Lamb Stew With Cipollini Onions; get the recipe, below. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Some cooks head to the kitchen at the first sign of those in need, a bit like firefighters who rush to answer emergency calls. Homemade food can help when a friend is ill, a heart is broken, a new neighbor has moved in or a relative has welcomed home a new baby. In such situations, I turn to one recipe that is spirit-building and tummy-warming: lamb stew.

Although it is humble, a stew can achieve greatness. What is boeuf bourguignon but stew with a fancy name? A thick gravy cloaks large pieces of tender meat surrounded by hearty vegetables that burst with flavor. It brings comfort.

My first piece of advice is to ignore those packages of pre-cut “stew meat” in the grocery store. Generally, the pieces are too small and will disintegrate into nubs — not the least bit satisfying. Ask the butcher to cut the meat into 2-inch cubes or 4-by-1-inch strips. Alternatively, buy whole cuts and do it yourself. For this stew, I use lamb shoulder and a lamb shank. The latter adds flavor and lends a velvety texture with its bone, marrow and collagen.

Use a heavy pan that can take the heat, and brown the meat until it is suitably crusted. That deep color will tint the all-important gravy. The onions, too, need to brown significantly. Because small and sweet cipollini onions are more widely available, I was inspired to use them instead of the pearl onions I typically reach for. Any onions can be a pain to prep, but all the peeling is worth it for this stew.

Pour in a wine such as malbec, merlot, cahors: opulent choices for the gravy base and equally suitable in a glass alongside. This stew can stand up to a hearty red.

In my recipe, some vegetables cook with the meat, while others are added at the end. Potatoes cannot take the hours of cooking called for, so boil them separately and stir them in along with the peas, which go in minutes before the dish is done. But carrots and celery, which flavor both the meat and the gravy, benefit from a slow, burbling bath. Abundant herbs are tied into a bundle that includes star anise, which subtly echoes some of the spice notes of the wine.

Give this stew time. Two hours in the oven or about eight hours in the slow cooker will yield a beautiful, satisfying meal. If possible, give it a day’s rest in the refrigerator so the flavors can get to know each other.

Serve it to those who are recovering. This stew tastes as if it’s good for just about anything that ails them.

Barrow is a Washington cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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Lamb Stew With Cipollini Onions

12 servings (makes 3 quarts)

In addition to the stove-top-and-oven method, this stew can be done in a slow cooker; see the VARIATION below.

Ask the butcher to cut up some boneless lamb shoulder for you, or do it yourself -- rather than reach for the lamb labeled “stew meat” in the meat department -- so you’ll have nice, big pieces. The sweetness of small, whole cipollini onions is particularly delicious here. But if you can’t find them, use pearl onions, which won’t take as long to brown. Frozen/defrosted pearl onions will work in this recipe.

Serve with a green salad and warm dinner rolls.

MAKE AHEAD: Like all slow braises, this stew tastes even better the next day. Leftovers can be spooned over pasta or rice or thinned with broth for a soupy version of the original. The base stew freezes like a dream. Don’t freeze the potatoes and peas, but rather wait to add them when reheating.

From Bring It! columnist Cathy Barrow.

Ingredients

2/3 cup flour

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 lamb shank (1 to 11/2 pounds total)

2 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder (excess fat trimmed), cut into 2-inch chunks

12 ounces cipollini onions, root ends removed (see headnote)

6 medium carrots (trimmed), scrubbed well and cut crosswise into 1-inch chunks

3 ribs celery, cut crosswise in 1/2-inch slices

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Herb bundle, tied with kitchen twine (10 parsley stems, 6 thyme stems, 2 rosemary stems, 1 bay leaf, 1 whole star anise)

3 wide strips lemon peel (no pith)

2 cups robust red wine, such as malbec or merlot

4 cups no-salt-added chicken or veal broth

10 to 15 tiny red potatoes or 8 to 12 medium red potatoes (11/2 pounds total)

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen petite green peas

Steps

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut a piece of parchment to fit just inside the pot.

Place 1/3 cup of the flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl; stir in 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper.

Heat the oil in a large (5-quart or larger) Dutch oven or a big, heavy skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the lamb shank and brown well on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl. Keep the pan over medium heat.

Use paper towels to pat dry the pieces of lamb shoulder. Coat the meat in the seasoned flour, then add it to the hot pan, taking care not to crowd the pan. Brown the pieces on all sides, then transfer them to the bowl holding the shank.

Add the cipollini onions to the pan and brown them well, turning them at least once; this should take about 10 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and butter, stirring to coat as the butter melts into the oils in the pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup of flour over the vegetables in the pan, stir well and cook until the flour begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the herb bundle, the strips of lemon peel and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper.

Slide the lamb shank and pieces of lamb shoulder, plus any accumulated juices, into the pan. Pour the wine over everything and turn up the heat, bringing the wine to a boil and cooking off the strong alcohol smell, 3 to 5 minutes once it’s boiling. Add the broth and bring to a boil.

Cover the stew with the parchment paper (placing it directly on the surface) and then cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Transfer to the middle oven rack and cook until the meat is tender, 11/2 to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a medium saucepan. Cover with water and add a big pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook until tender, 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the potatoes’ size. Drain.

Once the stew is finished, discard the herb bundle and strips of lemon peel. (If the star anise has slipped out, be sure to search for it; nobody wants to bite into that.) Remove the lamb shank from the stew; detach the meat and return it to the pot in chunks. Discard the bone.

Add the cooked potatoes to the stew, then stir in the peas, which will cook through with the heat of the stew in a minute or two. Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed.

Serve piping hot, in shallow bowls.

VARIATION: To make this stew in the slow cooker, follow the directions above, browning the shank and flour-coated meat, then browning the onions, and cooking the alcohol off the wine. If you have a slow cooker with a saute function, those steps may be accomplished in the slow cooker. Combine the meats, onions, carrots, celery, seasonings and broth (everything except the potatoes and peas) in the slow cooker. If you have a dual-heat slow cooker, bring the stew to a boil on HIGH before reducing the heat to LOW; cook for 7 to 9 hours, until the meat is tender. Remove the shank from the stew and take the meat off the bone, cutting it into chunks before putting it back in the slow cooker. Add the cooked potatoes and heat for another few minutes, until the potatoes are warmed through, then stir in the peas.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Recipe tested by Cathy Barrow; email questions to food@washpost.com

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