Bring On The Winter: Garlic shoulder of lamb with potato boulangère

Doco Dom and The Lady Deming have been visiting old haunts in France, and returned with a gift for lucky old me: a big-ass garlic grappe from Lautrec, the town famous for its stinking roses. I was, of course, deeply appreciative, but I was left with a slight problem. Now I have to do the stuff justice.

Garlic is the friendliest stuff with which to cook. The papery coating is the perfect defence against the heat of the oven, and a roasted head of garlic is a brilliant accompaniment to just about any savoury meal. Simply lop the top off, splash over a little oil, and cook for half an hour in a medium oven. The honey-coloured, mellow-flavoured paste that results when you squeeze out the cloves is a delight.

But we can do better than that. Keeping it French, I decided to snag some lamb shoulder, and put together the ideal slow-cooked meal for a lazy Sunday.

 

I'm a recent convert to the ways of the slow-cooked shoulder of beast. It is, to be fair, a dish that requires time. I could get my act together before leaving for work and pop a cut into the slow cooker, I suppose. But really, this is a weekend dish, designed for a bit of kitchen puttering. Particularly if you're smart, and do the potatoes at the same time.

Preheat your oven to 130C, and get on with the lamb. I had a half-kilo lump which will easily serve TLC and I with leftovers. Season it thoroughly, then get garlicking. Skin a whole head of the lovely stuff (it's easiest to bash it with the flat end of a knife or cleaver–the flesh will pop free from the papery husks) and nick off the hard stem. Then make deep incisions into the lamb with a sharp knife, and stuff the cloves into these pockets. Try to make sure they go all the way in. Don't be shy. Shove 'em in there.

Now to the spuds. Potatoes boulangère is the way forward here: layers of potato and onion, moistened with stock and flavoured with the copious fat from the lamb. You need a mandolin to do this properly. No, not the stringed instrument, you fool, the terrifying cross between a knife and a guillotine that has shortened many a chef's finger. Finely slice a couple of onions and four or five big potatoes. And grab some herbs. Thyme is traditional, but rosemary also works brilliantly.

Now to build. You can use a roasting tin, but I find a good deep casserole works just as well. Butter it well first. Pop a layer of potato in the bottom of the pot, then onion, herbs and a grind of salt and pepper. Then repeat, layering spuds, onion, herbs and seasoning until you've reached the top. If you're using Pyrex, then you get to see the result of your labours at the end. Check out this work of art.

 

Then all you do is slosh over a couple of ladlefuls of good stock, pop your lamb on top of everything and shove it in the oven. Then wait, which is probably the hardest bit. Five hours cooking time, slow and low, letting the fat gently render out of the lamb and into the boulangère, giving the garlic time to mellow and soften. Cook it for long enough and the cloves will actually melt into the meat, although I like the notion of squidging the soft garlic around on the plate.

When that five hours is finally done, let the meat rest for twenty minutes, then shred it. If there's a bone on the joint, it should slide free without complaint. Serve the lamb and potatoes with a simply steamed green veg (we had broccoli). You shouldn't need gravy as the boulangère is still quite sloppy. But don't let me stop you from sloshing a little mint sauce on the side.

The whole thing is is rich, herby, rib-sticking. There's nothing harsh about it. Hell, you don't even have to chew that hard. On the day the clocks went back, it was the perfect way to usher in the cooler months.

 

 

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The American Burger

The chunk of time between sixth form and college was tough for me. I didn't get the grades I needed for university, so I had to stay behind while a lot of my friends, the best and brightest of my year, went off to study. My girlfriend was one of those that left. She went to Cambridge, and she found someone else. Someone who was, you know, there. I read the Dear Rob letter on a busy Victoria Line train into work. I burst into tears in a packed tube carriage.

Like I said, tough times.

Family life was equally interesting. Mum and Dad had split up while I was studying for 'A' Levels, and as I studied for retakes, I realised I needed to take some time away from the tumult of life with my mum and brothers. I had become one of those sensitive teenagers who wrote poetry and moped constantly. With a broken family home and my romantic life in tatters, I suffered as no young man ever had before or would after.

