I can't remember a winter as cold as this. In New England, where I live, as in much of the country, frigid temperatures have been the norm. Morning after morning the thermometer has registered single digits -- and that's without adding the wind-chill factor.
It certainly makes entertaining a challenge. The best plans must often be laid aside when it is unbearably cold outside or when Mother Nature decides to deliver another blanket of snow. This very weather, though, has inspired a robust supper for a few friends who live nearby.
Cabin fever has become epidemic, and by now many are willing to brave the cold for a chance to socialize. The spell of chilly weather has also heightened appetites, making people ravenous for hearty foods.
The first thing that came to mind when I started to plan my menu was robust stew served with noodles or rice and accompanied by a basket of hot crusty bread and salad. Fortunately, several days ago I came across a recipe for a delectable lamb, red pepper and olive ragout and decided to make it the centerpiece of the meal.
The ragout is a combination of sauteed cubes of boneless lamb, chopped onions and pieces of red bell pepper that are simmered slowly in wine, along with seasonings of garlic, parsley and thyme. During the last half-hour of cooking, slivered dark-purple kalamata olives are added. Fork-tender when done, this rich, satisfying stew is delicious ladled over mounds of warm fettuccine.
It will make an ideal entree for this year -- and any other winter -- when entertaining can be problematic. The stew improves in flavor when prepared several days ahead, so I can make it in advance and reheat it at serving time.
More important, however, is the assurance that if the weather decides to be totally uncooperative and my mid-winter party has to be rescheduled, I can pop the ragout back in the refrigerator, where it will be ready and waiting for a later, perhaps slightly less frigid, date.
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Lamb Ragout With Red Peppers and Olives Over Fettuccine
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed
2 3/4 to 3 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes and trimmed of all excess fat
2 cups chopped onions
2 large red bell peppers (about 8 ounces each), stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons flour
salt, freshly ground black pepper
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, plus 2 tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 / 3 cup pitted, kalamata olives, quartered lengthwise
1 1/2 pounds fettuccine
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy, large, lidded pot over medium-high heat. When hot, pat lamb dry and add just enough lamb pieces to fit comfortably in a single layer in the pan. Cook, turning, until browned on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Continue cooking lamb in this way until all meat is browned, adding extra oil if needed.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the same pan and, when hot, add onion and pepper. Cook and stir until just slightly softened, about 3 minutes.
Return browned lamb pieces to pan and stir into onions and peppers. Sprinkle flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grindings of pepper over the meat and vegetables. Stir constantly and cook 2 minutes more. Add stock, wine, parsley sprigs (but not chopped parsley), thyme and garlic and bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1 hour.
Add quartered olives and cook with the lid slightly ajar, 30 minutes more or until lamb is very tender. Remove pan from heat. Taste ragout and season with additional salt and pepper, as needed. Remove and discard parsley sprigs.
The ragout can be prepared two days ahead, cooled, covered and then refrigerated. Reheat, stirring occasionally, over medium heat.
When ready to serve, bring an 8-quart or larger pot of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of salt and the fettuccine. Cook until al dente, or just tender to the bite, 10 to 12 minutes for dried pasta, or 4 to 5 for fresh. Drain in a colander. Taste and season with salt, if needed.
To serve, mound pasta on a large serving platter. Ladle ragout over it and sprinkle with remaining chopped parsley. Serve warm.