Lamb and dried plum stew

In the wake of tropical storms, this September has had some cooler and more dreary days, which always puts me in the mood for soup and stew. Making tried-and-true recipes I grew up with can be comforting, but also somewhat limiting.

Looking outside the box, I gravitated to a recipe I’ve been fascinated with since childhood: tzimmes. A traditional Ashkenazi Jewish sweet stew featuring carrots and dried fruit like plums or raisins, it’s a perfect choice in keeping with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which includes the eating of sweet foods in the hope that the subsequent year will be similarly sweet.

For those who grew up without tzimmes as a family recipe, including me, “sweet stew” may fall outside most people’s comfort zone, but this version has such a bold combination of flavors you’ll be sweetly surprised and find tasters asking for the recipe.

I first encountered tzimmes in a holiday recipe book by the Frugal Gourmet. I was fascinated by the idea, particularly the sweetness, my mother was equally repulsed.

Many renditions add brisket to the mix of honey, carrots and other root vegetables and my family’s stance was sweet meat was a bridge too far. Experimenting with the recipe, I found it’s so much more than sweetness. It is quite sweet, even omitting any sugar, honey or other direct sweetener, but it’s also spicy, salty, savory … a dazzling full flavored experience. Others clearly agree, because you also can find headily spiced stews combining meat and fruit in the Middle East and Northern Africa, from Persian khoresht-e aloo to the Moroccan tagine. Blending elements from several recipes, I call this version simply “lamb and dried plum stew” to avoid stepping on anyone’s cultural toes.

I dialed back some of the spices for simpler flavor, but the seasonings are still strongly evocative of their parent cultures: spicy-sweet ginger, tart and earthy turmeric, and smoky coriander. I’d always thought turmeric was more color than flavor, it’s been used for centuries as a dye and imparts brilliant saffron yellow, but it also has a remarkable aroma you’ll be able to pick out after trying it a few times. A relative of ginger, it has a slight bitterness and a mustard-like flavor that serves as the perfect unifier for the other sweet and spicy ingredients. In medieval Europe, turmeric was called “Indian saffron” for the similarities between the two and it still makes a more affordable substitute in a pinch. Like ginger, turmeric is often used in traditional medicine as a digestive, and the two in combination makes for pleasingly peptic flavors.

The general idea of this recipe also gained some notoriety thanks to the Hunger Games series, where lamb and dried plum stew becomes the favorite meal of protagonist Katniss Everdeen. If the lure of the flavor combination isn’t enough to sell you, perhaps affection for Young Adult Science Fiction is. The flavors are complex and sophisticated for Katniss’s backwater coal town, but seem right on the money for the decadent lifestyle exemplified by the Capital. Whether your fighting to overthrow a dystopian government or just trying to warm up a grim autumn day, this stew has you covered.

Lamb and dried plum stew

If you can’t find lamb, veal will do, as will ordinary beef (though beef has a much stronger flavor).

Serves 6-8.

3 tablespoons coconut oil

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

2 pounds lamb stew meat, in roughly 2-inch chunks

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 large yellow onions, diced

8 carrots, diced

6 parsnips, diced

2 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

6 cups chicken stock

1 lemon, freshly zested

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced, plus more for garnish

18-20 or so dried plums, sliced in half

Preheat an oven to 300F and warm oil and spices over medium heat, add lamb chunks and salt and cook until browned, then remove to a plate.

Add onions, carrots, and parsnips and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent, then add garlic and ginger and cook until the carrots are softened, about 5 minutes more.

Add the lamb back to the pot and stir in chicken stock, lemon zest, and parsley, bring to a simmer, then transfer into the oven, and stew for 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the plums and stew 20 minutes more, until the plums are hydrated and the meat begins to shred with a spoon. Serve with fresh parsley.

Since meeting in 2005, Pereira and Aaron Peterson have enjoyed cooking, entertaining and sharing recipes together.

Inspired and edified by family history, cookbook collections and their travels (and the meals they’ve eaten on them), their blog, GourmetGents, launched in October 2011 as an extension of their love for all things epicurean.

They feature family recipes, unfamiliar ingredients, baking experiments, cooking tips and lots of food photography, all with the occasional snarky aside.

For more recipes, visit gourmetgents.­ blogspot.com.

GourmetGents is published on the fourth/last Sunday of the month in the Lifestyle section.

They can be reached at the Lifetsyle Department email, life@sun­gazette.­ com.