I have recently been working on expanding my horizons when it comes to tasting and cooking different kinds of meat. Up until last spring, I was a member of the "No Red Meat" Club, and had been for for almost 15 years. I was picky about meat as a kid, and chose to cut red meat out of my diet. Eventually I realized I had no idea what red meat even tasted like, and I felt like I couldn't be a very good foodie if I was so picky about what types of meat I would eat.
I started slow, with a couple hamburgers and tastes of more exotic cuts of meat that Joe would order. Being around plenty of meat at The Chopping Block has given me the chance to taste many different kinds of meat, and I've liked what I have tasted. I think meat is very trendy in Chicago right now, and most restaurants are offering exotic choices and tons of charcuterie options. I've now enjoyed things like duck liver pate, bone marrow, and good old fashioned steak. I'm not a crazy meat eater, though, and still eat vegetarian multiple days a week, to balance things out.
Joe brought home some Turkish leftovers recently, and I gobbled up the lamb dish that he left in the fridge. It was so flavorful, and immediately inspired me to try to cook some lamb. I am still pretty intimidated by large pieces of meat, so some kind of roast lamb was out. I got hooked on the idea of a lamb stew, with nice tender pieces of meat cooked up with lots of wintery vegetables. I'd seen a recipe in Jamie's Food Revolution, and kept thinking back to his suggestion to top the finished stew with mashed potatoes, like a Shepard's pie.
Jamie's stew recipe is very basic, with lots of room for interpretation. I like how flexible his recipes are, and how approachable he makes cooking. This recipe is actually four different recipes, depending which type of meat and booze you put into your stew. I did the lamb and red wine combination, and plan to experiment with others during the cold Chicago winter. The recipe was so straight forward, but you did have to plan for the long cooking time. It was mostly hands-off, though, and I loved having almost all the dishes taken care of before dinner was ready. I made this on a Sunday, so we had plenty of time to let the meat get tender. It was rich and satisfying, and the mashed potato topping was fantastic. It was a little crispy on top, and the softer potatoes closer to the stew soaked up some of the red wine stewing liquid. This was the best cold weather dinner I have made in a long time!
Basic Stew Recipe
Main Stew Ingredients:
2 stalks celery
2 medium onions
1 heaped tablespoon all-purpose flour
One 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Then choose one of the following:
Beef and Ale (3 hours)
3 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 pound diced beef stewing meat
2 cups brown ale, Guinness or stout
Pork and Cider (2 1/2 hours)
3 sprigs fresh sage
1 pound diced stewing pork, preferably free-range or organic
2 cups medium-dry hard cider
Chicken and White Wine (1 1/2 hours)
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 cups white wine
Lamb and Red Wine (2 1/2 hours)
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 pound diced stewing lamb
2 cups red wine
1. If using the oven to cook your stew, preheat to 350°F.
2. Trim the ends off your celery and roughly chop the stalks. Peel and roughly chop the onions. Peel the carrots, slice lengthwise, and roughly chop.
3. Put a Dutch oven on a medium heat. Put all of the vegetables and your chosen herb into the pan with 2 lugs of olive oil and fry for 10 minutes. Add your meat and flour. Pour in the booze and canned tomatoes. Give it a good stir, then season with a teaspoon of sea salt (less if using table salt) and a few grinds of pepper.
4. Bring to a boil, put the lid on, and either simmer slowly on your cooktop or cook in the oven for the times shown above. Remove the lid for the final half hour of simmering or cooking and add a splash of water if it looks a bit dry.
5. When done, your meat should be tender and delicious. Remove any bay leaves or herb stalks before serving, and taste it to see if it needs a bit more salt and pepper.
Jamie offers multiple suggestions of toppings for the stew recipe. While the lamb stew would have been wonderful as is, I couldn't resist his suggestion to make it like a Cottage Pie, with a mashed potato topping. He also has suggestions for dumplings or puff pastry topping.
Mashed Potato Topping
2 1/4 lbs potatoes, peeled (I used two russets and some smaller new potatoes)
splash of milk
tablespoon of butter
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
olive oil or melted butter
sprig of rosemary (I omitted because my rosemary plant is looking pitifully small these days)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Fill a large baking dish with the fully cooked stew (or keep it in your cute new orange Le Cruset buffet casserole that you cooked the stew in). Boil the potatoes in salted water, and drain when they are tender all the way through. Mash by hand or in your stand mixer, adding in the milk, butter, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mash until creamy, adding a splash of extra milk if needed. Roughly top the stew with the potatoes, not worrying about making the topping smooth and even. Top the potatoes with rosemary leaves, and brush the top with olive oil or melted butter. Cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the potato topping is golden brown and the stew is bubbling on the sides.