It's funny that a lamb and full-bodied red wine combination is one of my favorites, considering I didn't appreciate either until working my way through college. I was waiting tables at a local Italian restaurant, and it was there one night, after a Meritage-blending class, that I made my love for the pairing embarrassingly obvious. Having sampled one-too-many extra portions of the Bordeaux varieties, I was not the attentive and inquisitive dinner companion I should have been while eating with a table of wine gurus, including Matt Magoon, of Guenoc, who had instructed the blending. Instead, when the host announced the dinner specials, I perked right up and repeated "Lamb!" a little too loudly.
Looking back, I have no idea what wine I was drinking that night, way before my days of note-taking started. Maybe it was a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, two of my favorites at that early stage in my wine education. Either would have been a fine escort for the meal. On the other hand, maybe it was my new obsession at that time: Shiraz, an even better choice. The first time I tasted a 1997 Pike's from grapes grown in Clare Valley, Australia, I fell in love with its distinct eucalyptus aromas and made it my mission to have more Shiraz (pronounced by the Aussies as shuh-razz).
These days, Syrah—which is what they call the same grape in France, the United States and most places other than Australia and South Africa—passes over my palate more often than Shiraz. Whatever name it goes by, though, it is one of my favorite things to drink. These wines have characteristics in common, including deep color and full flavor. The typical flavors that appear among the many versions include blackberry, raspberry, a variety of spices and earthy qualities. The best versions often present themselves as astringent and too peppery in their early years, and benefit greatly from time in the bottle.
In France, the prime examples of the grape are located in the northern Rhône Valley, as with Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, and in the blends of the southern Rhône, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The United States makes some great examples in California (look to JC Cellars, Martella, Novy and Garretson), and more recently, Washington. Other countries making a good go of it are Italy, Chile, Argentina and even Switzerland. Be open to experimentation and see what you find.
Just as I've learned to conduct myself a little better around winemakers (unless they encourage such behavior), I have also taught myself to make the most of lamb at home. The more affordable method is to buy lamb when it's on sale and freeze it until needed. Whether it is as burgers or kebobs, pan-roasted chops or savory pies, lamb often finds its way into my kitchen.
Recently, I decided to try my hand at a leg of lamb. My intentions to grill it were foiled, so I planned to create a stew instead. After buying a crock pot and bottle of the 2005 Hewitson "Ned and Henry's" Shiraz (~$19), I was ready to go. That particular Shiraz showed notes of vanilla, blueberry, raspberry, cinnamon and rich, tilled earth. The earthiness made the wine a great counterpart to the gaminess of the lamb.
Lamb Stew in a Pinch
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup red wine
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. oregano
Salt and pepper
Lamb leg, shoulder or shank
2 cups beef broth
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup red wine
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped yellow onions
1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 cup sliced portabella mushrooms
Other optional veggies (potatoes, carrots, squash, broccoli, green beans, etc.)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Polenta, cooked in a separate pot
Water (measurement specified on package)
3-4 tbsp. Flour
Combine the marinade ingredients in a Ziploc bag or container, and soak the lamb in it overnight. The next morning, place the lamb and stew ingredients into a crock pot, and cook on low for at least five hours. If you're using vegetables such as broccoli or green beans, don't add them until the last hour or half hour to avoid mushiness. Cook the polenta according to directions on the package, adding slowly to the recommended amount of boiling water.
While the polenta is cooking, take the lamb out of the crock pot and set aside. To thicken the stew in the crock pot, place a ladleful into a side bowl, adding and incorporating one tablespoon of flour, and then pour it back into the stew. Repeat process two or three times until you reach the consistency you want. Slice the lamb thin, then portion out polenta into bowls or deep plates. Add the lamb, and top with spoonfuls of the stew. Serve with sliced warm baguette on the side and the Syrah of your choice.
That sure is a lot of soy. Do you add any water at all? Dilute the stock, maybe?
That is just the marinade, to season the lamb. It doesn't actually go into the stew.