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LAMB STEW WITH ROASTED WINTER SQUASH, POMEGRANATE MOLASSES, AND MINT

I have been meaning to give you this recipe for a few weeks.  Not yet having done so, I find myself in the unusual state of hoping winter will stay and chill us just a few days longer, until I can share this recipe with you.  As such, my heart saddened a little as I saw the pale pink blossoms while walking with Elinor through the park a few days ago.  But I was fortified to see the daffodils with their green blades still merely stretching for the clear, blue sky, not yet smiling up at us with their open-topped top-hat blossoms.  A false prediction of snow last night, what would have been the first in 35 years in San Francisco, was also encouraging.  So I have made it, pushing the “publish” button while it is still a nippy 40 degrees outside, cold enough to need a cup of steaming tea to sip and to wrap myself in a woolen blanket.

I hope I have left you enough of your cold months to make my most loved braise of the late winter.  While the hunter’s stew of beef shank, garlic, rosemary, and an ungodly amount of pepper has been Dave’s favorite this season and I was quite taken by the pork shoulder braised with ancho chiles and mole-inspired spices we served for a major sporting Sunday last month, this unexpected braise has won my heart.  Far more visually varied than the standard rainbow of browns we expect from braises, this one—with its orange chunks, green threads, and little ruby  jewels— also deviates from the typical singular flavor of a braise.  Usually, braises are rich and soulfully satisfying, but you must rely on other accompaniments to enliven this tendency.  Some bitter greens, for example, or a wine with plenty of acidity.  But this version layers sweet winter squash, juicy pomegranates, and bright mint onto the spoon-tender lamb.  Now get cooking before the cherry blossoms drop, the tulips smile, and the birds begin to sing.

Lamb Stew with Roasted Winter Squash, Pomegranate Molasses, and Mint
Inspired the Styrian braised lamb shoulder at Bar Bambino

After having this deconstructed stew at Bar Bambino early this year, it has become my go-to braise.  I make it almost every weekend, and it lasts two or three nights.  My favorite part about it–aside from its vibrant colors and diverse textures–is that there is minimal hands-on time, and I can make each component whenever I have a few minutes on the day I’m going to serve it or even a day or two ahead.  The lamb and squash are easy to reheat.

3 pounds lamb shoulder
2.25 teaspoons unrefined sea salt, plus more for seasoning
4 pounds butternut squash (or any other dense, sweet winter squash)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
3 cups pomegranate juice, ideally, freshly pressed
2 handfuls of fresh mint
1 cup lamb, beef, or chicken stock
2 large pomegranates

Serves 8 generous portions.

C O O K .

One to three days ahead. Rinse the meat and cut into 1.5″ cubes.  Pat dry.    Rub the salt into the meat.  Wrap the meat in parchment paper and leave on a plate in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook.

The day of.

  • Roast the squash. Heat the oven to 350°F (325°F is fine if you’re cooking the squash at the same time as the lamb; it will just take longer to cook).  Peel the skin from the squash with a vegetable peeler.  Slice the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and pulp.  Cut the squash into 1″ cubes.  Toss with a glug of extra-virgin olive oil and a generous amount of unrefined sea salt.  Spread the squash on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Cook until the tip of a sharp knife slides in and out with no resistance, about 45 minutes.  If I  make the squash ahead, I heat the squash in a large skillet on medium-low heat for 15 or 20 minutes before serving.
  • Braise the lamb.At least between 2.5 and 8 hours before serving, preheat the oven to 325°F.  Put the lamb into a 2.5 quart  lidded baking dish (I use this Le Creuset).  Pour in 1 cup of pomegranate juice and the stock.  The liquid should come between 1/4 and 1/3 up the total height of the meat; if it doesn’t, add water as necessary.  Place a piece of parchment paper over the opening of the pot and press it into the pot so that it’s barely touching the meat.  Then cover the paper and the pot with the lid.  The lamb should braise for at least 2.5 hours to become tender enough to fall apart with the press of a spoon.  I often braise it for 5 or 6 hours.  The key is to check the amount of liquid ever hour or so to ensure that it doesn’t reduce below 1/4 the height of the meat.  If the liquid is getting too low, add some warm stock or water until it reaches the approach height.  Take the lamb out of the oven about 30 minutes before you want to eat so that it cools slightly.
  • Make the pomegranate molasses. Pour two cups of the pomegranate juice into a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat.  Allow the juice to sputter on at a low simmer until reduced by half or more, about 1 hour.  Do not let the molasses boil, or it will spatter its dark juices aggressively about.  While the molasses is still warm, pour it into a serving vessel.  The molasses will thicken as it cools.
  • Prep the pomegranate and mint.
    • Pomegranates.  Slice the pomegranates in half vertically.  Place a bowl in the bottom of the sink.  Rest the open side of the pomegranate on top of one hand and open your fingers slightly.  With the other hand, use the back of a wooden spoon to spank the pomegranate, letting the seeds fall through your fingers into the bowl while the bitter white pith stays in your palm.  Set the pomegranate seeds aside.
    • Mint.  After cleaning the mint, stack the leaves on top of one another and roll them into a cigar-like shape.  Then thinly slice of pieces from the roll, and set aside.
  • Finish the stew.
    • Braising liquid.If you like, you can strain the braising liquid, though I never do.  And if you’re uncomfortable with the amount of fat in it, you can put it in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes to solidify the fat, allowing you to remove it.  I rarely remove the fat because it makes this dish even more satisfying, but, if I do, I save the fat to use with scrambled eggs or for sautéing braised greens   Of course, if you put the liquid in the refrigerator, you’ll have to reheat it before serving.
    • Plating. Make a pool of the braising liquid on the bottom of each shallow bowl.  Portion the lamb and squash among the bowls.  Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and mint.  Bring the pomegranate molasses to the table and ask eaters to drizzle some over their stew.

L I T T L E  E A T S . This stew sends Elinor into her own world, meaning that she spends dinnertime happily popping little pieces of squash, lamb, and pomegranate—all variously flecked with mint—and not paying even a bit of attention to us.

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2011

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ApresFete - Such a beautiful dish which makes it great for entertaining. I love the heartiness of the lamb brightened by the fresh tang of the pomegranate. Such a well rounded dish. While I’m ready for Spring (peas, asparagus, spring onions, green garlic!!) I appreciate the delicious recipe. Looking forward to your interpretations of the next season.March 19, 2011 – 11:23 pm

J3nn (Jenn's Menu and Lifestyle Blog) - I’m intrigued by the pom molasses. Sounds very interesting and flavorful.March 16, 2011 – 11:37 am

Hoddy - So colorful!March 9, 2011 – 12:18 pm

Alana - The first time I had this was when you made it for friends and it knocked us out it was so delicious and it looks beautiful. The next time you asked us to make it. I was skeptical to begin with as there are many steps. It turned out to be simple though since each step can be done individually at any time during the day and then just compiling it right before serving!! Thank you for introducing me to another wonderful recipe!!February 28, 2011 – 2:27 pm

Soames - I wish you had posted this when I was looking for something to do with the thirty pomegranates we had just havested from the Haver’s tree! I will keep the molasses in mind for next year.February 28, 2011 – 2:22 pm

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