Sometime in the last year, we (meaning I) made the unofficial (meaning it’s official about 85% of the time) decision to only buy humanely-raised, grass-fed (or pastured, in the case of poultry) meat. After reading a good bit about CAFOs and the fact that the nutritional value of meat is heavily dependent on what the animal ate during its lifetime, it seemed like a direction I wanted our family to go. But this kind of meat can get expensive, and it took a while to figure out how to eat quality meat without taking out a second mortgage.
Our first venture into acquiring a bulk amount of grass-fed beef potentially involved a scenario where Tim would wield a handgun, go shoot a cow, and drive it to the processor via the luggage rack on our Subaru. I’m relieved to say that we’ve come a long way since those days, making big progress when we scored a deep freezer on craigslist — and have since purchased a beef quarter (one, I might add, that Tim didn’t shoot or transport atop our wagon) and 60 pounds of chicken leg quarters.
But the beef is now gone, and I’m down to my last 20 pounds of chicken. Enter a fortuitous email from my friend Emily. She knows a guy in Michigan (her brother-in-law, not as shady as it sounds) who raises grass-fed lamb. He was about to have a slaughter processing day, and would we want to split a lamb with her family?
A lamb! Or rather, half a lamb! I scrambled, flipping through my Christopher Kimball cookbooks, looking for the best cuts (when you order a whole or portion of an animal, you get to choose how it’s processed). I placed the order, and a week later I had 30 pounds of lamb in my deep freezer (lambs, I was slow to realize, are a LOT smaller than cows).
Until this week, I had never cooked lamb. I decided to start with a stew since I’ve made enough beef versions to feel confident even with a new kind of meat. I found this recipe at Cook’s Illustrated — it seemed simple and straight-forward, and I had fortuitously purchased turnips at last weekend’s farmer’s market. The key to a really delicious stew is to darkly brown the meat before adding the rest of the ingredients — even if you make it in a slow-cooker (yes, that means you would be browning lamb at 7am, but the difference in flavor is worth that early-morning step). I used my dutch-oven for this one, and started it about 2 1/2 hours before dinner (two hours of that time it’s in the oven).
This stew was such a pleasant surprise. We were amazed at the tenderness of the meat, and the delicate flavor of the lamb that was front-and-center in an uncomplicated dish. The turnips added their characteristic hint-of-spice, and the sauce was, really, unbelievably flavorful, considering the fact that there was no wine or stock added — just water. My only regret was that I didn’t make more — but I was limited by the amount of stew meat I had — just two pounds (cf: lambs are small). Since my kids ate about two pieces of lamb each, it fed both adults for dinner, with leftovers for lunch the next day.
The original recipe called for bone-in lamb shoulder that you then cut into cubes. I had boneless, pre-cut stew meat, so I adjusted all ingredients accordingly. We ate the stew over thick pieces of toasted country bread — and the next day over fried grit cakes. Thick egg noodles, potatoes, or rice would work too.
If you’re not yet interested in purchasing a bulk portion of lamb for your freezer, check your local sources for high-quality meat, and see if they offer grass-fed lamb. I’ve seen it locally at the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market and Goose the Market; it is worth a little extra cash to experience a splurge night of not-beef stew.
Irish Lamb Stew
adapted from this recipe at cooksillustrated.com
- 2 pounds lamb stew meat, preferably cut from shoulder in 1 1/2″ cubes
- 2 Tbsp olive oil (plus more if needed)
- 1 1/2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
- 4 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 pound carrots, cut into 1/4″ rounds
- 1/2 pound turnips, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
- a handful of chopped Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 300º, and adjust rack to lower-middle position.
Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half the meat to the pot, so that the pieces are not touching. Cook, without touching, for about 2-3 minutes, until well-browned on one side. Turn pieces with tongs until most sides are well-browned, about 5 minutes longer. Remove pieces to a bowl, and repeat for rest of stew meat.
In the now-empty pot, add another tablespoon oil (if necessary to coat bottom of pan) and reduce heat to medium. Add onions and 1/4 tsp salt, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, until onions are brown (about 8 minutes). Add flour and cook, stirring to coat onions, for 1-2 minutes.
Add half the water to the pot, scraping the bottom and sides of pan to loosen more browned bits. Gradually add the rest of the water, stirring until thickened. Add thyme and 1/4 tsp salt, and bring to a simmer. Add the reserved stew meat to the pot, along with any accumulated juices. Stir and return to a simmer. Cover, place in oven, and cook for 1 hour.
Remove pot from oven, and scatter carrots and turnips on top of meat. Cover and return to oven, cooking until meat is tender (another 50 minutes). Remove from oven, and stir vegetables into the stew. Let sit for 5 minutes, and skim any fat that has risen to the surface (this won’t be necessary if your lamb is grass-fed).
Stir in parsley, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately.
This post is part of the Tuesday Twister at GNOWFGLINS.