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Tradition in the Kitchen : Stew It Black


My grandmother may not have been the best cook in the world--her specialty was burned green beans--but what follows is the one main course Grandma made that I ate with enthusiasm, even passion. It remains one of my favorite recipes.

She called it lamb stew, but it was entirely her own invention. She said she thought prunes and lamb would go well together, though I suspect she actually created the dish because she was always searching for a way to sneak prunes into our diet.

Although Grandma's recipe was a stew, I've modified it--I boil down the liquid and juices until just enough remains to glaze the lamb. And though Grandma simmered the meat in a large pot for at least two hours, I use a pressure cooker, in which the lamb cooks to perfect, melting tenderness in only 30 minutes or so.

I like to serve this dish with a bold Cabernet Sauvignon (though Grandma certainly didn't).


3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Dash cayenne pepper

5 pounds lamb shanks, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces (cut each shank into thirds)

3 tablespoons oil

2 cups thinly sliced onions

1 cup thinly sliced celery, including leafy portion

1 medium clove garlic, minced

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 cups water

21 to 24 (1-inch-diameter) red potatoes or 6 larger ones, scrubbed, cut in half

2 cups pitted prunes, firmly packed

Combine flour, salt, black and cayenne peppers in gallon-size, heavy-duty plastic food bag and shake to mix. Add few pieces lamb at time and toss to coat with flour mixture until all lamb is coated. Shake off excess flour and place coated lamb on platter. If any flour mixture remains, set aside.

Heat large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, until hot. Add 1 tablespoon oil, and when film appears over oil, add only as much lamb as will fit without crowding. Brown lamb on all sides, in batches, over medium-high heat, 8 to 10 minutes, adding more oil as necessary to keep lamb from sticking. Remove lamb to bowl and set aside.

In same pan, add any remaining oil and saute onions and celery until onions are golden-brown. Sprinkle in any remaining flour mixture and add garlic. Cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Spoon mixture into 6-quart pressure cooker. Top with lamb. Add thyme, bay leaf and water.

Cook at full pressure 20 minutes. Add potatoes and prunes and cook at full pressure 10 minutes. Meat should be almost falling-off-bone tender and potatoes firm but done. If necessary, continue cooking without pressure just until potatoes are done.

Remove lamb and vegetables (discard bay leaf) with slotted spoon to large serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Tilt pan and skim off fat from top of sauce. Bring sauce to boil and reduce to about 1 cup or until very thick, stirring often, 5 to 10 minutes. Pour sauce over meat. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


To use traditional method, proceed as above, but spoon vegetables and lamb into large pot. Add thyme, bay leaf and 4 cups water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partly covered, 1 hour. Add potatoes and cook 30 minutes longer. Add prunes and cook until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes more. Gravy will reduce in about 15 minutes.

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