Lamb Stewed with Almonds and Tunisian Spices

About 20 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a better cook.  Scratch that.  I wanted to learn how to cook, which meant anything I made was going to be better than the feeble attempts I had made at boiling for water for pasta and cracking open a jar for sauce. 

I took three major steps to learn to cook:
  1. Read cookbooks (see Greens, because I wanted vegetarian) and follow all of the steps;
  2. Subscribe to cooking magazines (hello Cooking Light);
  3. Take cooking classes.

The first cooking class I attended was on Braising and Roasting--why braising and roasting, you might ask? You might even be wondering why I didn't start with something a little easier, perhaps. However, I was joining my future-mother-in-law in her series of cooking classes, and, well, that's what was offered that Tuesday night. Voila: braising and roasting.

However, had this cookbook, Slow Fires, from renowned New York chef Justin Smillie been around, I wouldn't really have needed to go to that class. Indeed, this cookbook is a sort of a primer in proper ways to slow cook meat and veggies. 

The cookbook has an array of fire-centric chapters, from Braising (see Stovetop Cassoulet) to Roasting (see also Pancetta-Wrapped Halibut with Grated Tomato and Summer Squash), from Grilling (let's take a look later at Bistecca Fiorentina with Olive Oil-Marinated Blue Cheese) and Foundations & Finishes (and there I will certainly becoming acquainted with Anchovy Powder as well as the Quince Mostarda). Each chapter opens with a short, nostalgic essay and then moves into the rules of the road, including techniques and equipment, for the cooking method. What follows are recipes that are time-intensive but layer flavor upon flavor, building from the ground up.

But then again, the title of the book is Slow Fires: the time commitment is not a surprise.

Instead it is a luxury. It's a full Sunday afternoon cooking while you have Christmas carols on the stereo, a cat posturing at the window to all of the squirrels she would actually run away from if she ever got outside, and a friend possibly coming over, as long as you don't actually take the nap that you're considering. A perfect winter day.

One might compare this cookbook to another that I recently procured, This is Camino by Oakland restaurateur Russell Moore. Indeed, their premise is similar: take a wildly successful slow-fired restaurant cuisine and adapt it for the home cook. However, I find Smillie's book much more accessible. While the recipes do have expensive ingredients, as do Moore's, Smillie's ingredients are far more available to the average grocery-store goer, and the cooking methods are far more approachable for a mid-level cook. There is not a whiff of assumption that you know how to clean the squid or taste a bubbling hot polenta (he cautions great care). Smillie offers it all up as a clear guidebook, perfect for a novice cook who wants to learn how to plan a full meal.  

But this is a pretty sophisticated book that smacks of the more adept cook spending the winter months braising and summer grilling. I am already eyeballing Veal Meatballs with Gingered Buttermilk and Corn Two Ways for July, and you better believe Red Wine-Braised Oxtails with Marinated Savoy-Cabbage will be making an appearance this February. The seasoned cook will learn new techniques and flavor combinations.

Before we close this post out, let's talk for a moment about this Lamb Stewed with Almonds and Tunisian Spices, for there is much to talk about! In fact, the text I sent my husband, who was in the city for the day, went something like this: "Oh my god. The lamb is amazing."

Yes. This lamb will render you basically inarticulate.

Smillie begins with dry roasting and grinding your own spices and then a light browning of the lamb. Both are about adding flavor and letting the spices shine. Then a 20-minute caramelizing of the soffrito builds a sweet and savory base. I'll admit, I doubled the vegetables in the soffrito, as I wanted the stew to be more than just meat, but you could halve them again to go back to the original recipe. Then it all comes together for about 2 hours, letting the lamb become almost overcooked and fall apart ready, the sauce to become deep, and the vegetables melted. Serve it up with some couscous, of any sort, in order to temper the heat of the cayenne and to sop up the juices. You won't want a drop of it to go to waste. 

And you might want to double the recipe. Because it's that good.

Smillie, you have convinced me that I can braise. I should have just been more patient. Your cookbook and this lamb dish were well worth the wait. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.


Lamb Stewed with Almonds and Tunisian Spices

6-8 servings

2 Tbsp kosher salt
3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup Marcona almonds, plus more for garnish
Fine sea salt
2 Tbsp coriander seeds
1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns, plus cracked pepper to season
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp paprika
1 cinnamon stick
Olive oil, as needed
2 medium onions, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
4 medium celery stalks, finely diced
1 bay leaf
5 fresh thyme sprigs
6 garlic cloves, finely grated
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 quart chicken broth or water
3 Tbsp finely sliced flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 Tbsp finely sliced fresh chives

Dry-Brining the Lamb:
1.  In a large bowl, rub the kosher salt into the cubed lamb. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours.

2.  One hour before cooking, remove the lamb from the refrigerator and thoroughly pat the meat dry.

Prepare the Spices and Almonds:
3.  Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, smash or pulse the almonds and a pinch of sea salt  together until a crumb forms, larger than a sand granule and smaller than a peppercorn. Set aside.

4.  Heat a medium heavy saute pan over low heat until hot. Add the coriander, cumin, black peppercorns and cayenne and toast the spices until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the paprika and cinnamon stick and toast, stirring, until the scent blooms, about 30 seconds more. Turn off the heat. Remove he cinnamon stick, and set it aside.  Transfer the toasted spices to a spice grinder and pulse until finely ground and set the spice mix aside.

Braise the Lamb
5. Set a tagine (if using) or a dutch oven over medium-low heat and heat 2 Tbsp olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add a quarter of the cubed lamb. Sear the meat on all sides for 7-8 minutes, or until just lightly browned all over Transfer to a platter, pour any juices into a small bowl, and repeat with the remaining lamb, adding olive oil as needed to maintain a thin coating in the pan.

6.  Increase the heat to medium and 2 Tbsp of olive oil to the pan. Stir in the onions, carrot, celery, bay leaf, and thyme, scraping the brown bits (the fond). Saute for 20 minutes, until it caramelizes completely.

7.  Stir in the garlic, ginger, and tomato paste. Saute until the tomato paste darkens, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon stick and reserved spice mix and cook for 3 minutes, or until the spices and vegetables are thoroughly combined. Return the lamb and any reserved drippings to the pot. Roll the lamb around in the vegetables.

8.  Pour in the chicken broth, about 3/4 of the meat should be submerged. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low Cover the pot and gently braise the lamb for 1 1/2-2 hours, or until the lamb pieces are nearly fall-apart tender. Every 30 minutes, left the lid, stir, adjust the heat to maintain a very gentle bubble, and re-cover.

9.  Once the lamb is done, taste and season the stew with salt and pepper if necessary.  (At this point, you can cool the stew and refrigerate for up to 3 days. If you do so, reheat the stew over medium heat before proceeding to the next step.)

10.  Add the almonds. Simmer the stew for 7-10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens.

11.  Remove the stew from the heat, and stir in the parsley, cilantro and chives. Top with extra almonds and generously drizzle with olive oil. Serve warm or room-temperature.  This is especially good with couscous topped with lemon zest and parsley.


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