Wine With . . . Lamb Stew with Apricots
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Lamb and dried apricots have embraced each other in various kinds of stews and tagines throughout the Mediterranean world for hundreds of years. Fifteenth century Ottoman sultans are said to have loved this particular dish, and so will you. Its Turkish name is Kabuni Pilav, and part of its allure is the surprising way the triumvirate of meat, sweet, and spice adapts to wine. In fact, we found that while regular lamb stew almost always tastes best with red wine, the apricots and exotic spicing turn Kabuni Pilav into a meal that will please white wine lovers as well.
There’s no reason to follow this recipe to the letter. Cinnamon and cumin are its basic spices, but you can use your imagination and add other Middle Eastern flavors, including saffron, coriander, fresh ginger, and cilantro. Give it more zing with a little chili pepper or a dab of harissa if that appeals to you, but keep in mind that cranking up the heat will influence the wine compatibility quotient. Just before serving it, you might shower the dish with slivered almonds or toasted sesame seeds. Pilav is a rice-based dish, but to give the meal a Moroccan twist, you can leave out the rice and serve the lamb and apricots with couscous instead.
Lamb Stew with Apricots
Our version of Kabuni Pilav is inspired by a recipe in The Turkish Cookbook by Nur Ilkin and Sheila Kaufman (Interlink Books).
1 ½ - 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, fat removed, cut in 1 inch cubes
1 cinnamon stick
2 medium onions, diced (divided use)
2 teaspoons cumin
3 tablespoons butter (divided use)
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or substitute dried red pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
15 dried apricots, preferably Turkish (We get ours at our local Whole Foods market, but any good Middle Eastern grocery store should have them.)
2 cups long grain white rice
1 cup cooked chickpeas
3 cups hot chicken stock
Place the lamb in a medium-size saucepan. Add ¼ cup water and the cinnamon stick. Simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add one of the diced onions, 1 tablespoon butter, salt, and the pepper. Continue cooking until the lamb is tender, about 30-40 minutes, adding more water if necessary to keep the meat just covered as it cooks.
Soak the apricots in hot water for 5-10 minutes to soften them, then drain and pat dry. Unless they are very small, cut them in half. In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon each of the butter and olive oil. Add the apricots and sauté them, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup water and continue cooking, uncovered, until the apricots are soft and all liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reserve.
Place the rice in a bowl and cover with lightly salted cold water. Let it sit for about 20 minutes; then drain it. Meanwhile, sauté the remaining onion in one tablespoon each butter and olive oil. When the onions are soft, stir in the drained rice and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the lamb and its juices, the chickpeas, and the chicken stock. Check for seasoning. Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is soft and all the liquid has been absorbed. (Add more chicken stock or water if the liquid has cooked off and the rice isn’t tender). Stir in the apricots and serve.
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The great surprise for us in this “wine with” tasting turned out to be how well a white wine (the Doňa Paula Viognier) worked with it. We had opened twelve different bottles, representing different varietals and regions, with only two being white--this one and a California Chardonnay that turned out to be so dominated by the smell and taste of oak that we suspect it couldn’t pair well with much of anything. We had thought that, like other lamb dishes, Kabuni Pilav would partner best with red wines, so only included the two whites as a sort of experiment. Well, as you’ll see, we liked plenty of reds with it; but after the tasting, we agreed that we should have included more whites, the experiment having been such a success. It turns out, then, that this particular lamb stew is a dish that will work well with wines of both colors.
Whether red or white, the wines that worked best shared a similar profile. They all were richly-flavored and fairly full-bodied, with an inviting soft texture. With the reds, this meant that the tannins weren’t overly intrusive. The fruit and spice in the dish also seems to invite a wine with a slight suggestion of sweetness, and all the wines we’re recommending offer just that hint. That’s why, as to whites, we suspect that a better balanced Chardonnay or a rich Pinot Gris, even perhaps a Gewurztraminer, might be worth trying in addition to the five specific wines recommended below.