EVEN now, a few weeks before this piece is due on the editor’s desk, the valley above which my house is perched resounds with the occasional bang and ‘wheee’ of early- purchased fireworks.
Yes, Bonfire night is upon us again, a date that, for me, heralds the start of the run in to Christmas (sorry, I won’t mention it again!) At this time, I usually take it upon myself to offer you something a little different from jacket spuds and parkin. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these, especially on a chilly, misty night standing round a crackling bonfire, but I thought it’d be nice to make something that could be served in a single bowl.
In the past we’ve done mulligatawny soup, and Boston baked beans, both wonderful fireworks party fare, ideal for quick service and easy eating. Generally, bonfire grub is munched whilst standing, usually holding either a sparkler or, in my case, a big glass of red wine, so portability is absolutely key. You don’t want to be tucking into something that’s likely to go flying off the plate when prodded with a fork. Or salad, heaven forbid!
What we’re after here is something rich, hearty and warming that can keep the core temperature up in the inevitable damp, chilly air.
I thought initially of something along the lines of cassoulet, which is the ultimate warmer, that thick, duck fat-enriched slow-cooked stew of beans, herbs and tomatoes, amongst which lurk treasures such as Toulouse sausages, porky and garlic-stuffed, and silky strands of confit duck. But we’ve done cassoulet fairly recently, and we’ll no doubt return to it soon, though I couldn’t shake off the idea completely.
I thought then of one of the myriad regional variations of the classic cassoulet, which I’d read actually includes slow-cooked lamb, and I was getting somewhere. The fields around Toulouse and large, wide and rolling, perfect for grazing sheep, and it’s only logical that the local recipes will be lamb-influenced. And spring lamb is at its very best at the moment, the animals having had many months of grazing on the lush summer grass (which has admittedly been on the soggy side for much of the summer).
The flavour is at its peak, and we should take advantage. I thought of trying something other than the haricots that usually bulk out the cassoulet, and that got me thinking of flageolet beans, the wonderfully delicate pale green pulses that one sees so rarely, but which are always a real treat. They are a classic partner for lamb, whether in a light stock sauce scented with the freshest summer savory, or turbocharged, as here, with the more traditional accompaniments of onions, root vegetables, tomato and plenty of garlic.
It’s a great recipe on its own, but would also be fantastic spooned into a fluffy baked potato. And of course, if there’s any left over, simply add a tin of plum tomatoes and some extra stock, and you have a wonderful rich lamb-y bean soup to enjoy for a couple of meals. Bear in mind, this dish is best made a couple of days in advance, for the soaking of the beans, and to allow the all-important mingling of flavours. Not essential, but preferable.
For the lamb:
One shoulder of lamb, on the bone, about 1½ -2 kg
Extra-Virgin olive oil
2 tsp dried Herbes de Provence
1 head of garlic
150ml dry white wine
A little dark honey
Maldon salt & fresh black pepper
For the flageolet bean stew:
400g dried flageolet beans
A little extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ripe baby plum tomatoes, chopped (I used the wonderful Tomkin variety)
A bunch of fresh thyme
Approx 500ml strong lamb or chicken stock
Maldon salt & fresh black pepper
A day in advance, rub the lamb with olive oil and coat with the dried herbs. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight.
Remove the meat from the fridge an hour before cooking to allow it to come up to ambient temperature. Heat the oven to 140°C / Gas 1.
Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Bash the garlic into individual cloves, but leave the papery covering on each one.
Place the meat in a heavy casserole-type pot with a tight-fitting lid (you can always seal with foil to be sure) and drizzle with a couple of spoonfuls of honey. Place the garlic around the lamb, and pour the wine into the pot.
Replace the lid and cook for around 4 hours, flipping the meat over and basting it with the juices every hour or so. If the juice gets a bit low, pour in a little more wine or add some water.
The meat is ready when it is dark brown and very tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Reserve the cooking juices.
For the beans, soak overnight in twice their volume of water. Rinse and drain. Heat a little olive oil in a medium saucepan.
Add the onions, celery, carrot and fennel and cook for 30 minutes, over gentle heat, stirring regularly, until golden and translucent.
Add the garlic and tomato, and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the flageolet beans, and pour in stock to cover, bring to a simmer, and cook for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the beans are tender but still holding their shape.
Tuck in a few sprigs of thyme, but don’t season with salt until the end, as it prevents beans from softening. When ready, add the reserved lamb juices, and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
To serve, tear the lamb into shreds and heat in a medium oven until slightly crisp, yet still tender. Serve the lamb over a bowlful of the warming, creamy bean stew.