Ever since we spent a half-year in West Australia, where sheep is king, my wife and I have been lamb lovers. But as everyone knows, lamb is fatty, far from ideal for health-conscious eaters in these cholesterol-counting times.
Nonetheless, we've kept an eye out for good lamb deals and when a colleague of my wife's disclosed that he raised pasture-fed lambs on his farm in Harwood, Md., she put in an order for one.
Recently we claimed our lamb after it had been reduced to 40 pounds of various cuts and wrapped and labeled by a local butcher. We hoped that by virtue of its natural diet it would be lean and mean, but the first package of stew meat we opened turned out to be just about as shot through with fat as its store-bought kin.
We thought about ways to reduce the animal fat content and still make a hearty stew, and gave a try to a recipe that proved as delectable as any lamb stew either of us can remember, with a minimum of fat in the bargain.
The key was judicious use of the trimming knife, which I wielded with fastidious devotion, cutting away everything that hinted of white until all that was left was a pound or so of prime red meat, mostly in quite small chunks, and about half a pound of trimmings.
To replace the fat, we put about a quarter-cup of virgin, green olive oil, which is supposed to be good for you, in the bottom of our big, French cast-iron stewing pot.
We heated the oil and tossed in a couple of chopped cloves of garlic, which we saute'ed over medium heat for five minutes, all of which makes the kitchen smell so good you don't care if you eat anything anyway. Then we threw in the defatted lamb chunks and let them brown in the oil for five or 10 minutes.
To that richly aromatic mix we added a couple tablespoons of flour to thicken the gravy, then poured in a half-cup or so of white wine and a like amount of water, salted and peppered everything and put the cover on to let it simmer for an hour, checking from time to time and adding wine and water to keep a half-inch or so of liquid in the pan.
Meantime, we were busy cutting four or five medium-size potatoes and four or five carrots into chunks, and chopping up two onions and a half-cup of fresh parsely.
After an hour, we tossed the carrots, potatoes and onions in, along with a teaspoonful of caraway seed, adding more wine and water to keep an inch or so of broth bubbling away in the bottom. We salted and peppered to taste again and let the mixture simmer for a half-hour, until the potatoes were just past the crunchy stage. We threw in the chopped fresh parsley for the last five minutes.
The result was a wonderfully hearty, simple winter meal of mostly pungent potatoes and carrots, with just enough meat, onions and spicy broth to keep it interesting. The lamb itself is so rich in taste that a little bit goes a long way, anyway.
"This is how meat ought to be used in a stew -- sparingly," said my health-oriented wife contentedly. When the kids demanded seconds, we knew we had a winner.
When I was a boy, lamb stew was a family staple in the winter, mostly because the local A&P offered a very inexpensive lamb combination package including a leg, tenderloin and shoulder chops, plus a pile of stew meat at the bottom of the packet.
But we always cooked the stewing meat pretty much as it came from the store, and the resulting gruel swam with grease and was unpleasant, at least to my refined 8-year-old's taste.
But by cutting away the animal fat beforehand and replacing it with olive oil, you not only improve the product from a health standpoint, you add a delectable new flavor to the mix.
Served with crusty French bread and a light white wine, it's a cold-weather meal fit for a peasant. A very happy, healthy, sassy peasant.