Growing up, a winter snowfall meant braving the weather to make snow angels, building snow forts, and having intense snowball fights with my brothers. But now, when the temperature drops lower than 40 degrees and the weatherman even mentions an approaching snowstorm, all I want to do is bundle up indoors with blankets and put something warm in my belly. My yiayia’s (grandma’s) lamb stew always does the trick.
My yiayia is probably a lot like yours. Yiayia’s love with their whole hearts, constantly nag us to get married, and would never let you leave their house hungry or empty-handed. Yiayia Saltas is extra loving and would do anything for her family. She is always baking for the church, she makes me an egg sandwich whenever I visit, sends me home with a large bowl of orzo, brings spanakopita (spinach pie) to all of our family parties, and still has time to play bingo twice a week while hitting “like” on all of my Facebook posts. My yiayia seems to be cooking all year round—but it’s her winter dishes that keep me warm and stir my deepest memories. One of my favorites is her lamb stew. It’s hearty and healthy and is perfect on a cold winter day. Best of all it’s three ingredients simple.
Making a stew is rather easy. It’s a matter of combining the right ingredients with the right sauce for the right occasion. For me, simplicity is better, so I like a simple lamb stew the way my yiayia makes it. On a recent cold Utah winter day, my yiayia came over to my house to show me her method and gave me tips along the way. Of course over the next several days she texted me with even more suggestions and asked if I’d eaten all the stew yet.
The trick with any stew is to be patient and cook it low and slow. This means cooking the stew on a slow heat for a long time so that all of the ingredients (whether it be all vegetables or a hearty stifado) properly blend together. For this stew, our ingredients are lamb, potatoes, and peas, plus a sauce. That’s it.
Begin with the lamb. Get a 2-pound roast cut into bite-sized pieces. In a large pot, pour in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil and add in the lamb. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano and brown the lamb over medium heat. Next, come the onions and garlic. Add them to the meat and cook on a low simmer until the onions soften. This is another key to making a stew—add ingredients slowly one at a time so they can properly blend together. A Greek cook may call this process “pantreuontas” which means marrying. So, in this case, the flavors marry each other.
Next, build the sauce. It will always be a tomato base, so you can use whatever tomato flavors you like. In this case, we used tomato sauce and diced tomatoes (canned are ok). While your sauce is heating, keep stirring and occasionally taste for flavor. You can adjust and add more tomato flavors to your preference. My yiayia likes to add ketchup to sweeten it up and my dad likes his sauce tarter, so he adds spicy V8 juice. My dad almost always adds additional oil to his stews, and some people may add wine or vinegar. I’ve kept it simple for this recipe and just used ketchup like my yiayia does. You can temper it however you like or leave it alone. This is when you play with flavors and test your patience. Add extra spices and herbs if you’d like, and let the meat and tomato sauce cook together for a couple of hours.
Test and taste the lamb, and once the meat becomes fork tender, the vegetables come next. When you work vegetables into a stew, be sure to add the harder vegetables first and work your way to the softer ones. For this recipe, potatoes go in first and then the peas. For the potatoes, peel and cut them into bite-sized pieces and add them to a frying pan with extra virgin olive oil. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper and cook until they become lightly browned. When potatoes are done, add to sauce and meat mix. The potatoes will take a little bit of time to become tender, so again you wait and stir the stew occasionally, making sure to stir from the bottom as my yiayia would say to do. This may take another 45 minutes to an hour.
Last to go in are the peas. If you use frozen peas, be sure to thaw them out beforehand. Once all your vegetables are added, taste the sauce and add any additional seasoning to get to your desired taste. After cooking, you can either serve your stew warm or let the stew cool and sit in the refrigerator for a day to let the flavors blend together more. I’ve found stews always taste better the next day.
One last thing, you can use this recipe and the same vegetables my yiayia and I use, or in the summer months, substitute zucchini for the peas. Or you can just keep adding to create what some call a “Mulligan stew” by adding in vegetables that you may have lying around the kitchen. Anything goes. Just keep layering in flavors. That is what my yiayia’s father would do, but with his thick Greek accent the Mulligan stew was pronounced, “moo-lee-gen.” However you make your stew, just be sure to have bread nearby to sop up the tasty tomato sauce. Now sit back and enjoy this hearty winter stew.
-2 lbs of lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes*
-6 large potatoes cut into quarters
-2 cups peas (frozen or fresh)
-2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
-4 garlic cloves, chopped
-4 small (~10 oz) cans tomato sauce
-1 small (~10 oz) can diced tomatoes
-1 small (~10 oz) beef stock**
-½ cup red wine (optional)
-½ cup ketchup (or v8 juice)
-2 bay leafs
-½-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
-2 tablespoons oregano
-salt and pepper to taste
*You can also use beef for your meat, or totally remove the meat for a vegetarian stew.
**Use if the stew needs more liquid. Vegetable stock can be used instead.
1. In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and add in the lamb. Season with salt, pepper and oregano and brown the lamb.
2. Add onions and garlic and sauté until onions have softened.
3. Add bay leafs, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, wine, and ketchup to the pot. Test for taste, adding more salt, pepper, and oregano if needed.
4. Cook over medium heat until meat is done/tender. Stir occasionally throughout. This may take 2-3 hours.
5. When meat is nearly done cooking, peel and cut potatoes into quarters so they are close to the same thickness as the meat.
6. Using a frying pan or iron cast skillet, add olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add potatoes and season with salt and pepper and brown the potatoes.
7. Once potatoes have browned, add them to the pot with the meat and cover the pot. Stir occasionally, making sure to stir from the bottom. Cook until potatoes are tender.
8. Once potatoes are tender, add peas to the pot and again season to taste with salt, pepper, and oregano.
9. If more liquid is needed, use beef or vegetable stock and water. You want to make sure all your meat and vegetables are covered with liquid.
10. Cook until peas have warmed and the taste is how you like it by adding more seasoning.
11. Once you’ve reached your desired taste, serve warm and enjoy!