Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When Life Throws You a Bag of Onions… You Cry, Then Make Lamb Stew and Drink Beaujolais

When you’re single again after years of marriage, navigating your way through the treacherous sea called the "holidays" can be extra challenging. This Thanksgiving, I found myself away from most of my immediate family, waxing nostalgic, yet celebrating new traditions with my grown son Devon and his girlfriend Mindy’s family. I was feeling grateful to even have a holiday table to be sitting at and a special meal to enjoy, and so I truly savored my Thanksgiving lunch and the company I was in. After lunch, my son's girlfriend's family not only lovingly sent me away with leftovers, but also with hazelnuts and walnuts from their orchards and onions and acorn squash that were still coming out of their garden.

After leaving their busy home and arriving at my empty one, this strange combination of both my heart-searing loneliness for the rest of my of family and the swell of joy I felt from the generosity Mindy’s family’s had shown me, moved me to tears. And I didn't just cry, I sobbed deep, chest heaving, tears flowing thick as water from a spout whose spigot I just couldn’t seem to turn off. When I was finally empty, drained, I fell asleep and dreamed of nothing.

I awoke, feeling recharged, as if a spark had been lit deep within the furnace of my body. I looked at the goody bag Mindy’s family had shared with me, and at first I thought I’d do something fun with the nuts, because nuts are always fun (no?), but what struck me instead were the onions. Those dirty, round little brown onions were calling to me, asking me, begging me to cut into their white and juicy flesh.

It didn’t take more than a minute for me to realize what those onions were meant to become. I knew what I wanted to make, what I needed to make, what I was destined to make. The dish that would awaken my senses and warm my soul was none other than a Moroccan Lamb Tagine inspired by Sunset Magazine. My dear friend Pam made this dish for me when I first moved to Portland, and after searching out the recipe for myself and making some modifications, it’s become a standard in my fall/winter line-up.

I cut up the lamb (see video below) and set it aside, but when it was time to slice the onions, just removing the skins was enough to make my eyes instantly well up with tears and begin to stream buckets again. I tried putting on sunglasses and chewing gum (both tricks I’d heard about) all to no avail. I thought my reserves were all dried up, yet somehow, my eyes were pouring out enough tears, I could have drowned a small city by now. And yet I just couldn’t stop myself, and I didn’t want to, I was almost enjoying it… like it was some kind of catharsis. Finally, I'd completed the cleansing task of slicing the most potent onions in the world. Tear session over, I cleaned up my face, washing away the salt from both my eyes and cheeks and then felt a simple calm envelope me.

Like the dream I should have been dreaming the night before, when I got to the best part of the recipe (where you combine all the various spices), I couldn’t help but be swept away to some exotic spice market in the far east, lost in thoughts of how these magical ingredients were so valuable, they were once traded like gold. I imagined people traveling for weeks from the far reaches of the globe to bring these spices back to their homelands… heroes with their new discoveries of unknown flavors. The colors were magnificent, like an old Indian tapestry… earthen browns, deep, mustardy yellows. The smells immediately drew me back in and perked me up, yet they were hypnotic and elicited emotions that washed over me like a cold shower awakening me from my sleep of self-absorbed loneliness.

As the dish cooked and my house was filled with pleasing aromas of home, happiness, memories… the lack of companionship and emptiness began to slip away. What was left in its place was a very hungry belly and a great pot of lamb stew, enough to feed my mind, body and soul for days. I recommend you let this recipe rescue you sometime too. If not from some kind of sadness, then from the dark, cold and dreariness of the season.

Realizing it was not only Thanksgiving time but Beaujolais season as well, I decided to try a bottle of 2011 Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau I had set aside for the holiday weekend with this meal. I think a spicy Syrah, Zinfandel or even a Marsanne would pair nicely (and a Riesling might even be interesting to try), but this wine just seemed to fit the bill. It was casual enough just for me, bold and sweetly fruity, with a bit of spicy oak, a slight suppleness and enough acidity to balance out and play against the spice and heat of the dish. Food and wine pairing isn't rocket science, just have fun with it!

Speaking of having fun with things. Just because I couldn't possibly post about lamb and not include this memorable quote/video:

"What do you mean he don't eat no meat? That's okay, I make lamb." - Aunt Voula

Moroccan Lamb Tagine
Prep and Cook time: Approximately 1½ hours
Serves 6 (or one person for days)

3 pounds of fat-trimmed boned lamb steak, shoulder or other cut suitable for stewing, cut into 1½-inch chunks
2 large onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon EACH of paprika and cumin
1 teaspoon EACH of ground turmeric, ground cinnamon and minced, fresh ginger
¼-½ teaspoon (depending on heat preference and tolerance) cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
2½ cups of chicken stock
12 dried apricots, roughly chopped 
2 big handfuls of baby carrots
1 can (14½ oz) diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Bottle of wine 
Box of couscous prepared as directed 

1.  Pour glass of wine, sip often and refill as needed.
2.  Brown lamb over medium heat.
3.  Add onions and garlic, stirring often until onions begin to get limp (about 5 minutes).
4.  Add spices and stir until fragrant (about 30 seconds).
5.  Take a big whiff. Mmmmmm.
6.  Add broth, apricots, carrots, tomatoes and tomato paste; bring to a boil over high heat. 
7.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until lamb is tender (about one hour).
8.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over couscous.


Anonymous said...

Oh cry me a river. Quit your whining (bad pun intended).

Nubian said...

I can totally relate to the first holidays alone. Love the recipe, very similar to South African lamb stew. I tried that Beaujolais last week and am not a fan. Maybe I should try again? ;~)

Sip with Me! said...

Dear Anonymouse,
Oh, call you a coward. Quit your hiding, this isn't a blind tasting.

My dearest Nubian friend,
Not the first holidays alone, but it's still sinking in I guess. I'd be interested to see your S. African lamb stew recipe. The Beaujolais wasn't great, but it had more depth and character than I expected, and it was a great pricepoint. I thought it was definitely worth the money.