American beef stew is satisfying and dependable, but dull. With just a few flavoring additions the use of lamb instead of beef, and a couple of changes in cooking method I set out to transform something staid into something special.
I started with a boned leg of lamb weighing in at 3 3/4 pounds. After trimming away the fat and silverskin, I was left with 3 1/4 pounds of lamb which easily serves six. In order to reduce cooking time, I cut the lamb into 1-inch cubes, which allows it to cook to the point of being tender in just an hour. Although all stew recipes call for browning the meat, I knew that Indian curries do not include this step since Indian cooks prefer a brighter flavor, one in which the taste of the spices shine through. I tested both methods, however, and preferred the stew with browned lamb. It had a deeper, darker flavor and, in this particular recipe, this richer flavor married well with the spices.
Next, I investigated flavorings. I quickly eliminated cilantro and chiles, ingredients that are often found in restaurant versions of this dish. Sticking closer to an authentic Indian combination of spices, I settled on the foursome of cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and coriander married to garlic and ginger. (I found that the cumin and coriander are best purchased whole, not ground, for maximum flavor.
They are then ground at home in a coffee grinder.) Over the years, I have discovered that the essence of Indian curries is the method by which the flavors of the spices are released. To release their full flavors, spices need to be fried in oil for at least 5 minutes. This is where Americanized versions of Indian recipes often fall short we simply sauté them briefly or add them to vast amounts of liquids. Neither method is effective in producing full flavors.
After much testing, I finally settled on sautéing the onion, cinnamon, and cloves and then adding the remaining spices along with the ginger, garlic, and tomatoes. This mixture is then cooked for 5 to 6 minutes or until the oil starts to separate out and turn orange. (This separating of the oil is the key moment in preparing this dish this ensures that the flavor of the spices have blossomed.)
Other ingredients included 2 cups of chopped tomatoes (canned work fine here) as well as 2 1/2 cups chicken stock (water tasted flat). A small food processor can be pressed into service for puréeing the garlic and ginger just add one or two tablespoons of water. This will prevent the garlic from burning in the pan and also makes the puréeing process easier since the garlic is less likely to stick to the processor. You can also use a garlic press.
INDIAN-STYLE LAMB STEW
This dish is great served over rice and accompanied with root vegetables, especially carrots and parsnips.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 boneless leg of lamb, about 3 1/2-4 pounds trimmed of visible fat and silverskin and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1 1/2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 onions cut into 1/ 2-inch dice
6 medium garlic cloves, pressed or puréed
1 2-inch piece ginger, grated or puréed
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, ground
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, ground
4 medium ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2-inch dice, about 2 cups, or equal amount whole canned tomatoes chopped, Muir Glen preferred, or canned diced tomatoes, drained
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1. Heat a large heavy duty Dutch oven or deep skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Liberally season the lamb cubes with salt and pepper. Brown the lamb in batches adding one additional tablespoon of oil as needed. Set browned meat aside. Lower the heat to medium-low and add one more tablespoon of oil. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves and onion and sauté for 5 to 6 minutes or until the onion is softened and just beginning color. Add the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and tomatoes and cook, stirring almost constantly, until the liquid evaporates, the tomatoes soften, the oil separates and turns orange and the spices become very aromatic, about 5 to 6 additional minutes.
2. Add the meat and chicken stock to the pan and stir to combine with the other ingredients, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring liquid to a boil. Lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for about 1 hour (this time may vary) or until the lamb is very tender and the liquid has thickened. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve immediately over rice, basmati preferred.