Friday, April 24, 2009

braised lamb with garlic and lemon

I don’t own any Mark Bittman books. I tend to brush over his Minimalist columns in the Wednesday food section. As culinary authorities go, I’d prefer an expert in a particular field/cuisine to someone who cultivates a “jack of all trades” approach. (Sure, I could read Mark Bittman’s recipe for tomato sauce, but why not read Marcella Hazan’s instead?)

So the idea that The Best Recipes in the World would yield anything superlative is, to my mind, a bit counterintuitive. I realize that many people would disagree. In fact, two of them were responsible for introducing us to this recipe last year. They were also responsible for my subsequent reconsideration of the book’s merits. Because if any dish could make me a Mark Bittman convert, it’s this one.

It’s delicious and unfamiliar—tender chunks of lamb with a salty-sweet glaze from the cooked-down lemon. It’s logic-defying in its simplicity. (“I swear to god that’s it,” my friend promised, when I accused him of off-recipe improvisations.) I want to say that it over-delivers, but, given the title of its source, I guess that would be impossible.

Braised Lamb with Garlic and Lemon
Adapted from The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman

You may be inclined, as we were at first, to omit the final squeeze of fresh lemon juice—don’t.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds boneless lamb, from the shoulder or leg, cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 or 6 garlic cloves, slivered
2 lemons
1 cup stock
3-4 sprigs of thyme (optional)

Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium-high heat. A minute later, add as many chunks of lamb as will fit without crowding (you will inevitably have to brown in batches). It will take 3 or 4 minutes for the pieces to brown; when they do, turn them over and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Adjust the heat so the pieces brown as rapidly as possible without burning. After each has browned on 2 sides, remove it from the pan and set aside. Repeat process with remaining lamb. The entire browning process will take 10 to 15 minutes.

When all the meat has been removed from the pan, turn off the heat and wait a minute for the pan to cool a bit. Turn the heat back to medium and add the garlic; wash and slice one of the lemons and add it also. Cook for about 30 seconds, then add the liquid. Raise the heat to high and let the liquid bubble away for a minute. Return the meat to the pan; adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles very gently.

Add the thyme, cover and cook, undisturbed, until the meat is very tender, about 1½ hours. [If it cooks too quickly, you may have to add a little water once or twice; if the sauce is too loose, remove the lamb from the pot and reduce until thick and syrupy.]

Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve over rice with the other lemon cut into wedges.

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