Indian-Spiced Braised Lamb

Saturday was officially the first day of autumn. There was a definitive nip in the air in Chicago, but I kept the windows open all day, allowing the scent of cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander bubble up from this incredible lamb dish and out into the neighborhood.

I’ve touted the greatness of lamb on the blog before, but I suspect some of you are still on the fence – I’ve only recently added lamb as a regular dinner myself. If concerns about lamb’s strong flavor are preventing you from taking the plunge, this dish is a great place to start. The friendly, flavorful mix of spices will stand up to the bold flavor of the lamb.

Lamb does have a stronger flavor than the meats most typically consumed in the U.S. because lambs eat a natural diet of grasses. Most of you have probably had grass-fed beef at this point, and you may have noticed it has a more distinct flavor than the beef used to make your burger at the local dive bar. While it takes some getting used to, I think anyone can grow to love the flavor of meats from animals that eat a natural diet (and of course there are other benefits that follow).

I served this dish with steamed & buttered Basmati rice and sauteed spinach.  Be sure to save the neck bones after cooking to make a simple and delicious broth.

Indian-Spiced Braised Lamb

Indian-Spiced Braised Lamb
*serves 4*

2# meaty lamb neck bones (or 1 ½ # lamb stew meat)
S & P
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, halved and sliced into rings
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ tsp. cardamom
½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. turmeric
2 tsp. coriander
2 tsp. ground chiles (I used some dried Indian chiles I had hanging around – just be sure to thoroughly and carefully seed them before crushing. Bottled chili powder is fine, too)
3 C. water

Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large dutch oven or other pot with a tight fitting lid over medium heat. Once hot, add the olive oil and brown the lamb chunks in two batches (you don’t want to overcrowd the pan) and then transfer them to a plate. The goal is to get some good color on a few sides of the lamb (not to cook it through) and create a nice fond in the bottom of the pan. Fond, roughly translated, means substance or essence in French, and the nice little bits that stick to the bottom of the pan and become very brown will be a big contributor to the flavor and richness of the dish in the end.

Below is a photo of my browned lamb chunks and the fond that remained in my pan.  It looks a bit dark in this picture, but it was really a deep, golden brown.  If your find your fond is beginning to burn while you are still browning your meat, reduce the heat!

Lamb Chunks - Indian-Spiced Braised Lamb

To the same pan, add your onion slices, season generously with salt, and saute for about 5 minutes or until quite soft.  Next, add the tomato paste and stir well, allowing it to toast a bit on the bottom of the pan for about one minute. 

Finally, add all of your spices and allow them to toast for about a minute as well.  You can definitely tweak some things to your liking (more cinnamon or chiles, maybe?), but don’t go overboard on the cardamom – it can really ruin a dish. 

Here are the onions, tomato paste, and spices just before I added the water:

onions, tomato paste, and spices - Indian-Spiced Braised Lamb

Now simply pour the water into the pan and give it a good stir to bring the fond up off of the bottom and incorporate it into the sauce.  Nestle the lamb pieces back down into the liquid so that they are mostly covered. Add a little more water if necessary. 

Increase the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to approximately medium low and simmer, covered, for roughly 2.5 hours. Check on the lamb every 30-45 minutes to be sure it is at a strong simmer.  If it’s just barely moving, increase the heat a tad. If it’s splattering when you remove the lid, take it down a notch.

After 2.5 hours, test the lamb with tongs or a fork to be sure it falls easily off the bone or breaks apart effortlessly.  If you sense any resistance, cook for another 30 minutes and check again.

Allow the lamb to cool slightly if serving right away. As with all braises, this dish will taste better and better with each passing day (well, up until a point, but you get the idea). To reheat, just bring to a simmer over medium low heat, covered, and cook until piping hot.

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