In every wood in every spring there is a different green, wrote Professor Tolkien, a sentiment certainly borne out by all my Maytide experiences in Maine. (On the other hand, I must admit, the year I moved here I watched open-mouthed as three inches of snow fell at my house on May 25th.) But May is the time to shake off our winter miseries and perk up our menus with ingredients that are fresh and new and healthy, and to cook fun stuff.

In most cultures, spring is the time to enjoy lamb, so I’m detailing one of my favorite lamb stews, the one that the French, bless ’em, call navarin printanier. Most of us think of lamb stew (if we think of it at all, lamb not being hugely popular in Maine) as a hearty winter dish, but the above-mentioned is a light and unstuffy mix of the youngest lamb and the youngest vegetables.

Traditionally the navarin contains the youngest lamb you can find, plus handfuls of baby vegetables including, if you’ve got them, baby carrots and baby turnips. If you put your garden in fairly early in spite of our late, snowy, howling winter, now would be the time to raid it and see if the carrots and turnips are just beginning to fatten. Otherwise, the best we can do is haunt our local farmers’ markets and see what we can find.

Lamb is more problematical, as it’s thin on the ground at our local supermarket – indeed, I’ve only ever found it there the week before Easter. But yes, I have a solution (who looks after you?) and it’s right downtown. Our friend Nina at Up Front and Pleasant Gourmet, is carrying the lamb produced by one of our most fascinating local enterprises, the Fleur de Lis Farm Lamb and Wool Company, run by the Macneils, who have been pasturing pure-bred Cotswold sheep down by the Sandy River for ten years. Drop in and ask Nina for anything that will turn into stew – Julia Child recommends shoulder, breast or neck rather than leg for the stew, but if it comes already cubed, go for it.

You’ll need around two to three pounds of lamb in 2-inch cubes; flour and sugar, thyme and rosemary (fresh, if it’s growing in your dooryard); chicken stock and white wine; a yellow onion, boiling potatoes, boiling onions, baby carrots, baby turnips, and a bay leaf. (Don’t scorn the turnips – they’re sweeter than you can imagine.)

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat a splash of oil and a knob of butter. Working in batches, brown the lamb on all sides, about 15 minutes. (Remember, Julia reminds us that we must dry the lamb cubes with paper towels if it’s to really brown.)

When all the meat is browned, return it to the pot, sprinkle with 1 tbs sugar and toss until the sugar caramelizes. Add the chopped yellow onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Sprinkle about 2 tbs flour over the meat and onion, add salt and pepper, and stir until the flour browns. Add about a cup of white wine and a cup or two of chicken stock, the thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for about an hour over a low flame, or in a 350 oven. (Julia, whom I worship, adds tomato paste and beef stock, and maybe I’ll try that some day; it just seems too heavy to me.)

Now you can peel the potatoes into small ovals, peel the carrots and turnips and cut them into 1 ½-inch segments, and pierce an X into the root-end of the onions, just like you do with Brussels sprouts. Add the vegetables to the casserole, be sure they’re covered with liquid, and put it back in the oven, covered, for another hour. At the very end, put a bunch of parboiled peas and green beans into the casserole, baste with the sauce, and simmer five minutes or so until they’re tender.

Do I have to laboriously specify a crusty peasant loaf and a young, fruity red from Languedoc or rosé from Provence to accompany this? I thought not.

Now for a little etymological speculation. Every source I’ve looked at suspects that the term “navarin” comes from the inclusion of turnips or “navets” in the stew. I personally think it comes from the kingdom of Navarre, that odd little blob on the map the straddles the Pyrenees and contains parts of both France and Spain.

My theory is strengthened by the fame of the Pyrenees lamb, which has been celebrated since the 13th century, and the equally famous vegetable gardens of the southern plains along the Ebro valley. How did a Navarrese recipe spread all over the north? Easy: it came to France in 1589, when King Henry III of Navarre inherited the French throne as Henry IV of France, and what the king ate suddenly became verrry popular. This is my theory, which is mine, and has no research or footnotes to prove it, so you are welcome to invent a more entertaining one yourself.


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