Sunday, October 3, 2010

The night the windows steam.

Perhaps it was talking to my dad about laying in firewood for the winter. He reminded me of the way to remember to lay a good fire, which was to first remember the middle of a long poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, Snowbound, which was to remember my Uncle Joe, who quotes the poem often while laying fires.

...We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back, --
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art

The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free...

Read the whole poem here. 

Perhaps it was driving up to Skagit Valley in a convertible today, too chilly, shouting over the whipping wind, passing pumpkins in fields, pumpkins on country porches.

Perhaps it was the presence of five quince, left over from a "fried pie" cooking demo at the Queen Anne Farmer's Market, at which an old woman from Louisiana rewound her life to childhood in the first bite and took her granddaughter (brought to the market demo specifically to meet fried pies) with her--grasped urgently by the hand and exhorted to remember, too, the place she had never known but that lived in her blood all the same.

Whatever it was, I made a stew for a Sunday night. I should have invited friends, for the pot that causes the windows to steam that first evening in the fall deserves company--started in daylight, bubbling, liminal, to nighttime. It's not a stew that evokes my childhood, save for the comfort, the heat, the cleared sinuses, the steamy forehead by lamplight.

I had read a recipe last fall that featured quince in a lamb stew. I couldn't remember where I saw it, but it had generally northern African spices. My version is brazen in its disregard for state boundaries, and draws instead on cuisines from many of the countries that border the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. It is spicy from the chilis, tart from the quince, rich from the lamb, sweet from the honey. I hope you enjoy it, and that it will comfort you when cold and dark are outside and warmth and light are with you and your bowl.

Spicy Lamb and Quince Stew

2 lbs. lamb shoulder, cut in large chunks
6 T. olive oil
2-3 T. coriander seeds, toasted and crushed
2-3 T. cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3-4 hot red chilis, stemmed and cut into thirds
2-3 T. sweet paprika
1 1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 t. saffron threads
one cinnamon stick
2-3 onions, chopped
salt and black pepper
1 c. water
4 c. chicken stock
4 T. tomato paste
3 T. honey
5-6 quince, cored and cut into chunks (no need to peel)
1 c. Israeli couscous

Put lamb in a large bowl and add 1/2 the olive oil, the garlic, coriander, cumin, chilis, paprika, and cayenne. Stir to coat the lamb, cover, and refrigerate 24 hours.

Put the rest of the oil in a large dutch oven and brown the lamb in batches, removing to a plate to rest. Remove all but a coating of the oil. Add the water to deglaze the pot, scraping up the brown bits. Add the lamb (with juices) back to the pot, and add the saffron, cinnamon, onions, salt and pepper (start with 1 t. of each--add more salt at the very end to taste), chicken stock, and tomato paste.

Stew at low heat (just a simmer) for 1 1/2 hours or until the lamb is fork tender. Add the quince and the honey and stew for another hour. Add couscous in the last 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve with cilantro leaves.