Biscuit-topped Bulgarian Lamb Stew is a hearty, simply seasoned lamb stew from Loyta Wooding’s 1972 Smart Shopper’s Cookbook. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in twenty-first century terms a lamb stew doesn’t seem to fit with the strict-budget ethos of Smart Shopper’s Cookbook. Lamb consumption has dropped precipitously since the 1960s and in modern markets lamb is a luxury item. At my local specialty butcher lamb stew meat commands a 50% premium over Choice-grade beef, and I can rarely find it for under ten dollars a pound even at discount grocery stores. If you live near a Halal butcher you may find more reasonable prices. I still happily recommend this recipe because it’s delicious, but it is not necessarily budget-friendly.
I suspect that the “Bulgarian” in the title comes from the unusual combination of lamb stew and beets. At the time Smart Shopper’s Cookbook was published Bulgaria was firmly behind the Iron Curtain but it also borders Greece and Turkey. Beets in soup = borscht = U.S.S.R. Remove the beets and you’ve got a Mediterranean-style tomato-based lamb stew. As best as I can tell Bulgarian cuisine is indeed a mix of Slavic and Mediterranean influences, but this particular recipe doesn’t seem to resemble any ‘traditional’ Bulgarian dish. It’s more like a shepherd’s pie with beets.
When I first came across this recipe I worried that this dish would be bland and underseasoned. Salt, pepper, and bouillon are the only seasonings listed, which is common for recipes from this era but not encouraging. I was expecting to have to jazz this up with herbs and spices to make it palatable but was pleasantly surprised to find that the vegetables speak for themselves. The sweet earthiness of the beets dominates the flavor profile, but the remaining vegetables play nice together. The mushrooms sweat off umami liquid during the cook, tomatoes lend some acid, onions do their usual aromatic thing, and the fresh green beans give the whole thing a garden-fresh herbal/floral quality. The biscuit topping adds more texture than flavor. Sure, I could probably toss in some cumin or mint leaves to really lean into the Mediterranean qualities of the dish but it seems unnecessary. The flavor’s fine as it is.
Preparation is straightforward but probably a little bit much for a standard weeknight meal. Even if you start with pre-cut stew meat this recipe requires a lot of vegetable prep. Chopping onions and tomatoes is no big deal, but peeling beets is a nightmare and I can’t think of many things more time-consuming than trimming green beans. I found that this recipe goes fastest if you drop the stew meat in first and then chop the veggies while you’re browning the lamb, mise en place be damned. I was also surprised by how “soupy” the lamb stew was. The tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms give off a lot of liquid by themselves, and then you add 4 cups of liquid before the final bake. The stew doesn’t thicken up during the cook, and I was a little bit hesitant to try and float the biscuits on top. When I make a shepherd’s pie or pot pie the filling has a little bit more substance, but I’m happy to report that it works just fine.
The end result is a surprisingly light and fresh-tasting dish. It’s more a soup than a stew but it’s still heartwarming and deeply satisfying. If you want it to be pretty you’ll need to gingerly remove the biscuits and ladle out some of the good stuff underneath, but there’s no shame in digging right in. The biscuits hold their own against the soup like a good crusty bread, soaking up the flavors without turning to mush. They add enough starch and substance to make this a standalone meal. I served it with a green salad for contrast, but there’s enough vegetable matter here that you can skip the salad with a clean conscience. I’m still not sure that anyone from Bulgaria would recognize it, but a dish doesn’t need to be authentic to be delicious. Enjoy!
For the stew:
- 2-3 lbs lamb stew meat (cut from the shoulder)
- salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 sweet onions (peeled and thinly sliced)
- 2 beets (peeled and sliced ½ inch thick)
- 3 tomatoes (chopped)
- 2 cups fresh green beans (trimmed and chopped into 1 inch pieces)
- 8 oz sliced mushrooms
- 4 cups beef broth
For the biscuit topping:
- Preheat oven to 350º F.
- Liberally season lamb with salt and pepper.
- Heat extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. When the oil begins to smoke add lamb and leave undisturbed for 3-4 minutes until bottom side is nicely browned. Stir lamb until exterior is well browned, then add onions and saute for 3-4 minutes.
- Add remaining vegetables and stir until well-mixed. Saute for 5 minutes until the mushrooms and onions have expressed a lot of their liquid and the whole dish takes on the color of the beets.
- Add beef broth and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Transfer to a large (11 x 15) baking dish. Cover tightly and bake for 60 minutes or more until lamb is fork-tender and beets are softened.
- Mix the ingredients for the biscuit dough in a medium mixing bowl. Knead a few times in the bowl until the dough forms a nice ball, then roll out the dough to ½ inch thick and cut into ~3 inch rounds.
- Uncover the baking dish and lay biscuit rounds gently over top. Raise oven temperature to 400º F and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until biscuits are lightly browned.