Christ, I was insufferable.

Dad, at the time, was living in a small house in Wanstead, and I moved in over that summer of 1985 to get my head together and sort out enough of an improvement in my grades to get the heck out of Essex. It was a peaceful time. I looked after Dad's shop (he was even good enough to call me the manager) to earn my rent and a little beer money, wrote and studied.

And Dad started to teach me how to cook. It was, he said, an essential skill for when I set off on my own. Also, he'd had to bloody learn when mum kicked him out, so he was going to pass the pain on. He had a limited repertoire, gleaned mostly from the two cookbooks on his shelf, but one treat was always his American Burgers, a recipe he'd found in a newspaper and carefully noted down in his round, solid cursive.

Common knowledge now is that burgers are at their best treated simply, with care taken as to the mix of fatty and lean meat used. Back then, Dad used what he had, knowing that the flavours and spices that went into the burger would give it the right taste. They became a weekly treat for us, one that we would often cook together, with the tape player blasting out Bruce Springsteen.

The other week, TLC and I drove up to Essex to visit the 'rents. Time has been kind. Mum and Dad got back together during my first year at college, buying a new house and making things right with each other. I had done enough to get a place at the Dorset Institute Of Higher Education (now Bournemouth University) and packed my bags for the south coast in the autumn of 1986. In one of those bags was the notebook in which I had cribbed my favourite recipes from my time with Dad. The American Burger was in there, of course. It was a connection to home, and to a peaceful, healing time.

Dad doesn't cook very often anymore, but when he does the grub is always good. We had a sort of indoor barbecue on the Saturday night, and he pulled out the big guns. The American Burger was on the menu. He still has the notebook in which he wrote the recipe, stained and brown from decades of use. The Burger tasted just as delicious as it always had. I had no Proustian moment connecting me to the tumultuous past, no great epiphany. But I have fond memories of cooking with my Dad in that summer, as he and Mum gently negotiated a truce, then the rebudding of a romance.

I'd like to share that recipe–as best I can, anyway. You can't get the Knorr onion soup mix it recommends any more, so you'll have to manage with what you can find. Dad uses an Ainsley Harriott mix, if that's any help. If you do have a fatty mince blend, then you can probably get away without the egg. But try it as is, just to give you an idea of the flavours of my bumpy adolescence.

 

AMERICAN BURGERS

  • 1lb minced beef
  • half-package Knorr dried onion soup mix
  • one raw egg
  • seven squirts, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
  • three squirts of Tabasco
  • one tablespoon of Daddie's Sauce
  • four shakes of garlic salt
  • half a chopped onion

 

Mix together. Makes 3

Cook in hot frying pan, cover, 2-3 minutes each side.

Extras:

  • white sesame-seed bun
  • iceberg lettuce
  • Kraft cheese slices

 

A Quick Summer Traybake

Those working weekday dinners are such a bind. The clock's ticking from the moment you get in the door to the second that food hits the plate. You want something that's nutritious, tasty and above all quick. Is it any surprise that, as the hardest-working nation in Europe, we've fallen back on ready meals, pasta or pizza? When you've done a full day's work, gathering up the energy to sort out dinner is tough.

But there are ways and means. Although I'm the first to admit that I sometimes fall back on rigatoni with sauce from a bottle, there are other alternatives for that dull Wednesday evening when the tempation is high to roll past M&S or the chippy. How about this summer traybake–really easy and full of the flavours of this golden season?

As you walk in the door, get the oven on and preheating to 200C, and put a pan of water on to boil. I have been known to do this before I take my jacket and shoes off. Now you may kiss the partner and tickle the cat.

Once the water's bubbling, throw in some salt, then a handful per person of new potatoes. They'll need ten minutes to parboil. Now grab a sturdy roasting tray. Chuck in some chicken thighs or breasts, cut into slightly bigger than bitesize pieces, a thickly sliced red onion, and cherry tomatoes. Leave them whole. If you don't have cherries, normal size ons are fine, but quarter them.

