Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Comfort Food I: Molly Stevens' Braised Stuffed Lamb

It's winter on the East Coast and it's supposed to be cold I always say! But DC has been walloped with three storms in 8 days making this winter the snowiest on record ever. The capital of the free world has been shut down for four and a half days as I write this, and we have been hunkered down in our condo for seven days!

At the beginning it was all fun and novel. There were tweets for mass snowball fights at Dupont Circle and other locales. Brian and I went cross country skiing out our front door and were interviewed by journalists from Finland and Belgium. I was even photographed by the AP! Back before the cabin fever set in, we even decided to have some friends over for dinner on the Saturday night of Snow-pocalypse. No one would be going out to the movies or to any bars or anything. So why stay home watching the tube when you can hang out with friends over some cozy comfort food?

Comfort food usually involves two things: the oven and foods from childhood, including Sunday suppers like roasted chicken, meatloaf, casseroles, etc. and for me, especially something braised in red wine using my French (nee Dutch) oven. And so it was that I consulted my braising bible (All About Braising by Molly Stevens) and my freezer to see what might intersect. I was thinking about revisiting my EDF (eating down the fridge) meal of beef burgundy which I love to make, but the freezer only gave up a ham and a boneless lamb leg, which I'd bought last summer (gasp!) imagining I'd be grilling it with a yogurt marinade. Molly's recipe for the lamb is actually the cover recipe for her cookbook. It was a little less complicated than the ham recipe that calls for madeira, which I don't have, while the lamb preparation called for a red wine braise, and our wine cabinet is still full of bottles received at our annual holiday party.

Molly's braised lamb stuffed with herbs was an uncomplicated preparation with simple, accessible ingredients. Most braised meat dishes follow a simple five step cooking process:
  1. Brown the meat on the outside and set aside
  2. Cook the aromatic vegetables (usually, onions, carrots, garlic, etc.)
  3. Deglaze with wine and stock and reduce
  4. Return the meat to the pan and simmer for two plus hours until the meat is super tender
  5. Finish the sauce by reducing and thickening if desired
Normally I like to do a braised meat dish a day ahead, letting it cool in its braising liquid and really soak up the flavors. A simple reheat before serving and no one would complain about being served leftovers. This post cooking marinade guarantees tenderness and full umami as most braised dishes do indeed taste better the next day. But Friday evening was taken up with baking bread, so I decided to just make the lamb the evening it would be served. Give yourself a good 45 minutes to prepare the stuffing, brown the lamb, saute the veggies, and reduce the braising liquid before the dish is to go in the oven for its two and a half hours. Molly doesn't recommend it here, but I also decided to marinate the lamb in red wine for almost a day. Not a requirement but just my take that marinading up front is also beneficial.

Molly's recipe calls for a 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, while I had on hand a frozen 3.25 pound boneless leg. I kept all her proportions the same for the aromatics and the stuffing, figuring that any extra sauce would make a delicious soup the next day (which it did with aplomb with a simple addition of some additional aromatics, stock, tomatoes, leftover green beans, and leftover penne!).

The only substitution I had to make was curly parsley for flat leaf. I never buy curly parsley! Who would have thought that my local Yes Organic Market would have had a run on the flat leaf parsley during the storms? Herbiage not withstanding, here is this very simple and delicious meal, perfect for a cold winter night. Serving it with polenta and green beans couldn't have been homier!

Herb Stuffed Leg of Lamb Braised in Red Wine

Adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Cooking Time: 2 to 2 ½ hours


One 5-pound boneless leg of lamb (plus reserved bones, sawed or chopped into 1-inch pieces; optional); [Mine was just 3¼ pounds]
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

The stuffing:

½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley; stems reserved [I had to use curly!]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, mint, rosemary, and/or sage (in any combination) [I used all except the sage]
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon ground allspice

The braise:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, mint, rosemary, and/or sage (the same combination you used in the stuffing)
2 bay leaves
Reserved parsley stems from the stuffing, torn into 4-inch lengths
1 cup dry red wine
2 cups lamb, veal, or chicken stock, homemade or store-bought [I happened to have a combo of homemade beef and lamb stock that I'd made after Christmas using bones from a rib roast and a leg of lamb.]


1. Trimming the lamb: open the lamb out flat, fat side down, on your work surface. If there are any especially thick spots, make a lengthwise incision with a knife, without cutting through the meat, and lay it open like a book. You want to get the meat as even in thickness as possible while keeping it intact. Season the cut side generously with salt and pepper.

2. The stuffing: in a small bowl, combine the parsley, mixed herbs, shallot, garlic, and allspice. Stir until evenly mixed together.

3. Stuffing and shaping the lamb: spread the stuffing over the cut side of the leg of lamb with a rubber spatula [I used my hands]. Press the stuffing into the meat with your hands to make it adhere, and spread it around so that it covers the entire inside surface. Roll the lamb up into a cylinder, and tie it neatly and snugly with kitchen string. Season the outside of the meat with salt and pepper. (The lamb can be prepared to this point and refrigate for up to 18 hours before braising. When you are ready to braise the lamb, remove it from the refrigerator, and let it sit at room temperature while you heat the oven.)

4. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

5. Browning the lamb: add the oil to a heavy lidded Dutch oven or braising pan just large enough to hold the lamb (5-quart), and heat it over medium-high heat until it simmers. Lower the lamb into the pot with tongs, and brown it evenly, turning to brown all sides, until mahogany in spots but not at all burnt, 10 to 12 minutes total. Transfer the lamb to a platter. Add the bones to the pot if you have them, and brown them as best you can without charring, turning them ever 4 minutes, for about 12 minutes. Set aside with the lamb. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pot. If the bottom is at all blackened, wipe those bits out with a damp paper towel, doing your best to leave behind the caramelized juices.

6. The aromatics and braising liquid: return the pot to medium-high heat, add the onion and carrots, and sauté, stirring, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir it in with a wooden spoon so it coats the carrots and onions. Add the teaspoon of herbs, the bay leaves, and parsley stems. Pour in the wine and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping with the spoon to dislodge all those wonderful caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the pot from browning the lab. Boil to reduce the wine by about half, about 2 minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes allowing the flavors to meld.

7. The braise: return the lamb to the pot, along with any juices that have seeped from the meat, and tuck the bones, if using, around the meat. Cover with a piece of parchment paper, pressing down so the paper nearly touched the meat and the edges extend over the sides of the pot by about an inch. Then put the lid in place, and slide the pot onto a rack in the lower third of the oven. After about 15 minutes, check to see that the liquid is simmering gently, not aggressively. If it’s simmering too vigorously, lower the oven heat 10 or 15 degrees. Continue to braise, turning the lamb with tongs and basting once or twice, until the meat is fork-tender and cooked through, 2 to 2 ½ hours.

8. The finish: transfer the lamb to a carving board with moat or platter to catch the juices, and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Strain the pan juices into a saucepan, and skim off and discard excess fat – there may be as much ½ cup, so it’s a good chance to use your gravy separator, if you have one. Bring the sauce to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes t concentrate the flavor and thicken it some. Taste: if it tastes too brothy, boil for another 3 or 4 minutes. Taste again for salt and pepper.

9. Serving: remove the string from the lamb, pour any juices that have accumulated on the carving board into the sauce, and carve the lamb into ½ inch slices. Arrange the slices on dinner plates or a serving platter, and pour over enough sauce to moisten. Pass the remaining sauce at the table.

Note on working ahead: The lamb can be seasoned, rolled, tied, covered, and refrigerated up to 18 hours before braising (steps 1 and 2) [I simply marinated mine in the red wine.]