The playschool Elisabeth attended when we moved back to South Africa was hosted by a woman I strongly suspect is one of those angels who parades as a human. Her house was (and remains, I am certain) a place of astonishing warmth and generosity where, at any given time – and usually way after they were supposed to be collected by us, their errant mothers – a rag-tag collection of children would be tearing around her enormous kitchen on small, plastic motorbikes, helping themselves to home-made rusks or nibbling on phyllo pastry triangles stuffed with feta and spinach from the garden.
The cooking smells in that house were incredible, but one dish in particular made me so hungry that I had to go home and make it right away. Now it’s one of my favourites. Few smells are as delicious as that of lamb cooking, and sometimes when I arrived this stew, in all its rich, tomato-y aromaticness, would be bubbling away on the stove to be mopped up, come evening-time, with a slice of brown bread fresh out of the oven and cooling somewhere on a rack. The permanent inhabitants of Sandy’s house are lucky people indeed.
It’s no coincidence that this kitchen is the site of such joy – before deciding to stay home with her young children, Sandy was a successful restauranteur which meant that our kids were the lucky benefactors of some seriously good (not to mention healthy, home-grown) grub. I cried big tears when Elisabeth’s days at that school ended. I loved going there in the mornings and the afternoons. There was a certain grace to this large, lovely home one doesn’t often encounter anymore.
When winter strikes this is one of the first dishes I make, and it always reminds me of Sandy’s beautiful, warm kitchen with its little fire burning and its tribe of happy people. The sweet potato lends a little natural sweetness to this dish, and the beans break up and make it thick and hearty and satisfying. (In fairness to Sandy, I must say I never did procure her exact recipe, but this is how I make it and I imagine the tastes would be similar). Here’s how to do it:
Stewing lamb or ornery old lamb chops
A tin of tomatoes
2 tins of beans (I like to mix butter beans and speckled red beans)
A few carrots
A sweet potato
A cube of mutton stock (optional, but it gives it extra oomph)
Dried or fresh rosemary
Sautee your chopped onion in a bit of oil, and brown your lamb. Add a tin of tomatoes, two cups of water, the stock cube, your tinned beans, the rosemary, the garlic, the butternut, the carrots and the sweet potato. Put a lid on the pot and let this all simmer for at least three hours. Add the green beans, chopped, about half an hour before you want to eat it. Taste it and season if necessary. A bit of red wine won’t hurt, either. It should be thick and rich and yummy when it’s done. Serve it steaming hot with the freshest bread you can find. It’ll make winter so much warmer.