Let the stoics say what they please, we do not eat for the good of living,
but because the meat is savory and the appetite is keen.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Autumn is many things in France. First and foremost, it is la rentrée. The start of the school year, back to work after a long, long vacation, the opening of a new session of parliament, the return of the regular newscasters and the customary run of television series. We settle back into a routine, a rhythm of life that the French describe as métro-boulot-dodo, commute-work-sleep. The daily grind. The same old, same old.
Autumn is the rainy season, storm sliding into drizzle, suddenly lighting up in a blaze of sunlight then dimming into gray, that invisible mist hitting you in the face, cold and wet, as you step outside, clinging to your skin, slithering into your coat collar and soaking the bottom three inches of your jeans. Back and forth, steely skies, hazy clouds hanging low and heavy masking the sun, which filters milky white and dull through the windows, a burst of light amid clear blue back to muddy skies and rain. Leaves in shades of gold and red line the sidewalks and streets yet form a swathe of sticky, matted carpet underfoot. The autumn weather in France is unpredictable, as unpredictable as the mood of the French themselves as the season whips into manif mode as well.
Le manif. The manifestation. Autumn in France is the season when the noise and brouhaha of demonstrations, carried along on the breeze, rise up to us from the streets below. From a mere handful of faithful partisans to a mob of angry hundreds, on foot, motorcycle or tractor, carrying flags and yelping through megaphones to the beat of some indecipherable chant or to the beat of something disco blaring from a truck, the disgruntled French take to the streets to demonstrate their discontent. We watch as the furious French block roads, close factories, barricade schools, overturn trucks of produce, crash through fences and gates, burn garbage and yank down radars in a seemingly never-ending ritual of protest. Under Autumn skies, when the sun is out and warm on our skin, these manifs just seem quaint and colorful, a part of the daily life in France along with the abundance of stunning produce on market stalls, warm, flakey croissants and sugary sweet popcorn at the cinema.
We have finally turned on the heat in the apartment, chasing the dampness and chill, creating a cozy nest as we keep inside, sandwiched between the rain outside the windows and the havoc wreaked by the demonstrators we see on television. We watch both warily, judgmentally, as we comment through gritted teeth, emitting grunts as the images flick by, as the rain spatters the sill. The sons pop in and out, clamoring for grilled cheese sandwiches, eaten on the run. School and work keep them moving, rarely here, busy bees. I watch the cherry pickers parked around town, huge monsters with silvery Christmas decorations clutched in their maws. Each time I leave the apartment, one more is strung up glowing in red and white; how I love the holidays.
Husband and I continue our cooking streak. We have been attempting to rein in the budget by shopping more intelligently, more purposefully and cooking more, leaving the laziness of takeout, the complacency of ready made behind. Back to basics, back to the way we used to cook. He is more often than not the one at the stove. Stews, tagines, couscous are his thing, turning even the cheapest cuts of meat, the earthiest of vegetables, reminiscent of the Old Country, into something spectacular. Potatoes and onions, carrots and zucchini, cabbage, beets, garlic and beans, chicken legs and beef tails metamorphose into rich, consoling, health-giving, heart-warming meals.
As much as I love sweet and savory dishes, fruit satisfying my sweet tooth yet somehow balancing perfectly with the meat, ambrosia for the soul, he does not. It is rare that he adds fruit to a meat dish, yet for some odd reason, he was in the mood for sweet. We had lamb, onions, garlic, peppers and zucchini. He tossed in golden raisins remaining from the last couscous; he caramelized the onions with sugar and deglazed the pan with cider vinegar. What he created was a gorgeous stew, the lamb falling apart it was so tender, the sauce thick and savory sweet, full of flavor. We neither of us expected something so outrageously good. And we settled into pure contentment.
Don't miss out on the very first Plated Stories workshop! Ilva Beretta and I are partnering with Tuscan Muse and holding an extraoridnary 10-day Tuscan adventure which includes a food writing & photography/styling workshop in the heart of Tuscany next May. Find out all about it on the Plated Stories blog or on the Tuscan Muse website.
Taste, which enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid.
- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
SWEET AND SAVORY LAMB STEW
Lamb for 4: thick chops, slices of leg or shoulder
Flour for dredging
Margarine and olive oil for sautéeing
2 onions, peeled, trimmed and chopped
1 clove garlic, mashed but not chopped
1 large zucchini, round or long, trimmed and chopped into small chunks
½ red pepper, chopped
2 Tbs cider vinegar
½ tsp Adobo chili powder
1 – 2 tsps schwarma spice blend * (see below the recipe), can also be replaced by ½ tsp ground cumin + ½ tsp ground coriander + 1/8 tsp turmeric + dash paprika or any one of these to taste
1 tsp sugar
2 – 3 Tbs golden raisins
1 – 2 Tbs slivered almonds, lightly toasted
Dredge the lamb in flour and shake off the excess. Heat about a tablespoon each margarine and olive oil in a deep sautée pan, skillet or pot. When hot and steaming, brown the lamb pieces on both sides. Once browned, remove from the pan onto a plate or platter and set aside.
Add a bit more margarine and olive oil to the pot and add the chopped onion, garlic and red pepper and sautée, stirring often, until the onion bits are transparent, tender and begin to brown around the edges. Remove the garlic (discard) and add the teaspoon sugar and the small cubes of zucchini continue to cook until the onion is caramelized a deep golden brown and the zucchini and red pepper is tender. Add the cider vinegar to deglaze the pan: while the vinegar quickly evaporates, scrape up the blackened bits on the bottom of the pan until it all melts into the liquid; add a bit of water if needed.
Add the lamb back into the pan with the raisins and the spices, salt and pepper and add water just to cover. Bring just to the boil then lower the heat, cover and allow to simmer gently over very low heat for 1 hour 30 minutes, adding water as necessary.
Once finished cooking and the lamb fork tender, taste to adjust seasonings. Allow to sit and rest for as much time as possible (this is not necessary but we find that the flavors meld and the sauce thickens while the meat tenderizes even further), 30 minutes to an hour or prepare early in the day for dinner. Reheat gently just before serving (allow to simmer gently if you desire a thicker sauce.
Serve over rice or couscous grains topped with lightly toasted slivered almonds for crunch.
* Shawarma spice blend is a North African mix of ground spices which flavor tagines and grilled meats. If can be made at home by stirring together the following ground spices – or simply replace in this recipe with about ½ tsp ground cumin + ½ tsp ground coriander and a dash of cinnamon:
1 Tbs cumin
1 Tbs coriander
1 Tbs garlic powder
½ Tbs paprika
1 tsp turmeric
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp cinnamon