The winter has pulled its misty blanket down over the coast and the time of inward has begun. I used to dislike this season and pine for the long sunny days of summer but now I rather enjoy this quiet time full of long luxurious nights and hearty nurturing food.
My favorite of these hearty foods are the slow cooked ones like stews, soup, and braises. These long cooked foods reflect the season in how everything seems to slow down and take its time with a delicious outcome. They need the same thing as winter; patience and a low slow fire. The process of taking humble ingredients such as tattered veggies, a tough cut of meat, spices, and liquid to make an aromatic flavorful dish is nothing short of magic.
There are a few secrets to making this magic happen in the pot. The first important trick is to brown the meat. This adds an intense rich depth of flavor to the dish that isn’t achieved any other way. The important safety tip to this is to actually brown the meat and not sweat it. If you sweat it, it makes for very tough meat in your pot no matter how long you cook it.
Brown your meat at high heat and in small batches with stew pieces so make sure the pieces have plenty of room in the pot to brown. The easier way to do this is with a whole piece of meat like a lamb shank or a chuck roast. Using a whole piece of meat will technically make it a “braise” opposed to a stew. (I love braises!) If you don’t have the patience to brown the meat right, just don’t do it at all. This way you won’t get tough chewy meat but you won’t have the depth of flavor either.
Next you want to de-glaze the pan with a flavorful liquid, like broth or wine, add your spices and veggies, tuck the meat in and wait. The secret for a flavorful stew or braise is cooking it for a long time at a very low heat with the lid on. This condenses the flavors like no other way of cooking.
I recommend a heavy pot like a cast iron dutch oven. If you don’t have one, invest in one. Seriously, they will change your life. You can spend as much on a dutch oven as you want from the fancy pants “Le Creuset” at $250 to the work horse Kirkland (Costco) at about $80. I have the Kirkland and just love it. (You can use a slow cooker for these meals as well just set on low for 6-8 hours.)
I also recommend using dried herbs and spices. Fresh herbs do not hold up to the long slow cook and virtually disappear. If you want to add fresh herbs, do it at the end to preserve the flavor like I have done in this Moroccan lamb braise. It is such a brilliant dish and even though it has many spices in it, the long slow cook brings them together in perfect balance. (And the aroma while it is cooking will fill your senses!) Settle in and enjoy a lovely slow winter’s meal.
- The meat
- 1 TBS of cumin
- 2 tsp of coriander
- 1.5 tsps of salt
- 2 tsps of fennel seed
- ½ tsp of cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp of smoked or sweet paprika
- ½ tsp of ground black pepper
- 4 lamb shanks
- OR 2 pounds of lamb stew meat
- 2-4 TBS of coconut oil or another high heat oil
- The rest
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 2 TBS of tomato paste
- 2 cups of broth, chicken or beef (preferably bone broth)
- 1 cup of dried apricots, cranberries or chopped dates
- 1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 TBS of finely grated fresh ginger
- Zest of one lemon
- Juice of one lemon
- 1TBS of honey
- Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro
- This is going to be fun and delicious! Mix the first 6 spices together in a shallow dish, such as a pie plate till blended. Rinse your meat and pat it dry then roll it around in the spices till well covered. Heat up the oil over medium high heat in a dutch oven or other heavy stew pot and brown the meat on all sides. (This is a breeze with the shanks but if you are using stew meat, you will need to do it in two batches so that it will have room to brown) Transfer the meat back to the spice plate after browning.
- In the same pot, add a bit more oil and sauté the onion, reducing the heat to medium, until the onion becomes fragrant and translucent, about 5 mins. The onions will pick up all the left over spices and simply have you dancing over the pot! Add the broth and deglaze your pot by cooking for a few minutes, then add the dried fruit, tomatoes, cinnamon sticks, ginger, lemon zest, juice and honey and bring to a boil stirring often. Last but not least, add the lamb and all the rest of the spices in the pie plate, then reduce the heat to a low enough setting that the stew just barely simmers. Cover the pot and go read a book. Simmer till the meat is super tender and falling off the bone, about 3-4 hours. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with cooked quinoa or riced cauliflower and sprinkled with fresh cilantro.