Slow-cooking comes into its own at this time of year. The days are grey, damp and overcast, and the need for nourishment goes right to the bone. The problem with stews, however, is that they can get a bit….samey. So when I was flicking through Claudia Roden’s compendium of recipes from the Middle East, Tamarind & Saffron, this Moroccan dish of lamb with quince caught my eye. Incredibly simple, yet compellingly exotic, it comprises merely onions, meat, ground ginger, saffron, quince, cinnamon and honey. I had a shoulder of mutton in the freezer, quince in the fruit bowl, and a taste for something new. And lo! A new favourite is born.
A word on quince: they are in season right now. I picked mine up from the vegetable stand in Ludlow market, but I’ve seen them in Middle Eastern grocery shops in Bearwood and on the Hagley Road in Birmingham. Quince is a difficult flavour to pin down. Raw, they are rock hard and inedible, but cooked with sugar they become fragrant and delicately pink in colour. In this dish they give a sour note that offsets the rich mutton, not unlike how the sharp acidity of apple cuts through a fatty cut of pork. If no quince are to be had, this dish would probably work with apple.
Note: the photography in this post is terrible, the low levels of November light having beaten my iPhone.
First, prep your meat and onions. I boned the mutton shoulder, removed the excess fat and diced the meat. The onions are simply sliced. The only spices that are needed are ground ginger and saffron.
Heat some oil in a tagine or casserole dish, soften the onions over a medium heat for a few minutes, then tip in the meat. Cook for five minutes, then add a teaspoon of ground ginger, pinch of saffron, salt and a fair amount of black pepper. We are not really browning the meat here as we would for a European-style stew; it’s more about softening the onions and getting some heat into the lamb. Then add water to cover, pop the lid on, and cook for two hours or so until the meat is totally tender.
Then it’s time to attack the quince. Using a heavy knife, for they are as hard as a squash, quarter the quince and tip them straight into boiling water to which you had added the juice of half a lemon.
Simmer the quince until soft – mine took ten minutes but they can take up to thirty, so just keep an eye on them and test regularly (if the quince are overcooked they will collapse). Drain the quince and once they are cool, remove the cores and dice into chunks, keeping the skins intact.
Then it’s merely an assembly job. Once the meat is cooked to your liking, remove the lid and bubble for a few more minutes to reduce the sauce. If there is a lot of excess fat spoon it off, then adjust the seasoning to taste. Tip the quince into the meat along with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of honey, then bubble for a few more minutes before serving.
This stew is a revelation. How can something so simple be so nourishingly delicious? The onions collapse down to make a thickish sauce, with the faintest hint of fragrant spice. It feels like real, honest peasant cooking, albeit from a different time and continent. We had ours with couscous and a simple salad of grated carrot, sliced mint, toasted almonds, feta and lemon.
Mutton (or lamb) with quince
From Claudia Roden’s Tamarin & Saffron
1kg shoulder of mutton (or lamb)
2 large onions
splash of oil
salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of saffron
1 or 2 quince
juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
honey, to finish
Bone the meat and dice into chunks, removing any excess fat. Slice the onions. Heat the oil in a tagine or stew pot, then soften the onions for a few minutes. Tip in the meat, salt, pepper, ginger and saffron, and cook for a few more minutes until the onions are soft. Tip in water to cover, pop the lid back on, and leave to cook on a low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender. Add water if it becomes too dry.
Prep the quince: Have ready a pan of boiling water with the juice of half a lemon. Cut the quince into quarters then tip them straight into the water. Simmer until soft – this can take 10 minutes or 30, so test regularly. Drain then remove the cores and dice into large-ish chunks, leaving the skins on.
When the meat is tender, remove the lid to reduce the sauce. Spoon off any excess fat. Add the quince to the meat with the cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of honey, cook for a further five minutes. Add more honey or lemon juice to taste, then serve.