Lamb Conquistador is an easy weeknight chili-with-beans from Smart Shopper’s Cookbook (1972) by former Betty Crocker executive Loyta Wooding. Like many recipes in Smart Shopper’s Cookbook it treats lamb shoulder and lamb chops as a budget friendly item – a cost-friendly alternative to beef. This may have been true in the 1970s but it’s hardly true today. A cheap round roast or chuck steak will run me four or five dollars a pound, better than the usual sale price for vacuum sealed lamb shoulder. For this particular recipe the bone-in lamb shoulder cost me double what a comparable cut of beef would have been. But by no means should you substitute beef in this recipe. It wouldn’t be awful, but the lamb lends a particular richness and depth that you’re not going to get with beef. The acid in the tomato tends to offset the lamb’s gaminess but without smothering out its distinctive flavor.
Smart Shopper’s Cookbook describes Lamb Conquistador as a “Mexican chili adapted to Californian tastes.” Conquistador, then, would presumably refer to the conquerors who took native cuisine and altered it for their own (European) tastes. But the culinary history is a little bit more complicated than that. Chili peppers are indeed native to the Americas and an important part of indigenous cuisine, but the peculiar form of chili on which Lamb Conquistador is based has its roots in Texas. And while it originated in Mexican-American communities and incorporates some traditional Mexican ingredients it bears little resemblance to any traditional Mexican dish. The titular conquistador then perhaps refers to the Californians, who’ve gussied up a traditional chili con carne with tomatoes and celery.
I believe this is the first recipe I had ever seen that used the syrupy bean liquid as an actual ingredient, though since writing this I’ve come across several others. Most of my recipes call for rinsed-and-drained canned beans, and even when I cook, say, black beans straight from the can I strain off the liquid with a slotted spoon. Instead, Lamb Conquistador whisks it all up with flour and chili powder to make a thickening slurry that – as unappetizing as it sounded at the outset – gives this dish that perfect “canned chili” consistency without the tinny canned chili flavor. Otherwise preparation is straightforward. Lamb and aromatics are browned and then simmered with tomatoes and spices until the lamb is tender. The canned beans are added towards the end of the cook. I threw in a can of hominy on a whim – it’s not part of the original recipe but it added a nice texture.
Lamb Conquistador makes a great one-pot meal on its own with maybe some tortilla chips for garnish. I’m accustomed to serving similar chilis with sour cream and cheese. The sour cream can stay but cheese doesn’t really pair all that well with the rich lamb. If you’re desperate to feel healthy serve it with a side salad. Enjoy!
- ½ cup vegetable oil (divided)
- 2 lb boneless lamb shoulder, cut into half-inch cubes (or 2 ½ pounds bone-in)
- 2 large sweet onions (coarsely chopped)
- 2 anaheim or pasilla peppers (coarsely chopped)
- 2 ribs celery (finely chopped)
- 2 15 oz cans kidney beans
- 2 tbsp flour
- 2 tbsp chili powder
- 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
- 1 28 oz can hominy
- salt and pepper (to taste)
- In a large dutch oven heat ¼ cup of the vegetable oil over medium high heat. Brown the lamb on all sides, working in batches if needed. Remove lamb and set aside.
- Add the remaining vegetable oil, along with the chopped onions, peppers, and celery. Saute for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft.
- Drain the kidney beans, reserving the goopy liquid from the cans. Set the beans aside.
- Whisk together the reserved bean liquid, flour, and chili powder to form a thin paste. Add this to the vegetable mixture in the Dutch oven along with the tomatoes, juices included, and the browned lamb.
- Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes (or more) until lamb reaches desired tenderness.
- Add beans and drained hominy and cook another 10 minutes until heated through.