I spent most of that Tuesday a good way up Mauna Loa, in the middle of … well, I really shouldn’t call it this, but nowhere. My mind was in Honolulu, where I was expecting twelve dinner guests at 7:30 pm, exactly 45 minutes after our return flight from Kona would touch down.
In Honolulu, my slow-cooker would be hard at work. I expected that its glass lid was probably jostling gently, rocking atop the simmering crock like a tethered boat in a rising tide. I hoped it smelled heavenly. Standing in the mist in an open ohia field five islands to the east, I wanted to know what my kitchen smelled like.
The night before I had started by toasting dried ancho chiles until they puffed with pride and smoke. But really this began months earlier, at the side of a pool on a rainy day, when I was waiting for someone and started to read heart of the artichoke by David Tanis.
The section that caught my eye first, naturally, was “Simple Feasts for a Long Table,” with several menus for the next time you need to feed a small army. Suckling pig, spiced goat, and more.
The goat, to be served with cilantro rice and after lobster salpicon on avocado halves, is introduced with a passage that read like MFK Fisher.
I went to a party once, way out in the country outside Mexico City. The hostess, a well-known Mexican chef, had set an enormous long table in the courtyard of an old hacienda. We feasted all night on traditional regional cuisine. Ringing the outdoor dining area were little food concessions, each with its specialty: ceviche, tamales camarones. One of the best offerings was called barbacoa, kid goat simmered in an enormous kettle over a wood fire…This simmered goat stew was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and now it is one of my favorite things to cook. It’s perfect for a crowd and leftovers (if there are any) are welcome the next day for making tacos al pastor.
I had to try it; goat would be difficult to find but the recipe came with the promise that lamb would be a fine substitute.
So the night before I went to Kona, I toasted those anchos, boiled them, and made a paste with garlic and cider vinegar, then coated pieces of Australian leg of lamb with it to sit overnight.
The next morning, as I dashed out the door, I slipped the lamb into the slow-cooker with a halved onion, a cinnamon stick, and spices and let it cook on low all day. (I didn’t have all the seasonings suggested in the recipe; made do with epazote, extra garlic, lots of cumin and some bay leaves.)
When I got back, Honolulu was cold, and my kitchen counter was warm and smelled like roasted cumin and pan drippings and smoked chili peppers. At the touch of a fork, the lamb fell apart into beautiful shreds perfect for tacos with a little cilantro rice and roasted butternut squash.