Lamb Casserole

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Sometimes a simple thing stays with you. This blog is meant to be for my own ideas, but I can’t talk about my dish without first telling you about a byriani that’s been living in my head for a while now.IMG_0057

It was from a London restaurant called The Dock Kitchen (I don’t review restaurants but I urge you to go there if you get the chance). One of their specialities is a lamb byriani that surprised and amazed me.

It has to be ordered for at least two people, and the price will be more than you’ve ever thought of paying for a bowl of rice and meat. It comes to the table in an earthenware pot that’s been sealed with a dough lid baked golden brown, anointed with rosewater and garnished with a tiny square of gold leaf on it – an extravagant touch that screams “this is valuable!” and does quite a bit to reframe your perception of a dish made from a cheap cut of meat. You also get a small platter of cashew nuts, pomegranate seeds, rose petals, crispy onions and coriander leaves, as well as a copper saucepan of rich, thick sauce. You crack the bread seal with a spoon as if it were a hard boiled egg and serve yourself from the pot of slow cooked lamb nestled within the saffron rice. And beautiful as all of that is, none of that is the reason I can’t forget this dish.

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After eating too many stewed dishes where the meat was either undercooked and chewy, or was tender but had lost all its flavour to the sauce, I’d all but given up on casseroles with long cooking times. I thought the tradeoff was inevitable for these cuts – “Cheap for a reason” I’d told myself, and if I wanted better I’d just have to pay more. My first bite of this byriani did not merely prove me wrong, it completely blew my mind. Each piece of lamb was so tender you could have cut it with a spoon, but the flavour was still there in the meat itself.

It’s the simple things.

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Once I knew that the tradeoff was not inevitable, I was determined not to resign myself to it, and I slow cooked lamb over and over until I figured out how to get it right. This recipe is not a re-creation of The Dock Kitchen’s byriani, but it is heavily inspired by my memory of it.

Lamb Casserole

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  • 3 or 4 pieces of lamb neck, 1″ thick, with the bone in
  • 100g lardons (optional)
  • 2 large onions, cut into about 4 thick rounds (see photo)
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 large carrots, chopped or broken into large pieces
  • 1 rib of celery, diced
  • ~250ml of stock (chicken or beef) or red wine, or a mixture of both
  • Bouquet garni (3 large stalks of rosemary, 3-4 parsley stalks, a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf tied in a bundle)
  • 1 serving of carrots a l’anglaise (boiled carrots – see below)

Set the oven to 135C/Gas mark 1

Season the lamb neck generously all over with salt and pepper.
In a flameproof casserole dish with a tight fitting lid, fry the the lardons in a little oil until browned all over. Remove lardons from the dish, reserving the hot oil in the pan.

Sear the lamb neck well on both sides. Remove from the pan and deglaze with some of the wine or stock.

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Arrange the onions, carrots, celery and peeled garlic cloves and fried lardon so as to cover the base of the pan. Lay the lamb neck on top of the onions. Pour in stock/wine until it just touches the bottom of the meat (you may not need all of the liquid). Arrange the bouquet garni on top of the meat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and braise for about 2 hours, until the meat is tender and comes away from the bone easily. Allow the casserole to cool completely. IMG_0080

Once cold, remove the meat from the sauce. Pick off the meat and any remaining marrow from the bones with your fingers. Discard the bones and any tough cartilage.

Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Transfer the vegetables and a little of the sauce to a blender or food processor. Start the blender and add the rest of the liquid gradually with the motor running to blend the onions to a smooth, rich, thick sauce. At this point you can thicken the sauce further by reducing if you wish, or add more wine/stock to make it thinner. Once you have your desired consistency, add the meat back into the sauce. If you can, leave the casserole overnight in the fridge to develop flavour.

Reheat and serve with the carrots as below, plus buttered peas and creamy mashed potatoes, or fluffy rice and toasted cashews.

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Carrots a l’anglaise

I keep reading recipes that claim that boiled carrots are boring and they should be roasted instead. This is completely wrong. I cook them like my grandmother used to, and they’re great.

  • 2-3 carrots
  • 1 tbsp demerara sugar
  • Generous pinch of salt
  • A knob of butter

Peel the carrots and cut them into whatever shape you prefer (all approximately the same size). Put them in a pan with all other ingredients and just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 8-10 minutes, until tender. Drain and serve.

