The Spring season always awakens our tastebuds for those fresh, earthy, cool-weather greens and roots that are the first to emerge from the garden. We dive into kale and leaf lettuces, spring onions, peas and maybe some early varieties of turnips. After winter, the freshness of spring veggies is a huge treat. My meat-eating husband never gets quite as excited as I do over garden goodies, though. Sure he likes them, but where’s the beef, right?
So when I start planning spring meals, I like to do something special in the meat category, something as unexpected and exciting as Swiss Chard for the vegetarian. Lamb, a clean, sustainable, locally accessible choice is often where I turn for inspiration. Lamb, in my opinion, really knows no season—kabobs on the grill in the summer, shepherd’s pie in the fall, a stew for the winter table. For Spring dining this year, however, I decided to do something exotic—and yet, homey. A pot pie with ground lamb, but seasoned—HEAVILY—with Indian-inspired spices. It got me smiles and a really great smelling kitchen!
This is the perfect dish for special dinners with friends and family because you simply add a salad and a dessert and you’re basically done. The crusty top easily serves as your bread. Now, of course, there are a few steps in getting it to the table (be brave), but with just a bit of planning and organization, the dish comes together rather easily in five basic steps (assuming you have prepared pie crust dough):
- organizing and toasting your spices
- creating a super-simple (promise) velouté sauce
- Prepping and sauteing your meat and vegetables
- mixing everything together and pouring in your casserole
- topping with your pie crust and popping it into the oven.
An FAQ follows the recipe, so…let’s get cookin’.
- One teaspoon whole cardamom seeds, removed from pod
- One teaspoon whole coriander seeds
- One teaspoon whole mustard seeds
- One-half teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- One teaspoon whole allspice
- One and one-half teaspoons whole cumin seeds
- A light sprinkle of charnuska seeds (This is optional, but worth it if you have it. Penzeys is my go-to.)
- One tablespoon ground curry powder (For this recipe, I love Penzeys Maharajah Style Curry Powder.)
- One-quarter teaspoon ground turmeric
- One teaspoon ground cinnamon
- One-quarter teaspoon ground white pepper
- Two tablespoons freshly grated gingerroot
- Four tablespoons unsalted butter
- One and one-half tablespoons all-purpose flour (or you can use one tablespoon cornstarch and one-half tablespoon tapioca starch for gluten free.)
- One and one-half cups chicken stock (Your own or commercial—note that vegetable stock is also an option, if that’s what you have on hand, but I would avoid beef stock here because of a strong flavor.)
- Salt to taste
- One fennel frond (optional)
- Olive oil
- One pound ground lamb
- One-half cup fennel, diced
- One cup yellow onion, diced
- One cup carrots, diced
- Four to five cloves garlic, minced
- One-quarter cup dry red wine
- One-half cup chopped organic dried apricots
- One-half cup pitted and chopped organic Medjool dates
- One prepared flaky pie crust dough, rolled out one-half inch thick to about a 10-inch square (Have your dough ready to roll in the refrigerator before you begin the recipe. So, pie dough can be made three days ahead and refrigerated or months ahead, frozen and thawed in the refrigerator beforehand.)
- Toast all the whole spices in a dry cast iron skillet until just fragrant: the cardamom through the cumin seeds. You’ll include the charnuska, as well, if you are using it. Be sure to swirl them around or stir them frequently to keep them from burning. Once you begin to smell them, remove from heat and allow these spices to cool in the pan.
- As the whole toasted spices cool, mix the ground spices in a small mixing bowl: the curry through the white pepper. Grate the gingerroot on top of the ground spices and combine.
- Using a mortar and pestle, crush your toasted spices and add them to the spice and ginger mixture. Set this bowl aside.
- To make a perfectly smooth basic white sauce such as a bechamel or velouté, I prepare mine in a bain-marie—which is a fancy French name for a heat-proof glass bowl placed over a big Dutch oven, which has been filled halfway with water. Place the bowl atop the Dutch oven and bring the water to a steady strong simmer/low boil. This is the best method for slow cooking a flawless white sauce.
- So set up your bain-marie and start the water for the low, steady boil. Carefully position your heatproof bowl securely on top—it should not wobble. Add the butter and wait until it is melted—should take about two minutes once the water gets going. Whisk in the flour and salt, creating a roux. Allow the roux to cook for at least a minute to take the raw taste out of the flour. Continue to whisk.
