Words by David Tanis, The New York Times News Service
Sometimes making dinner is an exercise in spontaneity. You may have certain ingredients on hand and a general notion of the outcome, but not necessarily a plan for getting there.
That’s part of the fun of cooking: leaving room for spur-of-the-moment ideas, or even a shift in direction.
I had a nice boneless lamb shoulder roast, and first thought of steaming it to tenderness in the Moroccan style and eating it with harissa oil, toasted crushed cumin and coarse salt. Or I could have prepared it in a more French manner, studding it with garlic, rubbing it with rosemary and thyme and roasting it medium-rare. It’s an easy dinner, and the shoulder roast, to me, is tastier than the leaner and pricier hind leg.
What I really wanted, though, was something brothy and stewlike. I appreciate soups, stews and braises year-round, but warmer weather calls for a lighter approach.
I cut the lamb into rough 3-inch chunks, seasoned them well and put them into a soup pot with a cup of dried chickpeas I had soaked the day before. I stuck some cloves into a couple of onion halves, added them to the pot, and then covered the meat with water and simmered it for an hour or so, until completely tender.
I could have stopped right there, so succulent were the meat and chickpeas, so flavorful the broth they produced. It would have been a fine meal, but it would be even better with lots of vegetables. And my market bag was bulging with leeks, green garlic shoots and glorious colorful chard, fat yellow carrots and fava beans.
So, in a separate pot, I softened the leeks in olive oil, let the garlic shoots sizzle, splashed in some broth and instructed the carrots to braise themselves. Then I added a pound of chopped chard leaves, another ladle of broth and some salt. Stirring with a large wooden spoon helped wilt the greens. Finally, I tossed in the fava beans, turned off the heat and kept everything in the pot to meld for a few minutes.
On a big platter, I arranged the meat on one side, and the vegetables on the other, along with a healthy sprinkling of roughly chopped mint. The extra broth went in a little pot.
To some, this may seem a spartan meal, and it certainly isn’t elegant. But I’m here to tell you it was a delight.
Spring Lamb and Chickpea Stew
4 to 6 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus overnight soaking
1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked in cold water overnight and drained
4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 3-inch chunks
Salt and pepper
4 whole cloves
1 onion, peeled and halved
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped leeks or onions
1/4 cup chopped green garlic shoots, or 2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 bunch small carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 pound chard or other sturdy leafy greens, sliced in 2-inch wide ribbons
2 cups fava beans, peeled or not, or 2 cups peas
3 tablespoons roughly chopped mint, for garnish
- Place chickpeas in a large soup pot. Season lamb pieces generously with salt and pepper, then add to pot. Stick the 4 cloves into the onion halves, and add them to the pot along with 6 cups water.
- Bring pot to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a steady simmer. Put on the lid and simmer until lamb is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Turn off heat. Skim off any rising fat. (At this point, you may set the dish aside at room temperature for up to 2 hours before serving, or refrigerate up to 2 days, though it really tastes best the day it is made.)
- When ready to serve, reheat lamb and chickpeas in broth. Put olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat and add leeks. Cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and sizzle for a minute, add red pepper flakes, then add carrots and a ladle of the lamb broth. Simmer until carrots are done, about 5 minutes. Add the chard, a little salt and another splash of lamb broth. Turn heat to high and cook, stirring, until leaves are tender, a few minutes more. Add fava beans or peas, cover the pan, and turn off heat. They will cook nicely in the residual heat for 4 or 5 minutes.
- To serve, mound greens and vegetables on one side of a large serving platter. On the other side, place lamb pieces and ladle over some broth and chickpeas. Sprinkle with chopped mint.