Blue Kitchen
Clean out the winter stores and celebrate spring flavors in one dish with this French lamb stew.

Navarin d’agneau: A French lamb stew for spring

Lamb Navarin combines lamb, peas, carrots, new potatoes, and turnips for a spring stew that is hearty, but lighter tasting than beef stew.

Many recipes here are inspired by cookbooks. This one was inspired by a novel. "The World at Night" by Alan Furst is set mainly in Paris, in the early 1940s, during the time of German occupation. To call it a tale of intrigue and romance is accurate enough, but falls far short of doing it justice.

American-born author Furst has lived in Paris for long periods, and he creates a masterfully nuanced picture of place and time. The daily privations of wartime rationing – food, coal for heat, cigarettes – are made vivid. And the threat of danger, real, personal, and ever-present, is palpable. But so is the enduring beauty of Paris and the daily lives of its citizens, even during war, expressed in perfect, quiet details. 

On the very day that Nazi tanks first rumble across the French border, the protagonist of "The World at Night," Jean-Claude Casson, dutifully attends a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife in their former apartment. Lamb navarin, a traditional spring stew, is cooking in the kitchen, and she offers him a taste. His approval of the dish, not spoken but “a kind of bear noise, a rumble of pleasure from deep within,” told me I had to taste it, too.

Lamb navarin (navarin d’agneau) is considered a spring stew, and the lamb, the peas, and the new potatoes are all certainly springtime ingredients. But it is named for what many think of as a sturdy winter root vegetable. Navarin is French for turnip.

Carrots, another key ingredient, probably also came from the root cellars of practical French cooks looking to use the last of their winter stores while creating something that tasted like the promise of spring. And it works. The natural sweetness of the turnips and carrots combines with that of the peas to give the stew a fresh brightness. And the lamb delivers a much lighter flavor than chunks of beef give to more wintry stews.

Lamb Navarin (Navarin d’Agneau)
Serves 4

1-1/2 pounds lamb stew meat (see Kitchen Notes)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more, if needed)

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 tablespoons flour, divided

3 cups water

2 cups dry white wine [editor's note: for a substitution we recommend vegetable broth of the same amount]

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

2 medium turnips (about 12 ounces), peeled, cut into bite-sized chunks

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal

3 small to medium shallots, peeled and quartered (see Kitchen Notes)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 teaspoon sugar

12 ounces new red potatoes, unpeeled, cut into bite-sized chunks

1 cup of peas, fresh or frozen (thawed, if frozen)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut any overly large chunks of lamb into bite-sized pieces and season lamb generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium flame. Working in batches, brown the lamb (you may need to drizzle in a little more oil between batches). During the last batch, reduce heat slightly. Transfer lamb to bowl and set aside.

2. Add onion to pot and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Don’t let it brown. Add garlic and tomato paste and sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of flour. Cook, stirring frequently, until tomato paste and flour are slightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add water and wine to pot and scrape up browned bits. Add thyme and bay leaf and return lamb to pot, along with any accumulated juices. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Cover Dutch oven and transfer to oven. Braise for about 30 to 40 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add turnips, carrots and shallots and sprinkle with sugar. Toss to coat and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened and browned slightly, about 10 minutes.

4. Add browned vegetables (don’t fret if they don’t brown) and potatoes to Dutch oven and return to oven. Braise until vegetables are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer Dutch oven to stovetop.

5. Wipe vegetable skillet clean and melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of flour and cook, whisking constantly (with this awesome tool, if you have it), until the mixture is nicely browned and the flour has lost its raw taste, about 5 minutes. (You’re making a blond roux to thicken the stew’s liquid – see Kitchen Notes for other options.) Add roux and peas to Dutch oven, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes or so, until peas are just cooked. Ladle stew into shallow bowls and serve. Some crusty bread makes a good accompaniment.

Kitchen Notes

Lamb stew meat? Some places stock this and call it this. You can also use boneless lamb shoulder and cut it into chunks. In a pinch, you can even use bone-in lamb shoulder chops and cut them up; just buy extra to compensate for the weight of the bones.

Shallots or… Nearly all versions of this dish use a couple members of the allium family. You start with a yellow onion to flavor the overall braise. In this recipe, shallots are added later, offering the occasional mild oniony bite. Some recipes call for spring or green onions. You could also use leeks. When preparing the shallots for this version, peel off the dry outer skins, separate individual lobes, then slice them once crosswise and once lengthwise to quarter them. As they cook, they will probably further separate into smaller pieces. That’s fine.

In the thick of it. To me, making the roux is the most French way to thicken the stew’s sauce, so that’s why I did it. You could make a beurre manié instead, kneading together soft butter and flour and adding it to the sauce, also very French. But the roux avoids the raw flour taste and is far less messy to deal with. You could also thicken the sauce with cornstarch dissolved in cold water. And finally, you could not bother to thicken the sauce. Only don’t do this. A velvety sauce gives the whole dish a nice finish.

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