This post inaugurates another will-be Cheapskate Intellectual feature: writing about food and cooking as an inherently life-enriching (and money-saving) force. Some of y’all have already seen a version of this, but take advantage while the weather’s still cold!
Even as I sat in reverent silence, savoring my first bite of this bit of Provencal heaven, listening raptly as the little bells of orange and fennel and wine flavor came and went over the bottom note of lamb and bacon (and grits), I realized a) I wanted to tell everyone I knew about this and b) I was going to have to fight to avoid hyperbole, which inherently dishonors the thing you wish to honor most. So I will merely relay a few facts of my experience, to do with as you like:
1) The recipe is Daniel Bouloud’s Provencal lamb daube from the latest issue of Elle Decor, available here. I don’t normally buy Elle Decor, finding the interiors too sterile and the emphasis on pricey name-brand accoutrements annoying (and not so Cheapskate-Intellectual-ish). But wow. If there is something like this in every issue, sign me up.
2) Now, y’all know I am from the South, and as such am the inheritor of a rich tradition of glorious stewy things that smell good and make people linger on the drippy, cold, snowbanked sidewalk outside your house with dazed smiles on their faces, and have imported the same to Northeast Iowa. But — and this is huge — I have never in my life cooked anything that has made my house smell so good. Never. Yes, even desserts. Yes, even my whole-wheat Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes bread (fresh today, which was good with this, but white would have been better than whole-wheat.) It is a smell, just as Bouloud says, that makes one close one’s eyes and remember one’s youth in Provence. (Or Alabama.) A tangy, grassy, earthy, sweetly sunlit smell of that made me think of the smell that rises from a fresh round bale of hay as you slide down it, the smell that rises into your nose as you lie in the grass, turn your face drowsily to the ground and then the sky, and feel your whole conscious thought process just stop. The faintly rueful Proustian undertone you might expect from this description is also present in this experience. I promised no hyperbole, and — truly — this is not. Maybe it’s just that a long day of grading and cold drippy tail-end-of-winter weather has heightened my susceptibilities. But give it a try and see.
3) Some parts of this I modified; some parts I didn’t mess with, and was glad I didn’t. A bouquet garni is hard in northeast Iowa in midwinter; I made do with shakes of dried thyme and basil and bottled bay leaf directly into the stew and a big spring of rosemary from the pot in my dining room. But I did spring for what I used to consider the unnecessarily fussy step of the coriander, pepper, and fennel in the little cloth bag [only a couple bucks for a pack of them, and they’re reusable, why not?] I can really see why this step is important: the flavor is sort of marvelously indirect and blended really well with the rest. Nice. Tossed local co-op lamb with salt and pepper and some plain old cayenne pepper and it was fine. Good local bacon (thanks, Grass Run Farm) also helped, as did some Rock Spring Farm carrots (one with a vaguely humanoid tripod formation. 🙂 Potatoes from my own yard this summer. But no fancy olives – just a little jar of plain old black ones. One small can of organic diced tomatoes sufficed for the tomatoes, and since I made basically 1/4 a recipe of this, it was just fine. All of it fit in my mama’s hand-me-down yellow ovenproof pot with the lid, which is literally older than I am. As long as you are getting really good organic meat and vegetables for this, you’ll be good. I got everything I needed at the Oneota Co-op, so it’s not hard to find what you need (and I used my favorite $5.99 Malbec for the wine.) Yes, I love good food. But I’m also a cheapskate.
4) Don’t skip the step of roasting the garlic and stirring it into the grits; I stuck the little foil packet onto the cookie sheet next to the pot and it was fine. OMG. OMG, y’all.
OK, hope this makes everyone as happy as it did me!