Just like somebody’s grandma used to make: Braised Lamb with Juniper Berries, Fennel, Sage

by Terry B on October 13, 2010

Adapted from an Italian grandmother’s recipe, slow oven braising allows many flavors—onions, garlic, celery, wine, sage, juniper berries, fennel seed, bay leaves—to melt together in this soul-satisfying, fork tender lamb dish. Recipe below.


One of the perks of doing Blue Kitchen is that we’re occasionally asked to review cookbooks. It’s also one of the drawbacks. Writing, thinking, reading and talking about food on a daily basis means that we’re almost always at least a little bit hungry—kind of a low grade infection that never clears up unless you are actually actively engaged in consuming a substantial meal at the moment. And when a gorgeous cookbook like Jessica Theroux’s Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily comes along, whole hams can’t quite stay your hunger.

To write Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, Theroux spent a year in Italy talking, cooking and often staying with a dozen different grandmothers. Italy is the birthplace of  Slow Food, a movement focusing on local, seasonal, italian-grandmothers-therouxsustainable food and preservation of traditional foods, methods and history. The beautiful, thoughtful cookbook Theroux and her army of grandmothers have created does just that.

To learn more about this amazing adventure—and about the book and chef/writer/photographer/filmmaker Theroux—read my latest post on the USA Character Approved Blog. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the recipe I adapted from the book this week. (I say this week, because I know right now that more will follow.)

Carluccia, one of Theroux’s “grandmothers,” lives in Italy’s boot tip in Calabria, maybe 60 miles from Sicily. She makes this dish with goat; I would have too, but our source for goat at the Logan Square Farmers Market was fresh out this weekend. They had lamb stew meat, though, and it was a perfect substitute.

There are many assertive flavors in this dish—lots of onion and garlic, celery, juniper berries (with their bracing gin note), fennel seed, sage (the recipe called for thyme, but I substituted the last of our fresh sage) and even a little kick from cayenne pepper. Nearly any of these elements could take on a starring role with quieter fellow ingredients, but an interesting thing happens when you throw them all together. No one ingredient stands out as something identifiable. Instead, you get a wonderfully complex, wonderfully mysterious big dish, rustic and farm table simple, but impressive enough for company. The kind of dish that will have them asking, “What’s in this?” and meaning it in a good way.

Carluccia uses another flavor-enhancing technique to add depth to the braise: She reduces the wine by half before adding it to the pot. I’d first discovered this trick in a recipe by chef Daniel Boulud, who says it makes the sauce taste as if it has cooked for days. You’ll probably notice you add water to the pot that exactly matches how much you reduce the wine. Never mind, the reduced wine will still work its magic.


Braised Lamb with Juniper Berries, Fennel and Sage
Serves 4

1-1/2 cups dry red wine
2 pounds lamb stew meat (or try goat—see Kitchen Notes)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced (about 2-1/2 to 3 cups)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 rib)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
10 juniper berries, finely crushed with a mortar and pestle
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Bring wine to boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer until wine is reduced to 3/4 cup, about 7 to 10 minutes (if you overdo the reduction, just add unreduced wine to bring it up to 3/4 cup). Set aside. Meanwhile, pat lamb chunks dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat a Dutch oven or other heavy oven-safe pot over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to pot; when it begins to shimmer, brown lamb chunks on all sides, working in batches. Transfer browned lamb to plate. You may need to drizzle in a little more oil between batches.

Reduce heat to medium and sauté onions with a little salt (again, you may need to add a little oil) until just softened, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, celery, sage and crushed juniper berries and fennel seeds and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes.

Add wine, 3/4 cup of water, tomato paste and bay leaves and stir, scraping up browned bits. Return lamb and any accumulated juices to the pot and bring to boil. If necessary, add a little more water, but don’t make it too soupy. Remove from heat, cover with lid and place in oven. Braise for about 1-1/2 hours, until meat is almost tender.

