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.
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Ratatouille

Ratatouille cooked dishThe most powerful thing a dish can do is to take you back in time.

The ratatouille in the Pixar film of the same name transports a jaded restaurant critic back to his mother’s kitchen when he was a boy. Like Proust’s madelaines, this simple peasant dish turns out to have its hooks in a very personal past.

The version of the ratatouille in the movie was developed by Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry. In turn, his dish is based on the ratatouille confit byaldi created by Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, which broke with the old traditions and has been broken from again since. The name comes from an old Turkish dish of stuffed aubergine called “Imam bayaldi” – because when he tasted the dish “the Imam fainted”.

The history this dish has in both haute cuisine and peasant fare, in great and unknown chefs, and in movie-makers, restaurant critics and holy men – all of whom have found something special in the dish or in something like it – leads me to feel a really special connection to its past when I make it.

But the first time I tasted confit byaldi, I had the opposite of a Proustian reaction. It did not stir up old memories, because this was like no ratatouille I had ever tasted before. So for me, this dish isn’t just a time machine; it’s also a rocket ship – it takes me to a place that’s out of this world.

Ratatouille plated above

Ratatouille Confit Byaldi

(converted from The French Laundry cookbook)

  • ~ 45ml neutral oil (eg: sunflower or vegetable)
  • 2 medium sized onions, finely sliced
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper (or a mix of both), cored, seeded and finely sliced
  • Bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley and a bay leaf, tied in a bundle)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 2tsp (10ml) olive oil
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, very finely chopped

Also: sliced (ideally on a mandolin) into rounds ~2mm thick:

  • 1 whole courgette
  • 1 whole aubergine
  • 3 medium/large tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 135C/ Gas mark 1

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Remove the bouquet garni and spread the mixture in an even layer in a 12″ round ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid.

Arrange the sliced vegetables over the onions and peppers, beginning at the outside of the pan and working towards the centre, alternating and overlapping them (as in the photo)

Ratatouille raw window

Mix the garlic, oil, thyme and some salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over the vegetables. Cover with a lid and bake for 2 1/2 hours.

Remove the lid and check the vegetables (the aubergine will take the longest to cook). They should have softened and be cooked or almost cooked. Return to the oven without the lid for 30 minutes more.

Ratatouille plated 30deg

Tips for Geeks

I haven’t made many changes from the recipe given in The French Laundry Cookbook – just converted the quantities to what worked for me. The only major change is that, as well as the aubergine, courgette and tomato, Thomas Keller’s recipe also has sliced yellow squash, which adds another contrasting colour to the sliced vegetables. I wasn’t able to find any yellow squash. If you can, include it. If not, it will still be delicious.

The presentation of this ratatouille is markedly improved if the slices of vegetables are all around the same size. Usually, this will mean buying the slenderest aubergines and the thickest courgettes available. If there is still too much difference in size, you can cut rounds out of the larger slices with a cookie cutter.

Ratatouille raw top

Tomatoes are hard to cut thinly, even on the mandolin. It helps if they’re firm fleshed, and if your blade is sharp and you slice confidently. You’ll still probably end up with a lot of irregular offcuts.

Fiddly, meticulous preparation like arranging loads of overlapping slices is exactly the kind of thing I love. If you’re not a fan, don’t be put off – it looks like it should take forever, but it’s really not that bad.

Like most braises, it will improve in the fridge overnight, so you can make it the day before anyway.

My recommendation for serving this ratatouille: either with gnocchi or crusty bread. It’s also a great to accompany roast chicken.

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