The last time we had lamb riblets, they were in a currylike dish with chickpeas. More recently, I came across some dried yellow eye beans at the farmers market, and this led to a dish that was similar in technique, but far different in flavor and tradition.
The woman who sold me the beans (from Cayuga Pure Organics) said they’d been so freshly dried that once I’d soaked them for five or six hours, they would take only 20 minutes to simmer. I smiled, nodded and said to myself, “Yeah, sure.” Well, she was right: After 15 minutes, they were pretty much done, though they’d need another few minutes to get really tender. It was at that stage that I let them cool and put them in the fridge.
My first impulse was to make one of those French-type lamb and bean stews, and I remembered that I had another 1-1/2 pound pack of those succulent riblets in the freezer. But I soon backed off this plan, perhaps because I had a bag of corn tortillas in the house. Or perhaps it was just a sudden yen for “Mexican” flavors. “Mexican” is in quotation marks for a reason: What I’m going to describe isn’t authentically Mexican or authentically Tex-Mex – or authentically anything. The best way to describe it is as a New Yorker’s Rio Grande fantasy.
Disclaimers out of the way, I’ll proceed.
My usual “Mexican” stew is made with beef and pork, generally diced by hand. But when I thought about the stew’s rich, spicy sauce, I realized it had an affinity with this particularly moist and flavorful cut of lamb. I began by sauteing diced onions, garlic, celery, cilantro stems and a couple of small, not-hot fresh peppers (one green cubanelle and one red) in good lard. When these were soft and just turning golden, I removed them from the casserole and put in the lamb, seasoned with salt and pepper, to brown very lightly. (I did it in this order so there would be a clear flavor of lard in the vegetables; if you can’t get good, tasty lard, don’t use it at all. First brown the meat in a little oil then add the vegetables to sweat in the oil and lamb fat.)
Meanwhile, I’d made a spice mixture: For a complex, not-very-hot blend, I used around two teaspoons each of cumin, coriander and Mexican oregano, a little shard of cinnamon stick, two cloves, two dried chipotle chilies and one small dried ancho chili, all ground in a spice/coffee grinder. (By all means, make it hotter if you wish and use your favorite chilies, though I wouldn’t omit the chipotles for the world.)
I added this to the browned meat, let it cook for a minute, then returned the vegetables to the pot. For liquid, I used a bottle of good beer, a big tablespoon of plain tomato sauce from the fridge (chopped tomato would work, too) and some stock (chicken as it happened, water would have been fine). I checked for salt and acidity — it needed a squeeze of lime juice, though I could have used a teaspoonful of vinegar. With the lid slightly ajar, I simmered this slowly until the meat was tender but not yet falling off the bone. At this point, I let it cool, then refrigerated it overnight, next to the cooked beans.
As dinner time approached, I removed most of the congealed fat from the top of the stew, brought it back to life on simmer and added plenty of nearly cooked beans. By the time the meat was ultra-tender, so were the beans. A final check for salt, and it was ready for the table.
This was a brothy stew with a deeply colorful, dense, rich but unthickened sauce, so we ate it with a spoon and fork (no knife needed), with warm corn tortillas, lime wedges, cilantro leaves and even a little grated cheese rolled up in some of the tortillas, which we used to sop up liquid. The lamb riblets were so perfect that I promised I’d never again make this kind of dish with beef and pork. That, of course, is a promise I shall not keep.
The funny thing is, the dish tasted entirely authentic. Authentic of what, I do not know, but it certainly had the ring of truth about it.