Finish cooking on the stovetop over low heat for about 1/2 hour. If sauce is too liquid, leave the lid slightly ajar so it will reduce. Conversely, if it gets too dry, add water, a little at a time. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice and transfer to individual plates or a serving dish. Top with chopped parsley.

Kitchen Notes

Lamb? Goat? Yes. You know how every country but the United States calls soccer football? Same deal with eating goat and lamb—it seems everyone but us does it, with gusto. In fact, 70 percent of the red meat consumed in the world is goat meat. So what does everyone else know that we don’t? Maybe it’s that goat is lighter and healthier than beef, with a slightly sweet flavor. Lamb and goat are healthier for the planet too, requiring far fewer resources to produce. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge fan of beef. But in this dish, it will be far too heavy tasting. Go for the lamb or the goat.

Oven or stovetop? Carluccia’s recipe calls for cooking this dish on the stovetop the entire time, over very low heat. But I’ve discovered that I have greater success with oven braising. The heat is gentler and more diffuse, coming at the covered pot from all sides instead of concentrating on the bottom, so the meat doesn’t dry out or turn tough. But if you’re successful with stovetop braising, stick with what works.


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

KathyB. October 13, 2010 at 9:53 am

I will be trying this recipe. I appreciate the remarks about goat / lamb and after raising goats for a number of years and finally eating one of our very large young wethers ( castrated male) I have to say goat is THE BEST meat of all. We don’t raise goats anymore , sigh…but I do have sheep and lambs. Usually I sell out of lambs way before I begin remembering I should have saved one for my own freezer, but because I raise a smaller and more primitive breed of sheep that seems popular with the middle Eastern community here in the U.S. they go fast. This year I am determined to keep one for ourselves. I have been told the primitive breeds of sheep taste like goat.

If more Americans actually tasted goat without prejudice( I know, goats are so cute),they would find it very tasty and goats and sheep take far less resources to raise .Thank-you for this recipe and the bit of commentary~

randi October 13, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I don’t care for lamb with the one exception of a Biryani my friend from India makes. I love it. And the photograph here makes me want to try this. I’ll have to think about it.
Something I was told recently I find interesting is that Mutton can be sold as both lamb or goat. You have to specify at a butcher what you want or you might get something different. I thought I should ask various butchers to verify this because I always thought it referred to an older sheep. And yes, each one of them said it could be either. This is in an area where I work which is predominantly Indian/Sri Lankan and I understand that for different cultures, one may call goat mutton and another will call lamb mutton.

Terry B October 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm

And thank you for your fascinating comment, KathyB! I don’t think fear of goat meat comes from goats’ cuteness, but rather from the undeserved reputation goat milk has for being strong. From a couple things I’ve heard and read, only when milking does are kept with the bucks is there a chance that the milk will have a strong taste. And as I said above, goat meat is very mild and much lighter tasting than beef.

Randi, I hope you do try this dish. All the spices and herbs make it wonderfully flavorful. I’d never heard of the term mutton being applied to goat meat before, but you’re right. As with lamb, it refers specifically to the meat of adult goats. You learn something new every day, if you get up early enough.

The Little Chef October 13, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Being from Montreal, a land far far away from Juniper berries (I’ve never seen one in my life!) what could I use instead? Mulberries? Blueberries?


Terry B October 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Hi, Little Chef—A great question! Actually, living in Canada, you’re probably closer to juniper berries than you think! They’re not like fruits we typically think of as berries—they’re actually part of the cones of Juniper trees. The biggest use for them is in the production of gin; when you crush them, you smell that distinctive “Christmas tree” smell that gin has. So if you don’t have juniper berries, you can use gin! Add a teaspoon for every two berries—so in this recipe, add five teaspoons of gin after adding the wine, water and tomato paste.

Laura [What I Like] October 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm

That sounds like a cookbook that will find a way to my bookshelf! I love gin, but although i’ve got a ton of juniper berries I’ve never quite found anything to use them in. You have just solved an age-old kitchen dilemma for me (as you so often do).

