Peasant Palate: Lamb For Possum

Seems possum, a.k.a. Jerry Northington, once and future candidate for Delaware’s lone seat in the US House of Representatives, likes to gnaw on little lambs.

Not all Americans are so inclined. My daughter, for instance, still pretty young, eschews little lambs for “Mary-had-a” reasons. My mother, not quite so young, avoids the creature because, while growing up during the Great Depression, she was too often invited to the family table to dine on tough—though plenty cheap—mutton. Sixty years on, she remains averse to encountering even the odor of the ruminant, as it bubbles in the pot, much less the thing itself, placed on a plate before her. Understood.

But in this “Peasant Palate” we pay no attention to such people. Instead, with possum, we bare our fangs, and prepare to receive between them little sheeps. Know that the mutton that so nauseated my mother is not on the menu: “lamb,” which is what is today sold in American supermarkets and butcher shops, and is referenced in all seven recipes below, comes from the beastie cut down before it enters its second year. It is sheep slaughtered past that date that become “mutton.”

As the first two recipes are Italian, a little Italian food music to take us to the “furthur,” music presented in three languages: English, Italian, and scat.

Spezzatino d’agnello
Lamb stewed with tomatoes and garlic, from the plains of Puglia, there in the heel of the Italian boot. A Puglian gentleman with a partially processed lamb puglia lambmay be observed there to the right.

There is currently something of a controversy concerning this dish, here on the home front. The Lady, who is in this household the lamb consumer, has decided that it “needs something”—perhaps, she says, potatoes. As is, she finds the dish “fatty,” which was probably the intent, when this dish originated, back in the day, when peasants needed fat, rather than to run top speed away from it.

So, there will commence experimentation. In the meantime, here is the dish, naked, as I nicked it from an Italian cookbook, with my usual variations, which mostly involve erring on the side of more garlic, less oil, and less salt. 

4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves stripped & minced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2.5 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into chunks
flour seasoned with fresh-ground black pepper
.75 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
14.5-ounce can Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes
.5 cup beef stock, heated

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in your dutch oven. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook over moderate heat until the garlic grows golden.

Dredge the lamb chunks in the flour. Add to the dutch oven in one layer. Turn to brown evenly. When browned, add the wine. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, scraping up the bits from the bottom. Sprinkle with the salt. Reduce heat. Stir in the tomatoes and the stock (you have meanwhile gently heated the latter in a small pan).

Cover the dutch oven and place in the center of the oven. Bake for roughly 1.5-2 hours, or until the lamb is quite tender.

Arrosto d’agnello con erbe e aglio
One of the simpler preparations of leg of lamb, and a dish also hailing from the south of Italy.

3-pound leg of lamb
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 large cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
2 sprigs fresh sage, leaves stripped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped
2 bay leaves
salt and fresh-ground black pepper
.75 cup dry white wine

Cut any excess fat from the lamb. Rub with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. With a sharp knife make small cuts under the skin all around the leg. Insert the garlic pieces into several of the cuts, the leaves of the sage, rosemary, and thyme into the others. Rub the remaining leaves and the bay leaves all over the lamb. Allow to stand in a cool place for at least 2 hours. Watch for cats.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the lamb in a baking pan, surrounded by the herbs you used to rub the thing. Pour over the leg the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add a dab of salt and some grinds from the pepper-shaker. Place in the oven and roast for 35 minutes, basting occasionally.

Pour the wine over the lamb. Roast for an additional 15 minutes, or until the meat is cooked. Remove the leg; tilt the pan, spooning off any fat on the surface. Strain the pan juices to transform into sauce. Slice the meat and serve with the sauce on the side.

Albondigas Sant Climent
Lamb meatballs, from the village of Tahull in the Spanish Pyrenees. A dish in which one may play with fire, as it requires igniting Spanish brandy.

david in tuhallA 12th Century mural removed from the wall of a church in Tuhall is pictured there to the left. It depicts someone in big trouble. Apparently that someone is Goliath, somewhere near the end of his struggle with David. The artist’s identity is unknown: s/he is referred to only as “the Master of Tahull.”

