It might surprise you that not only do Matthew and I know how to cook … we know how to READ, too! Wowsa — we’re regular Renaissance Men, eh? When we’re not reading War & Peace, or Aristotle in its original Greek, we opt for lighter fare — you know, to give our brains a little break.
That’s why we’re HUGE fans of The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young adult novels. Before your inner AP English teacher comes out, just because it’s YA doesn’t mean it’s childish or lame. The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where a subjugated population is forced to surrender their children to fight to the death in a yearly reality show-like competition for the ruling elite. Think Survivor + Harry Potter + Gladiator. The result is so NOT Twilight and so very much the most exciting series I’ve read in ages. I’m not saying it’s cerebral — it’s just a whole lot of fun. And they’re making movies of them, like BIG ones. See the cast pics here.
So, what does that have to do with Kitchen Mischief? Well, ever since enjoying the hell out of the books, it’s been my mission to share them with everyone. After I got Matthew hooked, I convinced my book club to read it. David and are members of Not Your Mother’s Book Club, and The Hunger Games was my pick for September. As the host, I was responsible for the food, the book review, and a little mischief, of course!
While the Book Club members arrived, we snacked on a simple appetizer plate inspired by the first “meal” the book’s main character, Katniss Everdeen, shares with her friend while hunting in the woods: Basil-wrapped goat cheese, accompanied by fresh bread and blackberries.
Because The Hunger Games is told from the perspective of a historically underfed person, the author (Suzanne Collins) is careful to place great emphasis on the descriptions of the meals her character share. Later in the story, one very rich meal makes a repeated impact on the Katniss. In the book, it’s described as lamb stew with dried plums served over wild rice. I knew immediately that was my Book Club dish, but I was nervous about serving lamb. Why? Well, lamb is one of those things that folks seem to either LOVE or HATE. Plus, there’s the whole cute-n-cuddly factor. Oh, and there’s the fact that I, the cook, am not exactly a fan-o-lamb. Once, on a date at Chez Fon Fon, I ordered it and COULD NOT EAT IT. And my date was paying. At Chez Fon Fon. How embarrassing.
So of course the absolutely rational choice was to prepare an obscenely large vat of lamb stew (that I’ve never made before) for a group of people who may or may not be lamb-lovers. Ahem … with NO back-up plan. At all. Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!
I started with a recipe from Cooking Light, my mainstay of culinary inspiration. Then I added, substituted, tweaked and prayed the recipe into mischievous submission. The result? A surprisingly tasty, not-so-lamby, make-ahead stew that held true to the book without sending my Book Club to the bathroom. Here’s how it went down.
Capitol Lamb Stew with Dried Plums
2 lbs beef, cut into half-inch cubes
1 lb lamb, cut into half-inch cubes
3 tsp kosher salt
4 tsp cumin, divided
2 tsp black pepper
4-5 cups onion, chopped
2 tsp cinnamon
9 garlic cloves, chopped
42 oz low-sodium beef stock
1.5 tsp red pepper
6 tbsp honey
4 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups dried plums, chopped
Finishers: sherry vinegar, orange zest, orange juice
First things first — you’ll notice this is not primarily a lamb stew. It’s mostly beef. It’s a cheaper, less fatty, and safer way to get that lamby kick without slipping into mutton mania. Season the meat with 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp cumin, and 1 tsp pepper. Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat, add a tbsp or so of olive oil, and sear the meat in batches, being careful to not crowd the pan. Cook each batch for just a minute or so — you’re searing to lock in flavor, NOT cook through.
Next, remove the meat, reduce the heat to medium, and add the onions and remaining salt, pepper, and cumin, plus the cinnamon (you made need to add a little more oil). Cook for two minutes, add the garlic, cook a minute, then add half the beef stock. Add the honey, tomato paste, and red pepper, stir to incorporate, then add the rest of the stock. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then add the dried plums.*
*A Mischief Note About Dried Plums
You may be wondering, “Where do you find these exotic-sounding dried plums?” Start by raiding your grandmother’s pantry. Yes, my friends, dried plums are really just prunes. I’m guessing the Sunsweet Prunes Marketing Team got together one Monday morning and decided they needed to rebrand this poop-inducing fruit. Honestly, it was probably a good decision. I mean, what do YOU think about when I say the word “prunes?” That’s what I thought. Back to the recipe.
Choose Your Own Adventure
At this point, you can go in one of two directions. I transferred the mixture into my crockpot, set it on low, and cooked it all day. For a quicker stovetop option, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for an hour or so, until the lamb is tender. I can not confidently recommend this method, but it seems logical. I’ll say this: the meat in the crockpot version was fall-apart tender, like short ribs.
Finishers, for the Faint of Heart
I mentioned earlier that I have a sordid culinary history with lamb. Therefore, I was perhaps a little anxious about serving a up a pot Shepherd Stew. So, I added a few touches to enhance (mask) the lamb. Namely, a quarter cup of vinegar (I used sherry but red wine would work), and the zest and juice of an orange. It added a little zip and freshness, and honestly, was a nice finishing touch.
I served the stew over wild rice alongside a simple salad of mixed greens and orange segments. It wasn’t the prettiest dish, but it tasted really good.
A Fun Game for Book Clubs
For a little fun after the review, we played a little game, devised by yours truly. I called it The Hunger Games Deathmatch Trivia. Going around the table, I asked each person a trivia question and if they answered wrong, they had to choose a “death” out of the bowl and read it aloud (download questions and deaths here). OK, so it was a little nerdy, but if you’ve read the books, it’s pretty fun.
So even if you haven’t read The Hunger Games (which you should), or you’re not a lamb-lover, try out this stew. It has really nice flavors for the fall season, and, with just beef, wouldn’t taste baaaaaaaaad at all. Sorry … couldn’t resist! Happy mischief-making, and may the odds be ever in your favor!