Once the spuds have had their ten minutes, drain them and throw 'em in with the rest of the meat and veg. Mix everything up and give it a generous seasoning and a good glug of olive or rapeseed oil. Fresh herbs would be nice here too: robust thyme or fragrant rosemary. Oregano works as well.

Then just pop the whole lot into your hot oven, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Time for a beer, perhaps.

After twenty minutes, check the tray, and give everything a stir around. The potatoes should be golden at the edges, the onion soft, the chicken a bit sticky. If it's all looking a bit pale, just give it another ten minutes. Bear in mind that the spuds won't go as crispy as roasties, but they will go fudgy and soft. Half an hour in total is all this dish'll need at absolute maximum.

Once time's up, just mix everything up a bit, squirt over a little lemon juice, sprinkle on some parsley and serve. Looks good, eh?

Now, this dish is really tweakable. You could use little pork chops or thick fish fillets to replace the chicken (if you're using fish, no more than twenty minutes in the oven). If you're feeling bold a whole fish would work beautifully. You could add mushrooms, peppers, some whole garlic cloves, maybe parsnips or steamed sweet potatoes as the weather cools. Have a play, put in the flavours that you love and make it your own.

That's better than an M&S curry, isn't it?

 

 

Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy

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On a weekend when I’m not working, I love to spend time in the kitchen coming up with a slow-cooked stew or casserole. Something with a bit of improv behind it. Jazz cooking. If it uses up some bits and bobs that are looking a bit sad in the fridge, then so much the better. Yesterday’s pot of love was a fine example of the form, so I thought I should share.

Start off with some chunked-up chorizo and lamb mince in a hot pan. I always use my deep saute pan for this sort of thing. It’s got a lid, and the all-metal build means it’ll happily go in the oven. We bought it with some of our wedding money, and it shows no signs of tiredness. Unlike it’s owner. I digress.

The chorizo and lamb will exude their own oil, so once they’re hot and sizzling, decant them to a warm bowl and use that paprika-spiked bounty to cook the veg. In this case, the cajun trinity of onion, celery and green pepper. I usually add some carrots to this as well. Give it five minutes. If you don’t have a beer or a glass of wine in hand by now, go pour yourself one. You’ve done some chopping. You deserve it.

Once the veg have softened a bit and taken on some colour, throw the meat back in, along with a couple of cloves of garlic and the slightly over-done sausage that was left over from breakfast. Let everything get acquainted. Now add a can of mixed beans (usually called three-bean salad or something like that) that’s been drained. After that, tomatoes. A good and lazy tip is to use a posh tomatoey pasta sauce instead. Most of the TV chefs do them, and they’re a good storecupboard standby. The supermarket/ Finest/Best/Taste The Difference ranges are all worth exploring too. I used one with cherry tomatoes and a hint of chilli. It was a very subtle hint. Too subtle for my liking, so I threw in a couple of my dried chilis, pierced but otherwise left whole so I could fish them out when everything was singing from the same hymn sheet.

The mix is smelling great, but it’s pretty dry, so I let it down with some chicken stock. I make my own, but a stock cube is fine. Just watch the salt. About half a pint, I reckon. Hard to tell. It was in a ziploc bag. Enough to cover the meat and veg, anyway.

Let that bubble gently for half an hour with the lid on, then half an hour with the lid off until the stew has thickened to your liking. Taste a few times along the way, and season as you feel the need. Keep an eye on those chilis. Crank up the music. Have another glass. If the weather’s anything like it was yesterday, watch the rain hammering the roof of the conservatory, and listen to the thunder.

When your stew is thick and glossy and delicious looking, fish out the chilis and serve over rice, and a freezer-burned peshwari naan if one happens to be kicking around. TLC thinks they’d be nice with some fruit and yoghurt, and who am I to argue with a girl that’s officially twice as smart as I am? I should have garnished it with some lovage from the herb patch, but buggered if I was going out in that weather.

If you’re lucky, clever and not too greedy, there’s enough stew left over for your dinner tomorrow too. Sometimes, improv is the way to go.

The soundtrack for the meal should really be the OST to season one of Treme. Lots of groovy N’Awlins jazziness. Perfect when you’re cooking up a storm. Or in a storm.