Ghee, For Real This Time

In Uncategorized on October 4, 2010 at 8:39 am

Week 29

You’re probably sick of hearing me talk about my slow cooker. I’m sick of hearing me talk about my slow cooker. But I talk about it because it’s awesome. I use it in the summer, when it’s too hot to cook; I use it in the winter when I want to come home to a gigantic bowl of something hot and stewy. I use it when I’m being foresightful and know that I’m not going to want to spend an hour or more on my feet after work putzing around the kitchen. I use it to stock my freezer with precooked beans, which is one of the biggest time- and money-savers you can imagine.* I’ll use it to make chicken stock after we’ve had a roast chicken dinner; I’ll just toss the carcass, an onion, a carrot, a bit of celery and some parsley into the pot, cover everything with water, turn it on, and walk away.

Hey, I’m not the only one who loves slow cookers. Mark Bittman is a fan, and that guy knows pretty much everything there is to know about food. How to Cook Everything was the first cookbook I bought for my first post-college apartment, and I still use it for reference at least once a week. (I’m kind of hoping Mark Bittman’s got a Google news alert out for his name, like Michael Ruhlman must, and that he’ll comment on my blog, like Michael Ruhlman did, and we can totally become best friends and have cross-country dinner parties and stuff, like Michael Ruhlman and I don’t.)

I even bought a slow-cooker-themed cookbook (not written by Mark Bittman, alas) that I’ve name-checked on here a couple times, The Gourmet Slow Cooker. Each chapter has a different regional theme — Greece, Mexico, France, Italy — and it offers recipes for everything from soups to cakes. Though I haven’t tried any of the “baking” recipes yet, I’ve  made a couple stew- and soup-like things and they’ve turned out pretty well. So when we invited a couple of friends over to help us polish off a gigantic lamb shoulder from our meat CSA, I turned both to the slow cooker and its book. The Indian section had a recipe for Lamb Stew with Spinach that sounded pretty good, though I wound up omitting the spinach because our guests brought an awesome pile of sauteed spinach with golden raisins and toasted almonds that still makes my mouth water whenever I think about it. Plus this can of ghee, which I bought at Patel Brothers exclusively because it looked cool, had been sitting in our pantry for months and I figured this’d be as good a time as any to crack it open.

Ghee’s a clarified butter that’s used in South Asian and North African cooking; it’s made by boiling unsalted butter until all of the water evaporates, the milk protein solids settle to the bottom of the pan, and a scum’s floating on top. Strain the melted butter through cheesecloth (or carefully skim off the scum and pour off the butter from the milk solids), and you’ve got ghee. You can use it anywhere you’d use butter; it’s got a higher smoking point than butter and most oils, so it won’t burn over high heat.

Ghee’s also believed to have medicinal properties, and is used in all kinds of ceremonies and rituals. In Ayurvedic medicine, it’s believed to be an effective remedy for bedsores, burns, bruises and broken bones, and is used to treat ulcers, constipation, eye irritation, memory and attention problems, reproductive issues, nosebleeds and headaches. (Aged ghee, which can be up to 100 years old, is a folkloric remedy for epilepsy, fever, alcoholism and vaginal pain.) Some people gargle with ghee; some use it as a facial moisturizer or to soothe chapped lips and hands.

But I was just going to eat it. (Although to me, the dessert recipe which called for mixing ghee with carob powder and agave nectar to spread on rice cakes was just about as unappealing as using it for gargling.) I’ve had clarified butter before — anyone who’s ever had lobster’s familiar with it, and I lived in Maine for four years, so yeah — but with all of the folklore and hoopla around ghee, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the can. But you know what? It looked and smelled exactly like a can of melted butter, which is one of the most comforting familiar smells I know (and instantly makes me want fried onions):

I dipped a piece of naan into it; it didn’t taste like much, really, probably because it’s unsalted. But generally, that’s a good thing in cooking (and baking), because you can control the amount of salt in the finished product. So I hauled out the slow cooker and the Indian lamb stew recipe and decided to forge ahead.

But something about the recipe bugged me; the steps felt out of order to me, some of the ingredient amounts seemed off, and I had a weird nagging feeling that if I followed it to the letter, I wouldn’t like the final result. Which is what happened: I followed the instructions when I should’ve listened to my instincts, and I didn’t like how it turned out. So you can look up the original recipe on your own; here’s how I’d do it next time.

Toss 1/4 cup flour and 1 teaspoon salt in a zip-top bag; add 2 pounds cubed lamb stew meat, seal the bag, and toss the lamb to coat; set aside.

In a large pan, heat 1/4 cup vegetable oil (or ghee, if you’ve got a pretty can calling your name) and add 2 finely chopped yellow onions to the pan. Stirring frequently, cook for 10 to 15 minutes until browned. Add 2 cloves minced garlic and 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger, and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes longer. Add a bit more ghee to the pan, then add the cubed lamb and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. (You may need to do this in batches to avoid steaming, rather than searing, the lamb.)

Once the beef is browned, add 3 tablespoons ground coriander, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 1 tablespoon paprika and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, and stir for a couple of minutes. Add 1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes (or a 28-ounce can, if you’d like it to be a little more soupy) and cook for five minutes, then scrape everything into the slow cooker. Add 1/2 cup plain yogurt, and give it a stir. Cover, and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, until the lamb is tender. Just before serving, stir in a few generous handsful of fresh spinach, stir til wilted, season to taste with salt, and serve over jasmine rice, with a few handsful of torn fresh cilantro on top.

It was pretty good; I’ll spare you all of the criticisms of the finished product as it actually turned out, since the recipe’s modified to avoid the issues I ran into (though note that no one else at the table, as usual, seemed bothered by the things that bothered me). I forgot to take a picture of the finished product, and by “forgot” I mean “felt weird taking pictures of food in the kitchen while our dinner guests were sitting patiently at the dining room table waiting for me to sit my ass down.”

Oh, and you can also omit all of the pre-cooking steps and chuck everything directly into the slow cooker. I’ve made stews both ways, and I wouldn’t say that one is substantially better than the other. The pre-cooking way yields a product that tastes a little more nuanced (or at least that’s what pre-cooking advocates want you to think).

Next up on the docket: apple fritters and smoked fish (think travelogue rather than kitchen experiment), gnocchi, adventures with lard, lattice top pie crusts, and more.  Again, sorry this entry took so long to materialize. It’s not my finest work, but sometimes — with writing as with dinner — it’s just important to get it on the table.

*Just dump a bag of dried beans in the slow cooker, cover it with about four inches of water, turn it on low, and let it go overnight (or all day, whatever) until the beans are tender. Drain and cool the beans, then divvy ’em up into zip-top bags in roughly can-sized amounts, and stash them in your freezer. One bag yields three to four cans’ worth of beans, and costs about the same amount as a single can. Do the math, man.

  1. Is Ghee worth the work? It sounds difficult to make.

    • I’m sure some (many?) will disagree, but I put ghee squarely into the “buy” rather than “make” category. (Puff pastry, consomme and most condiments also fall into that category for me.) The food-to-work ratio’s all off. (Incidentally, this is also how I feel about lobster.)

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