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Braised Lamb with Cardamom and Curry

What is it about January that makes thick, rich stews so welcoming and comforting (necessary, even)? December’s cold, too, in this Midwestern neck o’ the woods — for that matter, so is March — but when the year turns anew, I find I must rely heavily on soups and stews (and seed catalogs) to get my very soul through this dreary month.

So a serendipitous thumbing-through of a cookbook solved the question of what’s-fer-dinner. This Dorie Greenspan recipe was love at first sight: Lamb with apples and smoky black cardamom and warm, spicy curry and fresh, brisk mint was just the thing needed to lift the spirits and senses on a cold January afternoon.

The recipe calls for potatoes as an addition to the lamb, but I subbed parsnips, which was a good seasonal choice. Never seen a parsnip before? It looks like big, long white carrot but tastes like … um … not quite a carrot … not quite a potato … nor a turnip … but something sweet and carroty-potatoey-turnipy all at the same time.

What sets this stew apart from others is the complex combination of flavors, including apples, figs and mint. Fabulous.

Be warned: the fragrant spices will fill your kitchen and drive you to madness if you spend the braising hours waiting with an empty stomach. SoupAddict hereby gives you permission to nibble before dinner.

Use your favorite curry spice blends. I used hot madras curry and mild yellow curry. And don’t forget the black cardamom. Gorgeous, wondrous black cardamon.

Cardamom plays double-duty in this recipe, both in ground and whole (pod) form. The pods (left) are about the size of almonds, wrinkly and brown-black. Their scent is deliciously smoky and spicy. Crack open a pod to reveal the seeds (center). You can grind either whole pods or just the seeds to make ground cardamom, although if you grind the pods, send the results through a sieve to remove the inevitable slivers the pods will leave behind. I keep both whole pods and seeds on hand, and grind to a powder as needed.

Can you sub green cardamom for black?

No, not with the same result. Green and black cardamom are only cousins, despite the name they share (misinformed sites on the interwebs might claim that green pods are just young black pods, but that is absolutely not the case). Green cardamom is used as a sweet spice, commonly in baked goods, while black cardamom is a warm spice used frequently in Sichuan, Indian, Pakistani and Vietnamese cuisines.

And crazy-delicious French-inspired lamb stews.

In her cookbook, Dorie’s recipes frequently instructs the cook to remove the germ of the garlic clove, which is often bitter and über-garlicky. Here’s the up-close-and-personal of what she means.

Garlic plants propogate via their cloves: the goal of each clove is to send up a shoot, which, upon achieving leafy plant stage, will nourish the clove, eventually producing an entire bulb of garlic from that single clove. This germ is the start of the shoot.

Most garlic that you will find in grocery stores will not have this pronounced of a germ, as they are bred to stay beautiful at the grocery store, not to propagate. This specimen is from one of my own homegrown garlic bulbs. Slice the clove in half lengthwise (i.e., from tip to base), at the heart you will see at least a hint of green. This is what you’ll remove. Unless the germ is very, very small, you’ll be able to remove it with your fingernail, thereby preserving as much of surrounding yummy garlic meat as possible.

Tsk tsk tsk … I heard you go “ew.” Cooking is a hands-on sport, people, and you should not be afraid to handle garlic. Unless you have a hot, imminent date with a European gentleman who kisses your fingertips, use your hands.

In case you were wondering, I don’t usually remove the germ from the garlic, unless it’s very pronounced, as in the photo above. But you can never go wrong following the instructions of Dorie Greenspan. That’s SoupAddict’s philosophy.

Mint, parsnips, figs and garlic, ready to go. The bundle in the back contains the whole black cardamom pods. While they are edible in this form in the strictest sense, it’s not a welcome experience to bite into a pod when you’re not expecting it. I simply wrap them in a cheesecloth bundle for easy removal prior to serving (or warn your guests of their presence).

In go the seasonings with the already fragrant onions and garlic. Begin the olfactory madness.

Pat the lamb dry so it will brown, and not steam or boil. This cut, btw, is a leg, not a shoulder. Lamb shoulder is difficult to find in these parts. I actually have a lamb shoulder in the freezer, purchased back in the Fall from a local farmer, but there wasn’t enough time to let it thaw for dinner. D’oh!

Scootch the spiced aromatics aside and brown the lamb cubes on all sides.

Add the remaining cast of characters and start the countdown. If it is not possible to escape the aroma in your house, you’ll be watching the clock. Trust SoupAddict.

I was on the fence about whether to include a photo of the finished dish with icky indoor lighting, but was so infatuated with the flavor that I felt I had to prolong reliving the experience by including it.

Braised Lamb with Cardamom and Curry

Adapted with minimal changes from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

1 small bunch mint (about 6 sprigs)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
2 1/2 tablespoons curry powder (SoupAddict used a combo of madras and yellow curry)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 crushed cardamom pods (optional)
2 pounds boneless lamb leg or shoulder, fat removed, cut into 1-inch cubes and patted dry
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup water
2 teaspoons honey (optional)
3 dried figs, sliced (optional)
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
2 tart-sweet apples, such as Gala or Honeycrisp, peeled, cored and diced

Preliminaries: Tie the mint stems in a bundle with kitchen twine. Pull off the mint leaves (reserve the stems) and chop the leaves.

Put a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat and pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. When it’s hot, stir in the onions, garlic, curry, cardamom powder and optional pods. Heat, stirring, just until the onions are translucent and soft, about 10 minutes.

Toss in the lamb, turn the heat up a little, and cooking, turning often, until the meat colors. (If the mixture looks a little dry or if the meat is sticking to the pot, add a drizzle more olive oil.) Season with salt and pepper, then pour in the water, toss in the mint bundle, and stir in half of the chopped mint, and, if you’re using them, the honey and figs. Scatter the parsnips and apples over the meat, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, put a piece of aluminum foil over the casserole, and cover it with the lid. Braise for 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes, or until the meat and potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of knife. Check at the one-hour to see if it needs more liquid: ideally, the stew will not be watery at all, but will still have a bit of a thick sauce.

Taste the juice and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Sprinkle over the remaining chopped mint.

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Saturday 19th of November 2011

Yes, I had no idea there were two kinds of cardamom. I'm pretty sure the one I'm using is green, based on your description. I'll have to see if I can find black next time I'm near the Indian grocer. I like the substitution of parsnips. They have such a deep flavor. I used butternut squash for the potatoes AND applies. It was lovely, though the squash fell apart giving it a thicker base.


Friday 18th of November 2011

Thanks for the info about green vs. black cardamom. I had no idea.


Monday 14th of November 2011

Just like Cher, I was thinking about skipping this one too... but your description is absolutely divine. Might have to make this tomorrow night for dinner!


Monday 10th of January 2011

I love this recipe already. I haven't had lamb in ages, and I love the stuff--it might be time to bite the bullet and plunk down some money for a nice cut.


Monday 10th of January 2011

I turned my nose up at this recipe when I saw it in the book; but as I read through your narrative, I am intrigued (especially with the change out on the potatoes). Parsnips do not get anywhere near enough love (I am nibbling on a piece of parsnip ginger cake as I type - mmmm).