This evening, I left work dreaming of leeks, of butter melting in a cast-iron pot, of the scent of wine as it cooks down in a pan. I was dreaming of cooking for fun, for friends, for a party. Dreaming of spending an afternoon at the stove with nothing else to do, no bills to pay, no children’s homework to check, no work waiting in the wings. I was dreaming of cooking, pure and simple.
A casual comment of a colleague had sent my mind, tongue, and belly spiraling in that direction. “You’re going to go home and cook dinner,” he said. Yes, I was, but what I do most nights is less about cooking, and more about eating. I’m hungry, so I make myself some food. It’s rarely cooking.
I long for the time in the kitchen to make a casual fritto misto, to poach a salmon, to char a steak over charcoal. To try a new recipe. But that’s not my life right now. I work, I squeeze in a grocery shop once a week, and then I try and rescue old broccoli and green beans and turn them into something healthy and appetizing. Did you know you can cook a chicken well past its expiration date? Yes, you can. Then I have ten minutes to talk with my wife before I collapse with exhaustion. Of course, it’s never really that bad, but it often feels that way.
Once when I was a boy I saved money from odd jobs and I bought myself a ten-speed bicycle. I think I spent as much time riding it as I did polishing its blue frame, silver wheels, and leather seat. I took care of that thing. Owning it felt like money in the bank.
These days, I feel the same way about what’s in my freezer, and riding home on the subway I remembered that there was a bit of lamb-and lima-bean stew in it, left over from a dinner party I threw last fall. When I wrote about the dish last year, I compared it to a French daube I had once had while in Provence years ago. It was that good.
As soon as I entered my apartment (and just after hugging Nina and Pinta), I pulled the container out of the freezer, dropped the frozen stew in my thick-bottomed Le Crueset, and put it on the lowest heat possible. I got the girls ready for bed, read to them, and kissed them goodnight. Then I sat down for a French country meal. It might not have been what I was dreaming of, but it was mighty tasty all the same.
French Country Lamb Stew, with Beans and Olives
- 1 cup dried pinto beans—soaked overnight in water to cover, drained and rinsed
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch, or smaller, pieces
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 1/2 ounces finely chopped pancetta
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 large shallots, minced
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/3-1/2 cup dry red wine
- 4 cups stock (I used vegetable stock, from bullion, which is all I had on hand, but the original recipe calls for 4 cups beef stock or 1 can low-sodium beef broth diluted with 3 cups of water)
- 1 1/2 cups frozen baby lima beans
- 2/3 cup Calamata olives, pitted and halved
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley
In a medium saucepan, cover the dried beans with water. Simmer the beans with the bay leaf over low heat until tender, about 45 minutes. Leave the beans in their cooking water.
In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add half of the lamb and season with salt and pepper. Brown the meat over moderately high heat, about 3 minutes per side; transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining oil and lamb.
Add the pancetta and butter to the casserole and cook over low heat until the pancetta is slightly crisp, about 4 minutes.
Add the shallots and cook until softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes.
Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Stir in the tomato paste and then the wine and simmer, stirring, for 3 minutes.
Whisk in the stock until smooth and bring to a boil.
Return the lamb to the casserole and simmer over low heat, skimming a few times, until the lamb is tender, about 1 hour.
Drain the dried beans, add them to the stew and simmer for 15 minutes longer.
Cook the lima beans in a small saucepan of boiling water until tender, about 4 minutes; drain well.
Add the lima beans to the stew and season with salt and pepper.
Stir in the olives.
Spoon the stew into shallow bowls, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.
Notes: Freezes well!!!