If you didn't grow up on chops or a leg roasted and served with mint sauce, you may not be open to the many flavors and possibilities of lamb.
I discovered it as a teenager, wandering the closed-to-traffic cobbled streets around Rue de la Harpe and Metro St. Michel in Paris. Roasted on a spit just inside a Middle Eastern restaurant's picture window and take-out booth, lamb was sliced right off the turning-roasting contraption, folded into warm pita bread and served with cucumber yogurt sauce. I'm not sure as a hungry adolescent I even knew what I was eating, but I loved it. Last time I checked, you can still get it this way, munching the sandwich while you walk past the street artists and fire eaters on your way to the banks of the Seine.
Lamb is a local meat that may be coming into its own as a flavoring protein for otherwise plant-based recipes. Availability of local lamb is growing (see box), and because it has not traveled far to our kitchens, I find the neighborhood product sweet and not gamey, as commercial varieties can be.
The following recipe is festive and robust but affordable. Many culinary traditions feature spring as the time for roast leg of lamb or chops, and this came to be, in part, because it's the time of year these animals were harvested. Now the meat is available year-round, thanks to deep freezing. But those cuts can be expensive and held in esteem for special occasions. Cheaper cuts need no such excuse. A windy April evening, the chill of winter not quite gone, is as companionable a setting for this dish as a languid, sunny weekend lunch on the back deck.
I searched through cookbooks to account for what recipe most influenced the one that lives in my head, and was surprised that it was not a Marcella Hazan tome, but Simply in Season, a must-have tool for locavores. My recipe differs from theirs in the amounts of herbs, meat and broth, plus the addition of balsamic vinegar at the end. Variations of the basic mixture can be found all over Europe and in the Marches, Apulia and Sardinia regions of Italy. Some cooks stew the lamb with potatoes instead of white beans.
Buying lamb locally
Farmers generally sell meat directly from their farm as well as at weekly markets. Call or e-mail ahead to check market availability or to place a special order for market pick-up.
Coon Rock Farm
Moore Square Farmers' Market, South Estes Farmers' Market, Duke Farmers' Market, Hillsborough Farmers' Market and the Western Wake Farmers' Market, or call for farm pick-up
Triple B Farms
919-691-0013 (must dial 919 from Triangle), email@example.com
Wake Forest Farmers' Market; call or e-mail
Captain John S. Pope Farm
Carrboro Farmers' Market, online or by phone
Carrboro Farmers' Market, Southern Village Farmers' Market (call ahead to check availability)
Fickle Creek Farm
Durham Farmers' Market, Eno River Farmers' Market (formerly Orange County), South Estes Farmers' Market, call for farm pick-up
Stoney Mountain Farm
Durham Farmers' Market, call for farm pick-up
Pittsboro Farmers' Market or by appointment on the farm
Taste of Italy Lamb Stew
"Simply in Season: Recipes That Celebrate Fresh Local Foods," by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert. Herald Press, 2005.
1 pound lamb shoulder or stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 1/2 cups home-canned tomatoes with juice, chopped (or fresh, peeled and diced)
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked white beans (cannellini, navy or great northern), drained
1/4 cup fresh parsley
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Toss lamb cubes with flour, salt and pepper until well coated. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and sauté the meat until well browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. In the same pan, adding more oil if necessary, sauté onion and garlic over medium heat until soft (2 to 3 minutes). Add rosemary and chili powder and heat through for another 2 minutes to release their flavors. Return lamb to pan and add tomatoes, stirring another 2 minutes until their scent blends with herbs and onions. When bubbling, add wine and broth. Bring the whole to a boil, stirring for another 2 minutes. Lower heat to a steady simmer, and cook 1 hour loosely covered (lid slightly lifted or off-center) so stew will thicken, checking to make sure it's not too thick, sticking to the pan or drying out.
Just before serving, stir in beans. After adding beans, return to bubbling and add vinegar and parsley. Serve in soup bowls, passing grated parmesan cheese if desired. Simply in Season suggests serving the stew over pasta; we like it as is with sturdy bread and a salad of spring greens on the side. Serves 6.