When I was growing up, my father frequently sat down at the dinner table here in rural Massachusetts, looked at some gourmet concoction prepared by my mother or a neighbor, smiled, and murmured, “Simple country food.”
He meant his words ironically. Parts of our meals often came from far away. And the cooks had frequently spent quite a lot of time preparing them. Nevertheless, the words “simple country food” also contained a core of truth.
At its best, food in the country is prepared by people who appreciate that simple flavors can be the best flavors. All those flavors need is a chance to shine.
I was reminded of that truth a couple of weeks ago when I received a last-minute invitation to dinner from my neighbors Jerry and Trina Sternstein.
I have written before about Erwin and Linda Reynolds of Charlemont, who raise delicious local lamb at their Erlin Farm.
Erwin called me a month or so ago and informed me that he had sold several cuts of lamb to the Sternsteins, who are notable gourmet cooks.
“You should get Jerry to tell you when he’s cooking something,” said Erwin. “You could put the recipe on your blog.”
I ran into Jerry at our local general store one Saturday afternoon and told him about Erwin’s call. “I’m cooking lamb right now,” said Jerry. “Come to dinner tonight.”
So I joined Jerry and Trina (plus two charming out-of-town guests) for delicious lamb and lively conversation about food, taxes, art, Paris, politics, and weddings … among other things.
Jerry is a historian, and Trina is an artist. Hawley is a more sophisticated town than one might imagine, and the Sternsteins are among our most cosmopolitan residents. Food is a serious passion in their household. They look for high-quality ingredients (raising quite a few of them themselves; in this case the fava beans and snap peas were from their garden) and take the time to cook them right.
They love France and French food so Jerry’s lamb dish was definitely influenced by French cuisine. It was amazingly tender, thanks to Erwin’s care of the lambs and Jerry’s careful slow cooking. Each ingredient kept its own flavor but also blended with the others.
I recommend the dish highly. It has quite a number of steps, but the only really hard part of it is trimming the lamb of fat.
I wish I could tell you how to replicate the evening’s lively conversation—but you’re on your own there……
3-1/2 pounds boned, trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes (it will weigh more before it is boned and trimmed of fat!)
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon sugar plus another teaspoon later
1/4 cup flour
2 to 3 cups beef broth OR water or a combination of the two
(If you use the water, add 3 onions, roughly chopped, and 3 carrots, roughly chopped, to it.)
1 cup crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bouquet garni (4 to 5 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf, and several sprigs of thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, all tied together with string)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (2 teaspoons if you’re using water instead of broth)
5 to 6 turns of a pepper mill
6 to 10 small potatoes
4 carrots, quartered lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 turnips, quartered
12 to 16 small onions (about 1-1/2-inch thick)
1 cup cooked and peeled fava beans (optional)
1 cup barely cooked peas (optional)
1 cup barely cooked snow peas (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sauté the lamb pieces in the oil in a sauté pan over high heat until the meat begins to brown nicely on the outside, about 5 minutes.
Remove the meat from the oil and place it in a 4- to 5-quart stove-proof casserole dish or Dutch oven.
Add the first tablespoon of sugar. Stir it around over a medium-high flame until it caramelizes (about 4 minutes). Add the flour and place the whole mixture in the oven for about 4 minutes, until it gets brown and crusty.
Remove the pan from the oven. Add the liquid (and the extra vegetables if you are using the water). Add the tomatoes, the garlic, the bouquet garni, the salt, and the pepper.
Return the casserole to the oven and bake it, covered, for 1 hour.
Remove the pot from the oven. Remove the meat. Strain (and reserve) the liquid. Skim the grease from the liquid. (This is easiest to do if you have time to let it cool so that the fat will rise to the top.)
Return the meat and the strained liquid to the pot, mixing them well. Add the potatoes, carrots, and turnips. Return the pot to the oven and cook, covered, for another hour.
While it is in the oven cook the onions. Peel them and cut a small “X” on the bottom of each. Place them in a small sauté pan with the second teaspoon of sugar. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes.
Cover the onions with water. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Drain them and set them aside.
When the lamb has cooked, add the onions and the peas and/or beans and/or snap peas. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if they are needed. Top with parsley.
Serves 6 to 8.
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