- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

One of the things I like best about New England is the distinct change from summer to fall. Some parts of the country glide quietly from one season to another, but in western Massachusetts, the lush green of summer seems to transform overnight into the varied hues of autumn.

Within just a few weeks, trees are bare and temperatures start to drop.

This unmistakable transition sends cooks a clear message to change the nature of the food they serve. Chilled soups, light salads and ice-cold sorbets are replaced with robust fare such as roasted chicken, baked pastas and hearty stews.

The latter, a personal favorite, are perfect for cooler weather and also are ideal for casual entertaining. Stews and ragouts are prepared with quickly sauteed meats and vegetables that are then simmered in liquids until fork tender.

Although the cooking time is typically well over an hour, once all the ingredients are assembled in the pot, there’s little left to do. In addition, stews are the quintessential make-ahead food because they always improve in flavor when made a day or two in advance.

Today’s recipe for Provencal lamb stew is a good example of this simple cooking style. Cubes of lamb, chopped fennel and onions are sauteed in olive oil, then braised gently in a mixture of white wine, orange juice and tomatoes.

Fresh herbs, a dash of red pepper flakes and grated orange peel round out the seasonings. During the last minutes of cooking, pitted olives are added, and then the tender morsels of lamb and their sauce are spooned over pasta.

This recipe, which serves six, can be doubled easily for larger gatherings. I like to serve this all-in-one main course with a bowl of vinaigrette-dressed mesclun and a basket of warm, crusty peasant bread at simple fall dinners with friends.

Provencal lamb stew with tomatoes and fennel

The stew can be prepared 2 days ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat, stirring. It can also be frozen; defrost overnight in the refrigerator, then reheat.

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more if needed

3 pounds lamb stew meat cut into 1-inch cubes and trimmed of excess fat

2 medium onions, chopped

1 large fennel bulb, chopped (see note)

1/4 cup flour

4 medium garlic cloves, crushed

21/3 cups dry white wine, divided

2 cups orange juice

4 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 28-ounce can Italian-style tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons salt, divided, plus more if needed (see note)

3/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

3/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives

1 pounds fettuccine or linguine

1/3 cup julienned fresh basil

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large, deep-sided pot (with a lid) set over medium-high heat. When very hot, add enough lamb to fit comfortably in a single layer; brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.

Remove to a platter and continue, adding more oil, if needed, until all meat has browned.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in same pot until hot. Add onion and fennel, and cook, stirring, until softened, 5 minutes or more.

Return lamb to pot; toss meat and vegetables with flour and garlic; and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add 2 cups wine, orange juice, orange zest, tomatoes, rosemary, thyme, 1 tablespoon salt and the pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer; lower heat; and cook, covered, at a gentle simmer until meat is very tender, about 1 hours. Add olives, and cook 15 minutes more. Stir in remaining 1/3 cup wine. Taste and season with more salt, if desired.

To serve, bring a large (8-quart or more) pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until al dente (just tender to the bite), about 10 to 12 minutes for dried pasta or 4 to 5 for fresh. Drain in a colander and season with salt, if needed. Mound pasta into 6 shallow bowls, then ladle lamb stew over it. Sprinkle each serving with chopped basil. Makes 6 servings.

Note: One tablespoon salt for braising liquid may sound like a lot, but the amount is correct. Also, to chop fennel bulb, remove and discard long, lacy stalks. Halve the bulb lengthwise, and cut out and discard the triangular tough inner core from each half. Chop halves coarsely.


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