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Tips for Geeks

This basic recipe for lamb casserole can be easily adapted for other cuisines. Replace the stock/wine for blended tomatoes and coconut milk and add some cardamon pods, a cinnamon stick and some coriander seeds for an Indian style dish, for example.

The number one tip I have for making better casseroles is: use less liquid. Much of the flavour of the casserole comes from the meat and goes into the sauce. If you have little meat and lots of liquid, the flavours are diluted. So rather than submerging and essentially boiling the meat in a lot of stock, use less stock (or concentrate the stock’s flavour by reducing it down over a very low flame in advance) – about the amount of final sauce you want to end up with (it’s not even necessary or even advisable to completely cover the meat) and cook in the oven covered with a heavy lid. This gives something a bit more like the complex braising environment I talk about in the Sweet Cured Pork Tips for Geeks post.

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Even though you’re using less liquid, the sauce will need some thickening. The standard way to thicken the sauce for a dish like is to remove the meat, skim the fat off and reduce (simmer down) the liquid until it’s thick enough, or to thicken it with a flour based roux. I prefer to blend the vegetables with the sauce without skimming off the fat. By doing this, the sauce is emulsified (the fat and water-based layers combine), which means the flavour from the fat is not lost, and the flavour from the vegetables is added as well.

If the sauce is still too thin (unlikely) you can reduce it further, or if it’s too thick you can thin it down with more stock/wine/water. Be sure to do this while the sauce is warm though – the fat can congeal when it’s cold and make it seem much thicker than it will be at serving temperature.

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It’s important to let the casserole cool completely before removing the meat. As the meat cools it will soak up some of the sauce and become juicier – so long as there is some sauce there for it to soak up.

Because you’re blending the stewed vegetables into the sauce, If you want the textural component of onions (or chunks of carrot, or mushrooms) in the casserole, cook them separately and add them to the stew at the end.

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On the plate, stews and casseroles are generally not the prettiest of dishes. The thing that really improves their presentation is to have garnishes of several contrasting colours. Green is easy – any green vegetable or some coriander leaves (or parsley, in the event that you’ve run out of coriander or you’re one of those people who think parsley actually tastes of something). Carrots – cook them separately and add them as a garnish rather than letting them get coated in the sauce. I added some turmeric when cooking the rice for these photos to make it come out a sunburst yellow colour. A spoonful of creme fraiche or yogurt is another strong contrast.

The sauce of this dish (or any slow-cooked casserole based on stock/red wine) can tend towards an unappealing grey. Blending the stewed carrots through the sauce helps with this by giving it a much more appealing orangey colour.

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Lamb neck is a fantastic cut for braising. It’s a hard-working muscle with a lot of flavour. It’s usually sold cut into off-round shaped cross sections about 2cm thick with a section of bone in the centre. The connective tissue in the neck muscle is turned into gelatin and the bone marrow dissolves into the sauce over the long cooking period. You just have to watch out when you pick the meat off the bone for a few pieces of cartilage.

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Browning the meat does not have the effect of “sealing in the juices” as conventional kitchen wisdom would have it, rather it creates Malliard reactions on the surface of the meat which taste great. These Malliard flavours dissolve into the sauce, giving it flavour and helping to kick off a kind of Malliard chain-reaction as the casserole continues to cook. Because browning occurs not just on the surface of the meat but also on all the little bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, I advise browning the meat in the same casserole dish you cook the casserole in and deglazing the pan with a flavourful liquid (see chicken liver pate Tips for Geeks) as this helps build flavour and complexity in the dish. You may notice I have used a separate skillet in these photos – this is just to get a better picture of what the browned lamb should look like. I’ve also overcrowded the pan – don’t do this either, otherwise the juices released from the meat will prevent it from browning properly. See the Steak post for more tips on searing meat.

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“A l’anglaise” is the French/haute cuisine term for something boiled in water. It literally means “In the English style” but should properly be understood as having the extra connotation of “boring”. I call my boiled carrots “Carrots a l’anglaise” both because it’s a correct use of the technical term, and also to carry the extra connotation of getting all pretentious and snobby over something that’s actually very simple.

The water that the carrots are cooked in can be used to make delicious gravy.

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