapted from one we use to use at LaVarenne, the cooking school I went to in France. I like to use shoulder of lamb for stews. I buy it with the bone in and butcher it myself. That way you get nice large pieces rather smaller ones that seem to be the norm when this process has already been done. Notice that I cook all the vegetables separately. Yes, this is somewhat of a pain-in-the-neck but the results are worth the effort. Each component is properly done and the stew is not mushy. You can do it in steps over a couple of days to make the process easier. 

Navarin d'Agneau à ma façon

Serves 4 to 6

For the stew:
2 pounds boned lamb stew meat, preferably from the shoulder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tablespoons flour
2 to 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large garlic clove, crushed
Several sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the vegetables:
1 1/2  pounds small new potatoes, peeled
12 small pearl onions, peeled (or thawed frozen pearl onions)
2 medium tomatoes
2 large carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup fresh green peas or half of a 10-ounce package frozen green peas, thawed

1. To prepare the stew, preheat the oven to 425°F. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. In a large, covered casserole, melt the butter with the oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the lamb (a few pieces at a time) and cook until browned on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to a bowl or platter and pour off all but about a tablespoon of the fat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Return the lamb to the casserole and sprinkle over the flour. Stir well and place the casserole in the oven and cook, uncovered, until the flour is lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the casserole and let cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 375°F. Add the enough of the chicken broth to cover the meat in the casserole. Add the tomato paste,  the garlic and the herbs. Stir well, cover and return to the oven. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, about 1 hour.

2. Remove the meat to a bowl or platter and skim off the fat from the surface of the cooking liquid. (If the sauce appears to be too thin, thicken it using a mixture of 2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons flour blended with fingers to form a paste. Bring the liquid to a boil on top of the stove and add pea-size bits of the paste, whisking constantly, until thickened and smooth). Return the meat to the casserole and set aside while preparing the vegetables. 

3.Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by about an inch. Add salt and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook until tender, 10- 15 minutes. (This might vary according to the size and shape of the potatoes. Cook them until softened but not mushy). Drain and add to the casserole with the lamb.

4. Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes and add to the casserole. 

5. If using fresh pearl onions, cook in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and add to the casserole. (I have no qualms using the frozen ones. After years of pealing pearl onions, painstakingly so I must say, I've come to appreciate the convenience of the frozen ones and the price you pay in loss of flavor is small). 

6. Place the carrots in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain under cold running water and add to the casserole. 

7. Cook the peas in a couple of tablespoons butter with salt until tender and add to the casserole. Of stir in thawed frozen peas. 

8. Once all of the vegetables are added, place the casserole on top of the stove and heat gently over  low heat, stirring to distribute the heat. (You might have to add a little broth or water if the stew looks dry but not too much or the binding sauce will be too thin). Season with salt and pepper. Serve right from the casserole while hot.