|Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart and chickpeas.|
The transition from late winter to early spring can be a bit of a disorientating time of year. In terms of weather – and I speak here as a Scot – one minute clear blue skies and bright sunshine hint of a glorious summer that is, hopefully, to come. Yet within an hour or two the wind changes direction, leaving the populace shivering in horizontal sleet.
Cooking and eating at this time of year can be equally hit and miss, especially when trying to use seasonal ingredients. On one hand there can be a longing to dine on fresh, green produce, but it’s usually still too early in the season in late February or early March for many spring crops to be making any sort of meaningful appearance. On the other hand, days are still quite short and nights can sometimes be frosty, perpetuating winter-time yearnings for hearty meals.
At a time when fresh, local ingredients can be limited, it’s sensible to make best use of what is available. And if you are a meat eater one thing that is synonymous with spring is lamb. Make mention of cooking with this delicious meat and most people automatically think of a roast leg, slow cooked shoulder, or grilled chops. Smashing as all these joints may be, my northern English heritage possibly makes me a wee bit more adventurous. After all, as a child I was no stranger to the delights of cheap, cheerful and flavoursome cuts such as tripe, chitterlings and trotters.
I remain an adventurous omnivore to this day, even though JML and I are attempting to cut down on our meat consumption for a number of ethical and environmental reasons. And I heartily agree with the ethos of Fergus Henderson – chef, restaurateur, and author of Nose to Tail Eating – that if we are going to kill an animal for food, we should make use of as much of it as possible. Basically, as Fergus maintains, “You should be nice to your offal”. All of which leads me to this recipe for a Spanish-inspired stew featuring chickpeas, olives, peppers, and lamb hearts.
I actually can’t remember how the original recipe for this Hispanic-influenced casserole came to my attention, but it’s a dish I have been regularly cooking, and refining, for years. It’s straightforward, economical, and – most importantly – very tasty, combining the earthy flavours of chickpeas and cumin, sweetness of red peppers, fried onions and tomato, umami notes provided by mushrooms and olives, and subtle spiciness originating from smoked pimentón (paprika), thyme and a pinch of dried chilli. Left to feature just the above ingredients it’s a hearty vegan dish. Sometimes however I like to add chunks of chicken thigh or pork shoulder to give things a meatier twist. So why not lamb hearts as well?
Like any cut of meat that comes from a part of an animal that has to do a lot of work, there are two ways that cooking heart can be approached: either very quickly over a high heat; or long and slow using a low level of heat. In a similar way to the preparation of squid, any other approach will result in the flesh being tough and chewy. Quickly browning the chunks of lamb heart and then slowly casseroling them with the other ingredients gives an intense depth of flavour to this stew recipe, with the meat being tenderly rich, definitely tasting of lamb, but also with a note of gaminess akin to wild duck or grouse. And not only will the dish taste great, but pride can also be taken from the fact it uses a very reasonably priced cut of meat that might not usually see light of day at the butcher (although any good butcher should have little problem supplying lamb hearts, and they are now even available in some supermarkets). So as winter moves to spring, why not try something that is a hearty celebration of the changing seasons, in every sense?
Serves four, accompanied with crusty bread and steamed vegetables.
- Lamb hearts (around 450-500g) washed, excess fat and sinewy tissue at the top of each heart removed
- One medium Spanish onion, or four banana shallots, peeled and medium sliced.
- One large red pepper, deseeded and chopped
- Four plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
- Two large Portobello mushrooms
- Olive oil for frying
- 3-4 teaspoons of sweet smoked pimentón (paprika), depending on taste.
- 1 teaspoon of ground cumin (freshly ground, if possible)
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes (to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme or a sprig of fresh thyme
- 1x400g tin of chopped plum tomatoes
- 1x400g of chickpeas in water
- 200ml of dry white wine (if you wouldn’t want to drink it, don’t cook with it!)
- 10-15 pitted black olives
- 1 tablespoon of tomato puree
- 2 bay leaves – fresh if available
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
Preparation and Cooking
1. Put a lidded casserole pan over a medium heat and add two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and red pepper, fry off for five minutes, stirring well, and then turn down the heat to medium low. Continue cooking for a further 15-20 minutes, stirring every few minutes, until the onions and peppers are soft and starting to take on a little colour, but not brown. Add the chopped garlic, stir well and sauté for a further few minutes until the garlic softens.
|Onion, pepper and garlic sweating off.|
2. Whilst the onions and peppers are cooking prepare the other key ingredients. Cut each heart in half – depending on their size you should have three or four heart – and then cut each half into four, to form bite-size chunks. On a clean chopping board, wipe the mushrooms free of any compost, half them and then cut into thick-ish chunks.
|Lamb heart being prepared for cooking.|
|Mushrooms, cleaned and chopped into chunks.|
3. Put a heavy base frying pan on a medium heat and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot fry the chunks of heart briefly on each side to seal and slightly caramelise them, but do not cook through. You may need to do this in batches to ensure the heat in the frying pan doesn’t fall too significantly, which will mean the meat steams and doesn’t fry.
|Lamb heart chunks being lightly browned.|
4. Set the heart pieces aside and add the mushrooms to the remaining oil and juices in the frying pan. Fry off the mushrooms until they soften and take on a little colour, and also set aside. Maintaining a medium heat in the frying pan, deglaze it with the glass of white wine, cooking until the alcohol has evaporated and the wine has reduced slightly. Pour the wine into the casserole pan containing the onions, pepper and garlic.
5. Add the pimentón, chilli and cumin to the casserole pan together with the thyme and bay leaves. Stir into the onions/peppers briefly. Next add the heart and mushrooms to the casserole, followed by the chickpeas (with around half the liquid drained from the can) and the chopped tomatoes. Finally add the tomato puree and olives and give everything in the casserole a good stir. If the stew looks a little dry or thick add a little more water. Season with a few good turns from a black pepper mill, but only add more salt right at the end (as necessary), as the olives will impart this during cooking.
|Smoked paprika being added to Spanish-inspired stew.|
6. Preheat the oven to 140 or 150 degrees Celsius – depending on if it is fan or conventional – and bring the contents of the casserole pan up to a simmer on the hob. Put the lid on the casserole pan and place in the oven for 2.5 – 3 hours, giving a gentle stir and checking the contents have not dried out every hour or so (if the stew looks a bit dry add a couple of tablespoons of water). The stew is ready when the heart pieces are cooked to very tender, but not quite falling apart. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary.
|Spanish-inspired stew ready for the oven.|
Serve with crusty bread and steamed green vegetables (spring greens or cavolo nero are ideal).