Nothing can bring you out of the depths of jet lag, writer’s block, and the melancholy from hating the recession, NY produce in winter, and NY restaurants in general like a rich, savory Lebanese lamb stew. I am a lamb and stew newbie so this was a small revelation. We actually had to look up lamb to verify its animal origin: sheep. This post is not without some myth busting and prejudice, specifically my relegation of lamb to the gamey, smelly variety of meat that I would never touch. Thanks to this recipe and Harold McGee, I have overcome my judgments. Mutton, though, is a different story.
After dogs (15000 BCE), sheep (9-11000 BCE*) and goats (10000 BCE) were the first animals to be domesticated. Lamb is baby sheep, mutton is old sheep, and somewhere in the middle there’s hogget. Much of meat’s flavor in general is due to the aromas emitted from the fat. The characteristic flavor of sheep, found in lamb, feta, and more prominently in the aged mutton, comes from unusual fats produced in the liver with compounds from the rumen (first stomach). Interestingly enough, also present is thymol, the same molecule that gives thyme its flavor. Sheep which have been pasture-fed on alfalfa and clover have high levels of skatole, a compound that gives them that particularly, eh, barnyard taste. Those finished with grain will have a milder taste. Over the 8,000 years we’ve been eating lamb, we have acquired tastes for lamb meat from 6 weeks to 6 months, given names like “baby,” “spring,” “milk-fed,” “Easter,” and “hothouse,” to name a few.
This stew is called Yakhnat al-banadura (tomato stew). The tomatoes simmer for a number of hours, making a thick, savory sauce that gives you a satisfying punch in the mouth. This is a combination of the sweetness from the onions and cinnamon, acidity of the tomatoes, smokiness of the eggplant, and that wonderful peppery heat. Served with rice it’s a happy, hearty dinner.
6 tablespoons ghee (or butter)
1/4 cup of pistachios, roasted in the oven for 10 minutes at 325, cooled, and coarsely chopped
1 1/4 lb boneless leg or shoulder of lamb, trimmed of any large pieces of fat and chopped into small pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, washed and minced
1 large Spanish onions, 1/2 inch dice
3 medium-sized tomatoes, seeded and 1/2 inch dice
1 28 ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes
2 small eggplants (preferably Italian, Indian, or Japanese)
3 teaspoons pepper, freshly ground
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
3 teaspoons salt
White flour for dusting
Olive oil for searing
Preparing the lamb
Prepare the spice mixture and once mixed, divide in half, reserving half for the vegetables. Pour some flour onto a small plate. Roll the lamb lightly in the flour to coat, then add a light dusting of the spices evenly to each piece.
The original recipe did not call for searing or browning, but the recording in my head clearly stated: “Sear the meat to lock in the juices.” This dish was for a dinner party I had minimal time for, so unplanned experimentation or research needed to be minimized. My mother and I conferred and decided: sear the lamb! Our decision was equal parts flavor, texture, and moisture.
Now with some time to breathe, I researched “The Searing Question.” There’s a whole slew of articles online, most referring to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the canonical source for the chemistry of cooking. Seems I am 220 years behind on this one. McGee writes “The eminent German chemist Justus von Liebig came up with [searing] round 1850. It was disproved a few decades later. Yet this myth lives on, even among professional cooks.” He goes on to explain that searing doesn’t create a waterproof seal as we’d like to think. In fact he says “moisture loss is proportional to meat temperature,” so searing actually releases more of the moisture than cooking more slowly on moderate heat.
Searing, the process of heating the outside surface of the meat quickly until it browns, does have some excellent benefits. Browning meat caramelizes the outer edges, adding depth to the flavor, especially when seared with a coating of other spices. It also ads texture to the outer meat, contrasting the tender insides.
So while browning the lamb with spices did add excellent flavor and texture, it did not make it more moist (or more dry, in my opinion). I am interested to try the dish again, in its original form. If anyone else cares to do so, let me know how it turns out!
Get a skillet going on high heat and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Cook each side until the meat is slightly brown, no more than a minute. Add to the sauce after the tomatoes.
Getting the sauce going
In a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat the ghee over medium high heat. Add in the garlic and saute for a minute, then add in the onions and saute until translucent, about 8 minutes.
In the meantime, rinse, peel, and dice the eggplant into 1/2 inch. Place in a bowl and immediately cover with a paper towel to prevent oxidation.
Once the onions are translucent, add in the eggplant and saute for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Add in the the diced and canned tomatoes. Stir in the spice mixture and thyme. Add the meat once ready. Cover and cook for one hour, stirring periodically. Uncover and cook until the sauce is thick and the meat is tender, 2-3 hours more. If the dish gets too dry, add in some water or dry red wine in small amounts.
Sprinkle the pistachios on the top and serve over rice.
1 cup long grain rice, (Basmati is good for this dish, short white or Japanese rice is not preferred)
1 tablespoon ghee
2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
Rinse the rice and drain it with a strainer. In a medium-sized heavy-bottom sauce pan, melt the ghee over medium high heat. Saute the rice until it begins to stick, stirring frequently, about 1 minute. Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and let sit for 5 minutes.