Mellen October 14, 2010 at 1:11 am

Madonna porca! That sounds so good. And I learned a brilliant new trick – reducing the wine ahead of time. Makes perfect sense, but who knew??

We rented a villa in Tuscany 30 years ago or so and were treated to roasted goat and roasted potatoes with a rosemary rub that I’ve never forgotten. We love goat, and when we were in Kenya ate it as often as we could find it. Our farmer’s market here sometimes has it, sometimes doesn’t. When they do, we buy it.

Also have to mention that this is almost a dead ringer for a recipe I got from some of my French neighbors who hunt wild boar. They don’t use stew meat, but rather marinate a haunch in strong red wine, juniper berries, loads of garlic, and sea salt and pepper for 3 days (yes, wild boar, even the babies, is lean and needs massive marinating), then sear it on all sides for about 10 minutes total, then braise in the rest of your ingredients and another bottle of wine in a low oven (or over the fireplace) for about 4 hours. Talk about depth of flavor! And the entire village smells good:)

Carol October 14, 2010 at 1:20 am

How fortuitous, I just bought 2 pounds of lamb stew at my favorite butcher on Saturday. AND I found a jar of juniper berries at William Sonoma, in a little jar. Plus the thyme – or the sage – are the intrepid last standers in my garden. Thanks for a timely jolt to try something besides Irish stew with the lamb.

Nishta October 14, 2010 at 1:45 am

Oh Terry, oh yes! I know I’ve already mentioned before how much I love eating lamb, and I grew up eating goat meat Indian style…just recently, I bought my first big ole leg of goat, braised it & made tacos. So, so delicious. I’m putting this on my list!

Terry B October 14, 2010 at 2:58 am

Hi, Laura! And if you have any juniper berries left after making this, try my Chicken with Lentils, adapted from the cookbook Bistro Chicken.

“Madonna porca!” Mellen, you’ve now taught me a great new phrase I’m totally going to wear out. Regarding the wonderful sounding French meal, I’m often intrigued by how various European cuisines have many convergences.

Timing is everything, Carol. I hope you enjoy this!

Nishta, I think Americans need to seriously catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to eating goat. I’m certainly ready.

kirsten October 14, 2010 at 3:28 am

Holy Canoli! This sounds so incredible and the cookbook too! I love love love Italian cookbooks and cooking, so thanks for the introduction!

Mary October 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Lovely! I see goat at the farmers market every week and have been wanting to find the right recipe to try cooking it for the first time, this looks like it fits the bill! I’ll have to check out this cookbook too.

Sam Rice October 20, 2010 at 12:11 am

This is so yummy! I can tell because I always loved authentic home cooking! Especially, when it is grandma’s cooking! This lamb will definitely go well with a cup of steam black rice! Protein plus vitamins and minerals from the black rice! Perfect and nutritious meal!

Alta October 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Just used my last bit of lamb shoulder! Gonna have to get some goat or lamb for this. Looks amazing.

Renise November 13, 2010 at 3:01 am

I will try this recipe. Congrats giving props to goat meat. I am from Antigua and it was a staple in my childhood. Much more so than beef. We usually make it stewed or curried. Yuuuummmm! My husband loves curry goat too.

Merituuli November 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Yesterday we had Fathers Day here in Finland. I made this lamb and we loved it! Thank you for sharing a recipe!

Terry B November 15, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Thanks, everyone. And happy Fathers Day, Merituuli!

Vlad November 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Very nice recipe.
Tried it twice and always a blast…

Omar December 10, 2013 at 11:05 am

Great recipe. If you had no wine, would you add more water?

Terry B December 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks, Vlad!

Omar, I would really try to use wine if at all possible; it adds so much to the overall flavor. If not wanting to consume alcohol is the issue, you could substitute a good alcohol-free wine.

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