Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story

I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.

Lamb stew at my dinner table. Overhead lighting, photo taken at night, because that’s how it rolls

But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.

Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.

This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.

Ordinary lamb stew
Serves two or three, depending on how generous the portions are

  • 350g lean or extra-lean diced lamb
  • 1/2 TBS olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 50g celery, finely sliced
  • 50g tomato puree
  • 230g fresh tomatoes, peeled, deseeded, and chopped; or 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 350g new potatoes, cut into halves or quarters so they are bite-sized
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • pinch ground cinnamon
  • salt and black pepper, for seasoning
  • Chicken or lamb stock, to cover
  • a small bunch or parsley, finely chopped (optional)
  1. Warm up the oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the lamb and brown for a minute or so on each side. Set aside. Lower the heat to medium-low.
  2. Add the onion to the oil and cook for a few minutes, until translucent. Add the celery and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the celery is translucent and the onions are golden. Return the lamb to the pot and add the garlic and paprika, cumin and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, bearing in mind the stock you will use later may be salty. Continue cooking, stirring, for a further minute.
  3. Add the tomato puree and cook for thirty seconds. Add the fresh or tinned tomatoes and enough stock or water (or water and a stock pot, in my case) to just barely cover the ingredients; they should be only just submerged, not flooded. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook at this low simmer for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, until the lamb is tender (I give a generous margin here because not only will your lamb vary, so will your textural preferences. I prefer it cooked for the maximum length of time, until falling-apart tenderness is achieved).
  4. Once you are satisfied with the lamb, remove the lid and add the diced new potatoes. Raise the heat ever so slightly, so that the simmer is brisk (but do not boil, which can toughen meat). Cook the potatoes for 10-15 minutes, until cooked through, testing with a skewer. You may find you need to add a little bit more water to the stew once you have added the potatoes but be cautious in doing so; it’s easy to add too much. Once the potatoes are cooked, the stew is ready to serve. If you have parsley lying around, this is where you add it.

Note: you can peel tomatoes one of two ways. The first involves scoring the skin at the base with a knife, then plunging them alternately into boiling water for 30 seconds followed by iced waters. This is called ‘frightening’ the tomatoes in Dutch and indeed the skins will shrink away as if terrified. The water does need to be boiling followed by very cold to work properly, though; lukewarm and room temperature won’t work. The second method is to use a dedicated tomato peeler. I inherited one from my father and although it does work I think the first method is easier and doesn’t involve buying a peeler.

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