Growing up, a winter snowfall meant braving the weather to make snow angels, build snow forts, and endure 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 lamb stew always does the trick.
My yiayia is probably a lot like yours. They love with their whole hearts, constantly nag us to get married, and would never let us leave their house hungry or empty handed. Yiayia Saltas makes me an egg sandwich whenever I visit, sends me home with a large bowl of orzo, brings spanakopita 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. Her lamb stew, so hearty and healthy that it’s perfect on a cold winter day, ranks as my all-time favorite. Best of all, the stew uses just three main ingredients—simple as it gets.
Making a stew is rather easy. You combine the right ingredients with the right sauce for the right occasion. Simplicity floats my boat, so I like a simple lamb stew the way my yiayia makes it. We spent a recent cold Utah winter day together going over her stew-making method. Of course, she texted me with even more suggestions in the following days and asked if I’d eaten all the stew yet.
The trick with any stew: Be patient and cook it low and slow. This lets all of the ingredients properly blend together. For this stew, use lamb, potatoes, and peas, plus a sauce. Easy as that. Begin with the lamb, and cook on a low simmer along with the onions, garlic, and herbs. Be sure to add ingredients slowly one at a time so they can properly blend together. A Greek cook calls this process “pantremeni” which means to be married. So, in this case, the flavors marry each other. Maybe that’s why the dish wins the heart.
Next up, build the sauce. You can use whatever tomato flavors you like—sauce, paste, and/or fresh diced. Please do adjust the flavors as they cook. My yiayia likes to add ketchup to sweeten it up, and my dad likes his sauce tart so he adds spicy V8 juice. My dad almost always adds additional oil to his stews, and some cooks add wine or vinegar. For this recipe, I just use ketchup like my yiayia does. Add extra spices and herbs if you like, and let the meat and tomato sauce marry for a couple of hours.
When the meat becomes fork tender, the vegetables are up next. Any time you throw vegetables into a stew, be sure to add the harder ones first. For this stew recipe, you’ll fry the potato quarters until they’re brown, drop them into the stew, and then with infinite patience wait for them to tenderize before you add the peas. Make sure to stir the stew from the bottom, as my yiayia would say to do.
Stew magic, like marriage magic, tends to happen when no one’s looking. You don’t just follow directions and call it good. You work the spices. You pay attention to details. You even let the stew cool in the refrigerator for a day or two to reach peak flavor and texture. I’m not married but I know this: stews always taste better the next day.
One last thing. In summer, you can substitute zucchini for the peas. Or you can just keep adding whatever vegetables you have to create a mulligan stew. Anything goes. Just keep layering in flavors. That is what my yiayia’s father would do, make “moo-lee-gen” stew for his large family. Everyone and I mean everyone had a chunk of bread handy to sop up the marriage of tomato sauce and lamb.
- 2 lbs of lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes and trimmed of excess fat*
- 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
- 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.
- Add onions and garlic and sauté until onions have softened.
- Add bay leafs, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, wine, and ketchup to the pot. Test for taste, adding more salt, pepper, and oregano if needed.
- Cook over medium heat until meat is done/tender. Stir occasionally throughout. This may take 2-3 hours.
- When meat is nearly done cooking, peel and cut potatoes into quarters so they are close to the same thickness as the meat.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once potatoes are tender, add peas to the pot and again season to taste with salt, pepper, and oregano.
- 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.
- Cook until peas have warmed and the taste is how you like it by adding more seasoning.
- Once you’ve reached your desired taste, serve warm and enjoy!
**Use if the stew needs more liquid. Vegetable stock can be used instead.