Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Braised Lamb Shoulder with Herbs & Flageolets with White Balsamic & Mint
The first time I had pasture-raised Mediterranean lamb, I was in Provence, near Carpentras. The restaurant, nestled at the foot of Mont Ventoux, had left the lamb blissfully unadorned, simply rubbing the meat with garlic, olive oil and sea salt and then braising it in a little white wine. The result was aromatic, perfect, burnished a rich brown. But the flavor was surprisingly complex. When I asked which herbs had been used, the answer was "Pas un." Not one. Why then could I taste so many? Thyme and rosemary were particularly perceptible. “Of course,” came the reply. “C'est que l'agneau a mangé.” That's what the lamb ate.
Since then I’ve had lamb prepared just as simply all along the northern Mediterranean, and I’m unfailingly delighted by the variation in flavor from region to region, sometimes even from town to town. What might have been redolent with wild fennel in Andalusia, has been musky and floral with oregano and marjoram in the Greek islands, or peppery with young garlic and chives in Piemonte. It’s something I can’t help but try to replicate at home. Though I get beautiful lamb at the greenmarket, the natural infusion of indigenous wild herbs is tough to come by.
This dish is inspired by that first experience in Provence, and it comes pretty close to the mark actually. The classic pairing for braised lamb, particularly in France, is earthily creamy flageolets beans. They’re rare in the States, but navy beans make a fine substitute. With lamb I like my beans flecked with mint and gently dressed in white balsamic vinegar, a welcome twang against the richness of the meat. And don't forget to serve the wine-sweet garlic cloves in their paper alongside the lamb too.
When Easter falls late, as it has this year, I pounce on the chance to have this with the season’s first asparagus, roasted in olive oil and showered with lemon juice and good sea salt. Expect to be ravenous by the time it all finishes cooking - the aroma from the oven is particularly tempting.
1 4lb (1.8 kg) bone in lamb shoulder
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
2 – 3 stalks fresh rosemary
small handful fresh thyme sprigs
4 cloves of garlic, plus one head of garlic
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
½ bottle white wine
1 lb (½ kg) dried flageolets beans (navy beans or any other very small white bean are fine)
3 – 4 shallots, peeled and sliced into half moons
hot chicken or vegetable stock
small handful fresh mint leaves
white balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 325 F (170 C, gas mark 3)
Rinse and pat dry your lamb. Use a small pairing knife to pierce holes here and there. Rub the lamb all over with olive oil and then season generously with salt and pepper, being sure to work the seasoning into the holes. Next push stalks of rosemary and thyme into the holes. Crush and peel the 4 extra garlic cloves and work pieces of those in too. Place the lamb in a heavy, ovenproof pot. Separate the cloves from the full head of garlic, but do not peel. Put them in the pot in their paper with the bay leaves and the wine. Cover and bake in the center of the oven for 4 hours, checking occasionally to be sure the pot isn’t dry. You may top up with more wine if necessary.
Meanwhile pour your beans onto a baking sheet or table and rake through to pick out any stones or discolored beans. Place the beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold, running water. Place the beans in a very large, heavy-bottomed casserole and cover with lots of cold water. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often and skimming off any foam with a large spoon. Boil for 2 minutes and then drain, rinsing the beans again thoroughly under cold, running water. Give the large casserole a quick rinse too. Pour the beans back into the pot and cover with cold water. Soak off the heat for 1 hour, then drain and rinse the beans.
Heat the pot over medium heat and add some olive oil. Brown your shallots gently, turning occasionally. Add the beans and cover generously with hot stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a very gentle simmer, and cook partially covered for 1 hour or until tender but not falling apart, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface and topping up with boiling water or stock whenever necessary to keep the beans well covered.
Drain the beans, return to the pot, and season generously with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Just before serving, dress with a good glug of white balsamic vinegar to taste, add more salt or pepper if necessary, and then roll up the mint leaves like a cigar and slice or chiffonade as thinly as possible. Toss the mint into the beans and serve alongside the lamb, which should be tender enough to pull apart rather than carve, and don't forget the garlic cloves in their paper, which make a wonderful accompaniment to the meat.