As the New Testament and prisoners on death row can both attest, you never really know how your last supper is going to go down.
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Yeah sure you can make plans -- the condemned prefer cheeseburgers according to the research –- but sometimes you have to rely on what you have hanging around, what is left of the culinary you. Things can take a wrong turn. One never knows.
I decided to make my last meal in my Los Angeles home with whatever I had left in my freezer and larder, without making any significant purchases. Rooting around the cupboards did present me with some deep introspection. What was with the chana nuts? What precisely was going through my mind when I continued to buy container after container of mayonnaise, leaving me with four unopened ones at press time? Why so much gyoza?
Among the frozen items, only one showed real promise: a pound and a half of cubed lamb, so marked in black Sharpee by yours truly, who forgot to date the Ziplock bag it was stored in, of course. Why did I ever buy cubed lamb? Jewish holiday? Winter stew mania?
Nevermind. As I cruised food52 I came upon Moroccan Style Lamb and was instantly excited. I could make this only entirely with what I had on hand, with a few adjustments that were made not to make up for any inefficiencies in the recipe, but rather in my supplies.
Anyone who cooks with lamb has no doubt made some version of this, perhaps one that is braised, but healthierkitchen offers you a nice and easy weeknight version here. The bonus for me is that I was able to unload my last onion, lemon and random bits of this and that.
I had a little less lamb on hand then the recipe calls for, but I used about the same proportions of spice, to no regret. After I browned the meat I sautéed my onions as instructed, and they were instantly turmeric stained and soft. I had no bite sized dried plums on hand, so I threw together a cup of raisins and dried cherries. Goodbye to those packages!
I also lacked green olives, and substituted a few capers which gave the dish the salty tang it needed. I had no squash, so in went carrots instead. I did buy parsley, an herb I once sneered at with disdain but have come to respect for its Mariano Rivera abilities to close a dish.
As the dish simmered nicely and I cooked up the last of my cous cous, I thought about how I always imaged this meal would be. Children around the table showing hushed respect for mom. Candles maybe. My husband praising me for all the meals I cooked in this wonderful home.
Instead, one kid left with a friend for a goodbye dinner. The other picked at her side of pasta. My husband said, “It’s a good dish. Meat’s a little fatty.”
He was right about the meat, but who knows what cut I used? Besides, this dish at its base is a winner –- a layer of sublime spices, perfect acidity and salt and ease. Slow cooked versions are deeper and more complex, but for a weeknight meal you are getting a lot of bang for your lamb buck.
In this sense meals are like everything about your home. Infuse them with unrealistic expectations, and they will disappoint you. Make them work in the form that you find them, in the context of the life you actually lead, and you will remember them with the pleasure they provided. Not because they were perfect, but because they belonged to you.
1 teaspoon raz el hanout (optional - some of the flavors duplicate what's in here, so don't worry about leaving it out if you don't have it)
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into bite-sized pieces
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups homemade or low or no sodium chicken stock
1 cup pitted bite sized dried plums, or halved if full sized
2 cups cubed butternut or acorn squash
1/2 cup Spanish green olives, pitted
2 teaspoons lemon zest (if you have preserved lemon, then use the skin of 1/2, rinsed and minced)
3 teaspoons chopped parsley
1. Combine the salt, pepper and other spices in a large bowl. Add the lamb pieces and toss to coat.
2. Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown the lamb chunks, in batches, using additional oil as needed. Remove the lamb chunks to a plate as cooked. Remove some of the fat from the pan if a lot has rendered, leaving only a light coating.
3. Lower heat to medium and cook the onion and garlic until the onion has softened and become translucent, about 4 or 5 minutes.
4. Add stock to the pan and scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan.
5. Return the lamb to pan, along with any juices, and add prunes, squash, olives and zest.
6. Bring mixture to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, partly covered, for about 30 minutes.
7. Taste for salt and pepper and garnish with the parsley. Serve with whole wheat couscous.
By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, is the Los Angeles Bureau Chief for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).