I should know, by now, that when my husband says he “doesn’t want a dinner party” for his birthday, what he actually means is that he will confess, at the absolute last minute, that the only thing he wants to do on his birthday is invite 15-20 people over to our two-bedroom apartment for an elaborate meal.
I can’t complain. I love feeding people as much as I love the act of cooking, and nothing makes our home feel cozier and more like, well, a home, than having it filled to capacity with our friends. But for whatever reason, this year’s birthday dinner completely stressed me out right up until our first guests arrived, at which point I immediately chilled out and had a wonderful time.
Perhaps it was my lack of preparedness — I prefer to start prepping for an elaborate dinner party a few days in advance. Or maybe it was the fact that my husband requested pies for dessert, which he always does, and I agreed even though pies are my least favorite thing to make in a hurry. At any rate, I woke on the morning of his birthday in a good mood, made Allison Roman’s perfect buttermilk pancakes for breakfast, and started sketching out a menu on a giant pink post-it.
I had thought to put out a giant mezze table and leave it at that. After all, we were putting this together in a matter of hours. But I could tell by my husband’s mildly dejected look that he wanted something different.
“Just tell me exactly what you want!” I finally asked, because mind-reading is not among my talents.
“I want a big stew.”
Pies. A big stew. Casual, unassuming things. Moreso if I’d made pie crusts earlier in the week and had them stashed in the freezer, ready to be filled. But alas, that was not the case. It was after noon by the time we made our way down to Balady Fine Foods in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Balady is one of my favorite deep-Brooklyn food destinations. They have an incredible selection of olives and pickled things, a wide variety of Middle Eastern breads, and one of the best butcher’s counters in the borough.
Long, slow braises are my thing. Despite my training in pastry, it’s far and away what I’m best at. So I settled on the idea of something tagine-adjacent and made with lamb, since we had a guest with a sensitivity to beef. When I ordered three pound of lamb shoulder, the butcher took the upper torso of a lamb and sent it several times through a band saw, producing a bag of perfectly-sized pieces for braising. They didn’t blink at my request for four pounds of lamb shank, as would my more local butcher, where four pounds of shank would mean selling me all they had.
After carrying six bags of groceries out of Balady, we stopped at Hookah Nuts down the street for nougats and baklava, a fail-safe in case I didn’t get around to making those pies (in the end, I did).
I like to set a big grazing table just before guests arrive, with enough snacking fare to get through several hours of party before the main event. We’re still in the glut of fall radishes, so I made a cheesy, baked dip with the greens and sliced up three varieties to go with some burnt-chive butter and labneh. Breads, hard-cheeses, no fewer than six types of olives, all sorts of pickled things, some very good pistachio-studded halvah, and Ritz crackers — which are great with everything– rounded out the spread.
My friend Jon Good brought me an excellent book recovered from his grandparents’ home in California, a 1954 edition called The Big Spread, billed as an encyclopedia of hors d’oeuvres. Never is it more apparent to me how different the lives of women once were than when I’m thumbing through my collection of vintage cookbooks. Towards the end of this particular book, there is a warning not to be a “kitchen hostess,” but I find that I love holding court in my little kitchen all night, talking with whomever comes in to refill their wine or blow smoke out the window.
Our apartment is not large, but I almost never see my husband when we host a party. He tends to the record player in the living room or the piano in the library. One of our favorite parts of hosting a party is catching up in the early hours of morning, after everyone has gone, arranging dishes to be cleaned the next day and recounting conversations the other one missed.
Another thing about my husband, in addition to always, always wanting a party, is his reluctance to eat from disposable dishes. So in the midst of blind-baking three crusts at 4 PM, when he came home with a stack of small, fairly ugly bowls, I nearly cried into the kitchen sink. Our cupboards are full! I’d sent him out for candles and recyclable bowls. But when it was late in the evening and our guests were scattered around the living room, eating tagine, my feelings towards the bowls softened — even more so when he offered them as favors, and we were left with five and not fourteen.
The tagine turned out rich and complex, with a depth that only comes from hours and hours of slow cooking. The butcher does most of the actual work. The rest of this recipe is just time and tasting as you go. I never measure my spices, so I’ll simply list the ingredients and methods below. Adjust things to your liking. The beauty of a braise is that the flavors will continue to develop and change, not just as it cooks, but as it matures. If you’re smart, make this the day before you plan to serve it. It only gets better.
- Three pounds bone-in lamb shoulder, cut into large pieces
- Four pounds bone-in lamb shank. You can have your butcher cut them in half or leave them whole
- Two cans of Italian peeled whole plum tomatoes
- Six small white onions, sliced
- Six cloves of garlic, smashed
- 1 cup black raisins
- 2 carrots, sliced into rounds
- 1 whole preserved lemon, sliced
- 1 small bunch each fresh rosemary and fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup harissa paste
- About 1/2 cup of cooking wine (I used sherry, but anything will do)
- 1/4 cup apricot paste or dried apricots
For the dry rub: Combine freshly ground coffee, grated dried lime, salt, paprika, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, and garam masala.
- Generously massage the meat with dry rub and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. During that time, you can prep your onions, carrots, and garlic.
- In a very hot pan coated with olive oil, sear the meat on all sides. Place on a baking sheet to rest.
- In a large stock pot, caramelize the onions, then add garlic, carrots, and preserved lemon.
- Cook for another 5 minutes, then add harissa and apricot pastes. Stir until all of the vegetables are well coated.
- Deglaze the pan with sherry or cooking wine, then pile the meat on top of the bed of onions. I laid the shanks down first, then the shoulder on top.
- Pour both cans of tomatoes over the meat, then add raisins, rosemary, and thyme. Add just enough water to barely cover the meat.
- Allow everything to come to a lively simmer, then place a lid on the pot and cook on the lowest heat setting for at least five hours and as many as seven or eight.
This quantity will feed a party of twelve, with plenty of leftovers. I served this with plain farro and pomegranate molasses, but it would be just as good with rice, pasta, bread, or nothing at all.