I was thinking about this the other day – does everyone have a signature dish? Is there a food you are known for? If you went to a pot luck or, if you’re a generous guest and you don’t like to turn up somewhere empty handed, what would be your dish of choice? For me, I never hesitate to bake something – probably brownies. I guess that makes me a dessert person, so whenever I make a main course that I have to share with you – like this slow cooked lamb shoulder with ras el hanout – it feels a bit out of character.
Savoury foods are a pleasure to make and cook, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate both the sweet and salty side of life, however, if push came to shove, and I was stranded on a desert island with one food for the rest of days, I’d probably choose apple crumble. And I just ate two desserts on the trot and will no doubt have another helping for my dinner.
But every now and then I will have a craving – whether it’s yawning, sweet meaty clams served over spaghetti with lemon and chilli, or translucent slices of potato lined up like soldiers before being defeated by cream and butter and baked in an inferno until bubbling and crisp. And at this time of year, when the daylight lasts for an extra hour and the wood pigeon coos drift in through the window like a soothing lullaby, I notice my craving for spring. With it comes a craving for slow cooked lamb.
Simple and Sublime Slow Cooked Lamb
There is such a fresh, delicate flavour to lamb that naturally comes with the season’s territory. Before I get any further, let’s stop crying over those wee lambs frolicking in the fields. Lamb is generally a sheep, but no older than two years old which then transitions into the realms of mutton. So those little lambs are safe… for now.
But what I think lamb excels at, more so than any other meat in my opinion, is its patience. What may be considered a pretty gnarly joint full of fat and connective tissue in a lamb leg or shoulder simply melts in supplication after a long slow roast.
While working on a client’s private island (forget the Caribbean, it was near Poole), my friend Georgie and I were requested to slow cook a turkey. We were fairly new chefs at the time and, eager to please, we agreed without first considering what we were slow cooking: quite possibly the driest meat in all existence. After seven hours in the pizza oven, the turkey was wrung dry like a beach towel on a hot day, and with minutes before dinner was served, Georgie was holed up in the pantry, desperately massaging an impromptu marinade into turkey slices.
So, in comparison to that slow cooking saga, you don’t need to be an expert, or in my case someone who bakes a lot more brownies than lamb shoulders, to produce a showstopping slow cooked lamb joint. Into the oven it goes, maybe lower the temperature after half an hour, then a surprisingly quick three hours later, catching you on the hoof to make all the side dishes, the lamb emerges – glistening, crisp fat, soft, tender meat falling off the bone.
And then, because we’re all rather food obsessed here, we can transform that simple showstopper of a slow cooked lamb shoulder with a bit of razzle and dazzle (and now I have “give ’em the old razzle dazzle” stuck in my head). So, I made a marinade, something to distinguish this lamb shoulder from all the garlic, rosemary, anchovy marinades out there.
Give em the old… Ras el Hanout
We’ve had a packet of ras el hanout in our cupboard for the longest time; rarely do we break it out for a night on the town, or should I say, the kitchen counter. I blame the plastic packet for that, those bags get sealed with a bag clip, chucked in a plastic tub and forgotten about. The oregano on the other hand is the player of the spice cupboard. I love ras el hanout, and although every blend is different, there is something about its woody warmth that makes it deeply savoury.
The spice mix is muddled together in a pestle and mortar with olive oil, cider vinegar, honey, fresh ginger, and of course garlic and anchovies because all my talk of originality is just nonsense, and this glossy, spiced, salty sweet marinade in brushed all over the lamb shoulder like polish over a boot. Onto a knobbly bed of chopped potatoes, carrots and onion quarters it’s heaved, then don’t forget as I did to add some chicken stock to the veg. Every hour or so of cooking you can baste the lamb with the stock which will have collected all the juice and drips of marinade.
Then, because more is less, you can also rustle up a quick almond salsa verde. Slow cooked lamb’s gamy profile can stand up to powerful flavours (see the garlic and anchovies above) and the case in point is vinegar – traditional mint sauce with its sharp tang is less popular today but when they’re tussling together on your taste buds, it really does throw a punch at the lamb (not to give you too many violent mental images there). Mint sauce is not on the menu here, but I took the herby sharp condiment and adapted it.
Capers, some more anchovies because I can’t get enough of them, parsley and almonds are all fiercely chopped then submerged under olive oil and a spoonful of red wine vinegar. Spoon almond salsa verde over sliced slow cooked lamb, maybe with a dollop of yoghurt too for creaminess, and oh boy, there’s a party on your plate.
And I haven’t even described the best part – the slow cooked lamb practically melts as you slice through, the skin sticky with marinade. Gaylord sliced as I took frenzied photos and stole slivers of meat because they were just sitting there, cruelly tempting me. Served with almond salsa verde, yoghurt and all that meat-juice gravy, the lamb still stole the show, salty and rich with garlic and ras el hanout spice. I didn’t even need a knife as I ate, it seemingly cut by the power of thought.
So, I’m not suggesting you turn up to your next potluck dinner party carrying a slow cooked lamb shoulder, but maybe we can all add it to our lists of signature dishes. Even if you’re a dessert person.
Slow Cooked Lamb with Ras el Hanout and Almond Salsa Verde
- 1.5-1.75 kg lamb shoulder
- 1½ large cloves of garlic
- 1 anchovy fillet
- 2 tsp ras el hanout
- 15 g honey
- 1 cm fresh ginger
- 2 tsp cider vinegar
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 4 tsp flaky salt plus extra to season the lamb
- 3 large potatoes
- 2 carrots
- 1 onion
- 500 ml chicken stock
Almond Salsa Verde
- ½ bunch parsley
- 10 g flaked almonds
- 2 anchovy fillets
- 1 tsp capers
- extra virgin olive oil to cover
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Season the lamb shoulder with salt and leave to rest in a large baking dish on the kitchen counter for an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/430°F. Once the oven is hot, put the lamb in the oven for 30 minutes to get some golden colour.
- Make the marinade. Crush the garlic, grate the ginger and then pulverise them with the anchovy, ras el hanout and salt until the anchovy has broken down into a puree. Add the honey, vinegar and olive oil, and mix to combine.
- Peel and chop the potatoes and carrots – chop them into large chunks as they will cook for 3 hours. Quarter the onion.
- Once the 30 minutes is up, lower the temperature to 170°C/150°C fan/340°F. Remove the lamb from the oven and transfer it from the dish to a chopping board. Fill the dish with the chopped veg and season them, then top with the chicken stock. Place the lamb back on top and cover with the marinade – get it into all the nooks and crannies! Return the dish back to the oven and leave to cook for 2 and a half hours. Baste the lamb once or twice during the slow cook.
- While it's cooking, make the salsa verde. Finely chop the capers and anchovies to make chunky purees. Chop the parsley and almonds. Scoop it all up into a bowl, add the vinegar and salt, then enough olive oil to cover everything. Stir it together, then leave to rest in the fridge until serving.
- Once the 2 and a half hours are up, remove the dish of lamb from the oven. Carve it and serve with the vegetables, salsa verde and any of your other favourite sides.