- Now gradually add the chicken stock about an eighth of a cup at a time, whisking constantly. Keep adding the stock, whisking to incorporate thoroughly after each addition, until all the stock is in. Add the fennel frond for some subtle flavor, if you wish, and continue to whisk and cook until you have a smooth, thick sauce, maybe three or four minutes. You can remove the sauce carefully—watch the steam escaping from the simmering pot below!--and let it cool down. Once at room temp, refrigerate until you need it. Velouté can be made a day in advance and then brought to room temperature before adding to your recipe.
- In a large deep skillet, brown the ground lamb over medium-high heat. Mine was very lean, so I added a bit of olive oil to just coat the skillet—something to consider. That said, you want your meat to get a bit crusty to develop flavor, so a little sticking is fine—you'll deglaze the pan in a bit anyway.
- In this step, you simply want to brown the lamb, not cook it through, so gently break it up so there are no big chunks and get it evenly brown with a little char. Remove the browned lamb to a paper towel-lined dish to drain while you prepare the vegetables. Don’t clean the skillet—you want all the goody, known as fond, that is left behind.
- Add a bit more olive oil to this skillet and heat to medium-high. Again, as the vegetables go in, your goal is to keep developing flavor levels, so a little sticking and char is a good thing. Add the fennel, onion, garlic and carrot—your mirepoix. Add a good sprinkle of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, shiny and fragrant, about five to six minutes.
- Create an empty space in the middle of this hot skillet, which is probably pretty dry at this point. In this space, dump all the spices from your little mixing bowl, and immediately stir around, allowing them to bloom in the skillet’s heat as they mingle with their new vegetable friends.
- At this point, with your skillet still plenty hot, add the red wine all at once to deglaze the pan—beware of flares from a gas flame and pops from the skillet. There shouldn’t be too much because this is not a lot of alcohol. Cook and stir for about two or three minutes, until the alcohol has burned off.
- Add back your drained ground lamb and cook and stir to get everything combined, about three or four minutes. Then, toss in the dates and apricots, and pour in your room-temperature velouté. Stir well. Your filling is now ready to cool down a bit for assembly into a pot pie.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fetch your pie dough from the refrigerator. Once it is rollable, roll out a 10-inch square on a floured board or counter. You’ll need to vent the crust, and I find it is way easier to cut out little shapes in the center of your dough while it is all rolled out on the board. Use your cutout shapes to decorate, if you wish.
- Using an eight-inch square casserole, pour in your cooled filling. Carefully lift your prepared pie crust onto the top of your filling and just tuck in the sides. Place in the center rack of your oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling through the vents.
- Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.
The prep time above includes all the prep of the spices and dicing of the vegetables, as well as rolling out the pie dough. The cook time is a combo of the time it takes to make the veloute and the filling. Actually making pie dough is not represented here.
Does the meat in this recipe have to be lamb?
No, it doesn’t. I think ground chicken or turkey would be just fine—you might end up with a bit more fat in your skillet, though. On the other hand, I think ground beef would be overpowering, just like beef stock. So I wouldn’t recommend beef here. All this said, however, if you’ve never given lamb a try and have access to sustainably raised local lamb, it is worth a try.
Is it important to use whole spices? Can’t I just use all ground spices?
I guess you could, but the flavor profile will be different. Whole spices that have been lightly toasted and crushed have much better flavor, I think. Use whole spices if you can. If you can’t, omit the charnuska and just combine the spices in a bowl, still adding them all at once with the fresh ginger to the skillet at the appropriate time. I do think fresh ginger is a must here. I also toyed with the idea of orange zest, so you might consider that.
Must I use exactly these vegetables?
Heaven’s no. Since we are approaching Spring, what about peas? A great addition here. Spring onions, diced turnips, minced Brussel sprouts. Be brave! I, personally, like the classic onion, carrot and garlic mix here, but no rules.
Do I need to use red wine?
No, but you do need an acid—like sherry or white wine, or lemon or orange juice, or maybe a quarter cup of stock with a tablespoon of sherry or apple cider vinegar. The acid is for balance and brightness.
Can I do something different from pie crust? Something GF
Well, sure. Consider topping with whipped potatoes. Check out my Shepherd’s Pie for inspiration. Just remember to switch out the flour in the velouté with a tablespoon of cornstarch and a half-tablespoon of tapioca flour, which might work a bit better if it is made into a slurry with stock before adding to the bain-marie.
Thinking of adding other lamb dishes to your spring menu? Try my Harvest Leg of Lamb with Yogurt-Tahini Sauce. And think spring!