I’ll confess I’ve had trouble pulling myself away from the internet this past week. Every twist and turn of this crazy new political world compels me to keep going down the rabbit hole, keep clicking on the next headline. It makes me think of that recent New Yorker cartoon: “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” I think many of you feel the same.
Yesterday I re-posted this photo of the window of Omnivore Books in San Francisco.
The photo really resonated with me as I’ve always been intrigued by the stories of peoples lives which are written in the story of their culture. The food they eat is the adornment of those stories. Like us, their rituals, their habits, their religion all come together and play out around shared meals.
When I first studied theology in college (I had learned Christian doctrine as a child – but I had never studied it, much less the other religions of the world) my mind opened to how much we can understand about people of other cultures if we take the time to ask questions and maybe walk beside them awhile. Every human on this planet yearns for the same things – to be loved, to be included and heard, to have a home and a safe place to raise their children and be with their families. There is more in what connects us then what separates us.
When I looked at the cookbooks showcased in the Omnivore Books window this weekend, I was reminded of a wonderful lamb dish I made earlier this month. I intended to share the recipe with you right after I made it but with one thing and another, I didn’t get around to it. Then I realized that now is actually the perfect time to share the recipe.
One of the things I’ve been reading in the last days are statements by corporate CEOs (Starbucks, Nike, Lyft,etc) in response to the immigration ban. I don’t own the kind of business where I can pledge to hire thousands of immigrants or donate a million dollars to the ACLU. But I can call my representatives, work to spread credible news so we’re all informed, and nourish our bodies and souls with delicious foods from cultures all over the world.
This rich and spicy lamb stew originates in Pakistan, which is not yet one of the seven countries on Trump’s banned list. Credible news outlets say it could soon be added.
The recipe came across my radar from the e-newsletter of Saveur Magazine. Knowing I had some lamb shanks in my freezer, it caught my attention and I bookmarked it for later. Then when we were having one of the surprisingly frequent snow days of our early winter (severe weather used to be highly unusual for us here in the Pacific Northwest – not so much any more) I remembered it. it turned out to be a perfect time to try this intriguing, long-simmering dish.
This stew calls for a lot of different spices – that’s where the complexity comes from. If you don’t already have a deeply stocked spice cabinet, you can easily take yourself to a grocery store that has a nice bulk foods section and fill it out. If you’re just buying a small amount of a spice – which is a good idea because you do want to keep your spices fresh – I promise you it won’t be too expensive. To buy enough of each spice listed in the recipe should cost you less than a dollar (more or less) for each. Well worth it for the beautiful tapestry of flavors they’ll deliver.
When I made this dish it was early January and we still had our Christmas tree up. As I mentioned, it had been a snow day. A couple of our kids were over at friends’ houses, so it was just Rob, me and our middle son Ben. We decided to have a living room picnic around the coffee table in front of the fireplace and by the Christmas tree, to bask in the last bit of that holiday warmth.
I served the lamb stew with cilantro brown rice and all the garnishes listed below. It wasn’t too hot spicy, which I was a bit worried about because of the tablespoon of cayenne pepper. No need for concern, the level of heat was perfect. We happily paired this dish with a juicy Pinot Noir, though I guess that it would also be delicious with a cold beer alongside.
Pakistani Slow-Cooked Lamb Stew
For the Garam Masala
- 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 5 whole cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 1 black cardamom pod optional
- 1 whole star anise
- 1 stick 2 - 3" cinnamon
For the Lamb (Nihari)
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 medium onion very thinly sliced
- 2 - 3 good-sized lamb shanks
- 1 tablespoon cayenne
- 2-4 cloves garlic mashed into a paste
- 1 3" piece of ginger, peeled )1" mashed into a paste, 2" julienned, for serving)
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tablespoons butter melted
- Chopped cilantro
- lime wedges
- minced chilis
- naan bread
- kosher salt to taste
- First make the garam masala. Puree poppy seeds and 1 tablespoon water in a spice grinder into a paste; transfer to a small bowl. Grind remaining spices into a powder; stir into the poppy seed paste.
Make the lamb (Nihari)
- Heat the oil and onion in a 6 quart saucepan (large enough to later hold the lamb) over medium heat. Once the onion starts to soften, lower the heat to medium low and cook until the onion is caramelized and a little bit crisp around the edges. This will take about half an hour. Once the onions are done, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with paper towel, to absorb some of the excess oil. The onions will be used to garnish the lamb when you serve it. Discard all but 1/4 cup oil from the pan (reserve it for another use, if you like)
- Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Brown the lamb in the same pot over medium to medium-high heat. This will take about 20 minutes to do all sides well.
- Once the lamb is browned, stir in the garam masala, the cayenne, garlic and ginger pastes, and about a teaspoon of salt. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low/medium-low and cook covered until the lamb is falling off the bone, 5 - 6 hours. (Conversely you could transfer the whole shebang to your slow cooker now and cook on low for 6 or 7 hours)
- Using tongs, transfer the lamb to a bowl or platter and cover well with foil to keep warm. Stir flour, butter and 1/4 cup water together in a small bowl then add the mixture to the pan. Cook until the juices are thickened about 15 minutes.
- Pull the lamb off of the bone and using your hands or two forks, shred the meat. Return the lamb to the pan and stir to coat with the sauce.
- Garnish the lamb with the reserved onions, cilantro, julienned ginger, cilantro and, if you like, lime wedges and/or chilis. Serve with cilantro brown rice and warm naan.