The fresco dates from that period when the conflict between David and Goliath was believed to represent an Old Testament manifestation of the earthly tussle between Christ and Satan. Because it was thought that the latter was then determinedly walking the earth, up to all sorts of no good, Spanish churchmen, and churchmen elsewhere, were then preparing to set fire to people, to sear the Lightbringer right out of their frames, and their spirits right out of life. 

1 pound ground lamb
1 egg
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
wee bit of salt
1 tablespoon coarse-ground pepper
.5 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons dry red wine
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons brandy, preferably Spanish, or cognac
4.5 teaspoons tomato sauce
.5 cup beef or veal stock

Combine the lamb, egg, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. In a separate bowl, moisten the bread crumbs with the wine. When the bread has gone soft, add to the meat mixture. Mix well. Form into roughly 30-35 bite-size meatballs.

Heat the oil in your dutch oven and brown the meatballs on all sides. Add the onion and cook until wilted. Pour in the brandy. Standing well back, children, toss in a match and set the mess on fire. Stir until the flames subside. Fish out the match. Add the tomato sauce and stock. Cover and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes.

Cassoulet de Toulouse
Over the border into France now, into those provinces nestling closest to Spain, and specifically Languedoc, from whence springs the fabled French dish cassoulet.

specialitesThe French, being French, quarrel endlessly over this bean-based concoction. The people of three separate towns in the Languedoc—Castelnaudry, Toulouse, and Carcassone—claim cassoulet as their own. The Castelnaudry cohort can become particularly haughty on the subject, as a zealous clutch of gastronomes managed to insert into the early editions of Larousse Gastronomique the assertion that Castelnaudry’s is the “only” cassoulet.

There is actually a fourth type of cassoulet, originating farther north, in the Dordogne, incorporating the fabled duck of Rocamadour. Partisans of this dish, cassoulet au confit de canard, do not argue that theirs is the “only,” or the “first,” or the “best,” only that it is very, very good.

The Toulouse variant, cassoulet de toulouse, is presented here partially on the pretense that “Toulouse” is the easiest of the four town-names for Anglo tongues to pronounce. And also because the Toulouse faction managed to muscle its variant onto the quelques spécialités map shown above: it’s the cassoulet that’s giving off heat there just above the border with Spain.

2 pounds dried white navy beans
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped
6 garlic gloves, finely chopped
.5 pound slab bacon, roughly chopped
1.25 pounds loin or shoulder of pork, in 2- to 3-inch chunks
1.75 pounds shoulder of lamb, in 2- to 3-inch chunks
1 pound coarse pork salami, hacked into 12 or 13 pieces
.25 cup tomato paste
7 cups water
fresh-ground black pepper
2 sprigs each fresh parsley and thyme
1 sprig each fresh rosemary and sage
2 bay leaves
at least 2 cups soft bread crumbs

Five-quart dutch oven needed for this dish.

Begin by rinsing the beans in cold water. Place in a large pot. Cover with cold water, and bring slowly to a boil. Simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and leave to soak while preparing the remaining ingredients.

Heat the oil in the dutch oven on medium heat and fry the onion and garlic until softened. Raise the heat and brown on all sides, in turn, the bacon, the pork, the lamb, and the salami. (Cassoulet purists will tell you that these meats should be placed in the dish whole, and cut up only after the dish is fully cooked. To this I say non, because rooting around in the finished cassoulet disturbs the carefully crafted bread crust. Therefore, and before browning, I cut the lamb and pork into large chunks—2-inch or 3-inch, usually—while roughly chopping the bacon slab, and hacking the salami into 12 or 13 chunks. Don’t use hard Italian salami; don’t use salami that is a mixture of beef and pork; seek out fatty pork salami only.)

After browning, remove each of the meats and set aside. Add the tomato paste to the pot with a little of the water and stir well to pick up the brown bits. Bring quickly to a boil.

You have meanwhile drained the beans, rinsed them, and put them in a clean pot with the remaining 6+ cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then dump the beans and water into the just-boiling cassoulet pot. Bury the bacon, pork, lamb, and salami in the beans. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add too the parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, and bay, tied together in a bouquet garni, and placed in cheesecloth. Bring all ingredients to a simmer.

Having achieved simmer, sprinkle on a thick layer of bread crumbs and place in the center of an oven preheated to 300 degrees. Cook for 2.5 to 3 hours. From time to time press down on the crust that has formed on the top and sprinkle atop another layer of bread crumbs. Tradition has it that this step must be repeated seven times, but generally three repetitions will do.

