Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Autumn Arrives

Today is the first full day of Autumn, and here in the Empire State, the sun is shining, the sky is bright blue, and there is just the right amount of bite in the air; fall has not disappointed us, thus far. I am happy to report that New York State apples are in the supermarkets (I grabbed a bag of Cortlands, but am eagerly awaiting the first crunchy Macouns), and pumpkins are aplenty. I've already aired out my fall sweaters, have stowed my tank tops away until 2009.

I'm nesting here, in my tiny, red cottage; I've been cooking hearty meals, and sleeping a lot more hours than I have in some time. As a result, I feel healthier, and I look healthier, too. This morning I threw together an African Lamb Stew, and it has been simmering on the stove for hours, filling my cozy little home with exotic fragrances, and memories of Botswana. For those of you who haven't read my Spice+Life Blog, I posted this recipe last year, and it's one of my favorites. Perfect for a chilly, Autumn evening, like tonight.

From SPICE + LIFE, January 15, 2008

There are some meals in life that for whatever the reason--taste, setting, company, two too many glasses of Cabernet--that you remember forever. I have several meals that stand out over the years that I feel are worthy of taking up precious space in my ever-dwindling supply of brain cells, and I am happy to share them with you today.

-A lobster roll, at Red's Eats in Wiscasset, Maine. So good, I gobbled it down in three bites, then went back for another.

-A plain, brown paper bag filled with briny, juicy, indescribably delicious, fried whole-belly clams, on Martha's Vineyard.

-Ropa Vieja at Puerta Sagua's in South Beach, Miami.

-My grandmothers matzoh ball soup.

-The mixed green salad with a farmers egg, at Blue Hill Restaurant in Pocantico Hills.

-Linguini with manilla clams, made by Juan, at the Fish Market in San Diego.

-Ravioli Alfredo at Luna's, on Mulberry Street in Little Italy.

-A bowl of hot chicken broth that Jerry brought me after three days of not eating because of a bout of food poisoning.

-A 3-lb, perfectly grilled lobster, at Charlie's Crab in Hilton Head.

-My first fish taco, at Fred's in San Diego (and then another a few days later at Taco Loco in Laguna Beach, after a morning of surfing lessons).

-Grilled hotdogs, at Rumrunners, on the beach at Hilton Head.

-Lamb stew, at Savuti Camp, Botswana.

As I look over my list, I'm amused at how diverse it is; clearly I'm not swayed by ethnicity or pricetag! Instead, I like to think (outside of the food poisoning, and my grandmothers Perfect 10 matzoh ball soup), that these meals were special not just because they tasted good, but because they were part of a road trip, an adventure, a departure from the everyday blah, blah, blah baked chicken. Certainly I've had my share of lamb stew in my lifetime (thank you, St. Patrick), but when I enjoyed it under a starlit sky in Botswana, sitting around a candlelit table, with Arlene, a bakers dozen of strangers, and safari guides, with elephants trumpeting at the waterhole just feet away, and plenty of good wine being poured freely and generously, it suddenly became the best lamb stew of my life.

And so, I encourage you to take a day this weekend, or the next, to get in your car and just drive. Drive to a town you've never been to, but always wanted to explore. Or, head into the nearest city, and take a chance on a restaurant that might open your mind, and your palate. For if there is one thing I've learned on my culinary journey, it's that you don't have to travel the globe for a wonderful meal; sometimes, the taste of a salty hotdog on a hot August afternoon, can remain in your memory for a lifetime.

African Lamb (or beef) Stew (PRINT RECIPE CARD)
2 lbs. boneless shoulder of lamb, cut into 2-inch chunks (or, feel free to substitute stewing beef)
2-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon hot paprika
16 oz can chopped tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest (no pith)
1 cinnamon stick, or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup dried apricots
Salt + pepper (to taste)
1/2 toasted (in a dry skillet) pine nuts (optional)

Place a bit of olive oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat, and cook meat in batches until browned on all sides (add more olive oil as needed). Place meat in a stock pot, then saute onion and garlic in the skillet or wok until tender. Add onions and garlic to stockpot along with chicken stock, cumin, paprika, tomatoes, orange zest, and cinnamon, and cook over medium-low heat for approximately 2 hours. Add apricots, and continue to cook until beef it fork-tender (about another 1/2 - 1 hour). Season with salt and pepper, if needed. When ready to serve, spoon over white rice, couscous, or mealie meal (cooked white cornmeal), and top with toasted pine nuts.

Serves 4.

PS. This is even better the next day, so if you have the time, make the stew one day ahead, then reheat

This is a photo I keep on my desk of my sister-in-law, Arlene, and me in Africa. We had just enjoyed a few sundowners out in the bush (Sundowners are the safari equivalent of happy hour, except there's usually not a chance of getting eaten by a lion at your neighborhood pub). I don't recall what has Arlene laughing so hard in this picture, but I tend to think it has something to do with the absurdity of having a wild elephant meandering by directly behind us as we posed.

Suzanne Brown 1.15.07

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