In Making Food on May 8, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Week 12

Long story short: I made mutton stew in a slow cooker, at home by myself on a Saturday night, a little bit drunk, while watching Speed.

Long story long:

I recently bought an excellent cookbook called The Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Recipes from Around the World. A lot of thought went into this purchase:

1) I bought a slow cooker last fall, and have used it primarily for cooking dried beans in big batches, which I then divvy up into freezer bags and thaw as needed. (So much cheaper than buying canned beans! Try it!) I’ve made a chili or two, and some killer slow-cooked spare ribs and chicken wings, but it seems to me that the slow cooker has potential for much, much more.

2) My new-ish job finds me with a longer commute, and though I love having more time to read on the train, anything that allows me to get ahead on dinner prep is much appreciated.

3) Plus our kitchen gets insanely hot in the summer, and if I can make dinner without having to turn on the range or the oven, we’ll all be much better off.

4) I constantly loiter in our neighborhood’s outstanding independent bookstore, and feel like I should subsidize my browsing with an actual purchase every so often. Giant online retailers are cheap, sure. But they’re certainly not reading to your neighborhood’s preschoolers every Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., now, are they?

The Gourmet Slow Cooker‘s sort of set up as an around-the-world culinary tour, with chapters on Greece, France, Britain, India, Italy, Mexico and the United States, and recipes for everything from anise biscotti to white truffle risotto. It’s also got several recipes for lamb — shanks, stews, stuffed peppers — and, since we’ve got a bag of it in the freezer courtesy of our fantastic meat CSA, I got to wondering whether I could substitute mutton for lamb in those dishes.

I also got to wondering what, exactly, mutton is.

Turns out it’s really just lamb, but complicated by chronology as well as dentistry. Lamb meat comes from a sheep under 12 months, with no permanent incisor teeth. Meat from a sheep older than 12 months with no more than two permanent incisors is called hogget, which sounds vaguely British and much, much cooler. And mutton comes from even older sheep with two or more permanent incisors. (Would you be comfortable broaching this topic with your dentist whilst in the chair? Discuss.)

So I pulled the bag of cubed mutton stew meat out of the freezer, and then a friend called; he was in town briefly and wanted to grab a drink before the baseball game. The Husband was working a closing shift, so I went out and had a couple of beers, picked up some stew ingredients, and headed back to the house to fire up the slow cooker.

A little bit tipsy, and by myself for the evening, I celebrated by turning on Speed, which, despite being one of my favorite and Hollywood’s finest movies, is a film The Husband absolutely cannot stand. (Whuck?!) I had the stew in the slow cooker by the time Keanu rescued those poor corporate types from the elevator and started chasing that fateful bus down Ventura Boulevard.

Cut a pound of mutton stew meat into cubes, and toss it with 1/2 cup flour and a generous teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground black pepper until evenly coated; dump the lamb and any excess flour into the slow cooker. Chop a few pieces of bacon into medium dice, and cook in a medium pan until nicely browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon into the slow cooker with the mutton, leaving the fat in the pan.

Chop one white onion and two cloves garlic, and saute in the reserved bacon fat until the onion begins to caramelize around the edges. Throw in a tablespoon of chopped herbs (I used thyme and rosemary), and cook briefly; then pour in 1 cup dry red wine (I used tempranillo, but you could use cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, or pinot noir) and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring frequently, for about three minutes. Season the winey onions with salt and pepper, then scrape them into the crockpot, and add one 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes. Turn the slow cooker on, and indulge in Awesome Movies That Your Spouse Inexplicably Despises until the mutton’s tender.

The book recommends cooking the stew on low for six to eight hours, which I’d totally do if I were starting this in the morning and heading off to work. (You could certainly skip the additional steps of browning the bacon, garlic and onions if you didn’t feel like dirtying a pan, though I do think they deepen the flavor nicely. Conversely, you could add a step here and brown the mutton on the stovetop, too, for more flavor.) Here, though, I cooked the stew on high for two hours, then turned it to low for another two hours.

But I still got hungry well before the stew was actually done, so I steamed some frozen dumplings for dinner instead. I also forgot to take pictures, because I was too busy drinking wine and eating dumplings and watching Keanu Reeves save L.A.’s precious few takers-of-public-transportation from almost-certain combustion.

We ate the mutton stew the next night, Speed-lessly, alongside a green salad and buttered baguette, and it tasted: hoggety. Darker and richer and gamier than lamb, with a nice tomato-ey base. It needed a splash of vinegar to brighten it, and a bit more salt and pepper, but other than that it was just right for a cold, rainy, blustery evening. You could serve it with boiled or roasted potatoes, buttered egg noodles, or plain white rice, though I think it’d be a little heavy for an August evening meal. I’m going to keep pushing through the book, though, and maybe even play around with a few other recipes to see if I can adapt them to the slow cooker.

Any crockpot favorites out there, folks? Anything that might make a nice mid-summer porch dinner?

  1. I know I ALWAYS make mutton stew while being tipsy and watching Speed – who doesn’t? 🙂

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