Now, obviously this thing is a massive belly bomb, suitable for a sizable family in some drafty abode besieged by howling gales and driving sleet, or perhaps a small army about to do battle with the legions of Lucifer. So handle with care. 

Mongolian Lamb
A real favorite around these parts, and a breeze to prepare an consume, especially after that Gothic cathedral of a 
cassoulet. Note that athough the Mongols were notorious for dining only on meat, this dish does contain vegetables—parsnips, which impart a pleasing sweetness.

1 pound lamb flank, sliced into strips
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons sherry
.5 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chicken stock
1 teaspoon to 3 tablespoons Thai chili paste

2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch strips
2 green onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil

Lamb flanks are cut and packaged quite thin, less than a quarter-inch wide; you want to cut them into strips about 1.5-inches long. Mix with the cornstarch and light soy sauce and let marinate for about 20 minutes.

Mix together in a bowl a thick sauce consisting of the dark soy sauce, sherry, sugar, chicken stock, and Thai chili paste. When a recipe calls for sherry, I always use amontillado, for reasons explained here. The amount of chili paste you’ll use will depend on what’s available: if you’ve managed to get hold of some of the genuine article, 1 or 2 teaspoons will do; if you must settle for some widely-distributed variant, like Thai Kitchen’s, you’ll want to heave it in by the tablespoon.

Peel the parsnips, then cut into strips 2-inches-long by .25-inch wide. Bring water to a boil in a small pot and then blanch the parsnips for 2 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok. Add the lamb, and stir-fry until about 80% cooked. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the wok and toss in the garlic. Stir for 30 seconds or so. Add the parsnips and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Hollow out a space in the midst of the ‘snips and pour in the sauce. Wait until it bubbles, then stir to coat the parsnips. Return the lamb to the wok, together with the green onions. Stir to coat and mix thoroughly. Remove from heat and add the sesame oil. Eat.

Shahi Gosht
And at last to India. This dish more or less translates to “Royal Lamb Curry,” and is particularly rich and complex. Some of the spices are too exotic for cultural backwaters like mine: I substitute yellow mustard seeds for the black, which are available here only via mail order; rather than pomegranate seeds, I must rely on pomegranate-flavored Greek-style yogurt. And so on.

tantra temple

This photo depicts what the Indians were up to, artistically and otherwise, during that period when Europeans were rendering works like the “David and Goliath” fresco previously featured. This is a detail from a temple built in the 12th Century, believed to be the work of a people devoted to a Moon god/dess. The contemporary whitewash of such freesome erotica is that because these scenes were featured on the outside of the temple, and not within, the message to worshippers was that they must leave behind such carnal delights in order to touch the divine. Not. Bloody. Likely.

1.25 pounds lean lamb, cut into cubes
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
.5 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions, chopped fine
1 teaspoon green chilis, minced

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons white poppy seeds
2 teaspoons pomegranate seeds
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic

1.33 cups yogurt
4 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

 Marinate the lamb cubes in the turmeric, corainder, and salt for 15 minutes.

Grind the cumin, mustard, poppy, and pomegranate seeds with a mortar and pestle. Add the ginger and garlic, then a little water, to form a coarse paste.

Heat the oil in a dutch oven. Add the onions, and saute until golden. Add the chilis. Stir a few times. Add the paste. Saute for a minute. Add the lamb: brown well. Then add the yogurt, with enough water (about two-thirds of a cup, depending on the type of yogurt) to make a thick sauce. Cover and cook over low heat until the lamb is tender. This will depend on the size of your cubes, but should run 30-45 minutes. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.

Kheema Mutter
Another nicely spiced lamb dish (aren’t they all?), this one generally a little hotter than the last. Tender-tongues can eschew the cayenne.

1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
10 black peppercorns
4 star anise
2 medium onions, chopped fine
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
8 tablespoons tomato puree
10 ounces ground lamb, minced
1 cup fresh green peas, or 4 ounces frozen
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat your dutch oven and add the sugar. Allow it to caramelize, then add the oil. When the oil becomes hot, add the pepper and star anise. Saute for a minute. Add the onions; saute until golden. Add the garlic and ginger. Stir a few times, then add the tomato puree. Cook over medium-low heat until the oil separates. Then add the lamb, peas, cayenne, turmeric, and garam masala. Cover and cook over low heat until the lamb is done, roughly 10-15 minutes.


13 Responses to “Peasant Palate: Lamb For Possum”

  1. 1 Jerry Northington July 24, 2009 at 7:02 am

    My mouth waters from reading this treatise. Many thanks. I have sampled some of your dishes in various restaurants nearby. Still not cooking here at home as only I eat lamb these days.

    How about some possum recipes? My one and only experience with possum on the table was terrible.


    • 2 bluenred July 29, 2009 at 7:25 pm

      I remember that piece. Thanks for the link so I could reread.

      I’m not sure that there exists a way to prepare possum so that it is edible, much less delectable. I think it’s one of those “eaten from desperation” foods. But I’ll do some research, and see what I can find.

  2. 3 Jerry Northington July 29, 2009 at 8:36 am

    The day I read this and posted the comment was one of rushing about at home. We left the house for errands and lunch. Lunch brought my mind back to this posting as lamb curry was on my menu. Eating that fine dish brought memories of Mongolian lamb and a wonderful small restaurant where I last had that fine portion. Even the memory makes me salivate with delight today.

    Thanks again. I am still savoring these recipes.


    • 4 bluenred July 29, 2009 at 10:01 am

      I’m glad you liked them. You should try making some of these, or better yet, start with the ones in the first “Peasant Palate.” Those were kept deliberately simple, for people either paralyzed by ennui, or new to, and consequently scared of, cooking. A guy brave enough to run for Congress needn’t be intimidated by a mere stove. You can do it. ; )

      • 5 Jerry Northington July 29, 2009 at 10:13 am

        The stove and I have never been friends. Baking is an option I do enjoy, but extending to real food may be a stretch. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for the encouragement.


  3. 6 bluenred July 29, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Possum, if you can bake, you can saute, stir-fry, simmer, boil, braise, roast, and all the rest. They’re all about the same things: combining ingredients, and applying heat. ; )

    • 7 Jerry Northington July 29, 2009 at 10:54 am

      Medicine is all about the same simple set of tasks. The issue is the end result. We shall see, but thanks. You are a real pal.


  4. 8 Jean Jeys August 12, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    I think if my Mother had your recipes I am sure I would have enjoyed the mutton she fixed. Since money was short she did the
    best she could. With most of her food it was very good. One of
    these days I will have to join you for one of the nummy dishes.

    • 9 bluenred August 13, 2009 at 10:29 am

      The recipes probably wouldn’t have done any good. Your mother had to work with mutton–old, tough, stringy sheep. These recipes presuppose “lamb,” which is defined as the creature slaughtered before it reaches the age of two. Still tender then.

  5. 10 Jean Jeys August 12, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    FORGOT!!! Thanks for bringing back the music of Louie Prima. He
    and others I grew up listening to on the radio.

  6. 11 smelf August 17, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Reading these makes me appreciate your cooking anew. Probably don’t tell you that often enough. You said the Mongolian lamb recipe was relatively easy, but it’s still too fussy for me to attempt. The Louie Prima was also smile-making.

  7. 12 Julia Rain August 20, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    I don’t really know what to say, but I didn’t want to be left out of the comment party! I find baking much easier than cooking, too. That’s probably because you don’t have to be constantly stirring, adjusting and adding stuff. You just have to make sure it doesn’t burn. I have a nuclear stove that scarred one of my new pots when I tried to make rice. I forgot that the word “simmer” means low heat, and since the recipe didn’t specifically tell me to change the temperature, and I remembered that simmer meant to just let it sit for a while, I let it “simmer” on medium heat. Oops. But the really scary thing is raw meat. I’d rather just chuck it in a baking pan, throw some spices over it and leave it in the stove until it’s in post-salmonella stage. I can’t even make hamburgers because when I flip them raw meat juices fly out of the pan and make me have to have a panic.

    • 13 bluenred August 24, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      Try lean beef for your hamburger. The leaner the beef, the less blood.

      Also try boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Not a lot of raw meat juices there, either. Just cut them up real quick and toss them in a wok for a fast stir-fry. Your meal will be ready so soon you won’t have time to dwell much on the rawness.

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