Colder weather urges cooking in a way that summer’s insouciant plenitude cannot rival. Now that we’re down to about a third of the garden, it’s all roots and greens out there (though bolstered immeasurably in the kitchen by the deep benches of pantry and freezer). Their flavor—the sheer information, the resolution and detail in each bite of humble leaf or root, sweetened by frosts and elevated to center stage by the departure of the tender competition—presents targets both easy and challenging. Easy, because a fat fall turnip needs little embellishing to glow, and challenging because families are wont to clamor for novelty when it comes to dinner.
This was a simple bowl of food, but that simplicity needed care to properly express itself. Chief among its requirements was time; I worked at home all day so I had that luxury. This might be more of a weekend dish, say a lazy grey Sunday supper, unless you have a good crock pot. Big ugly cuts of inexpensive lamb from a local pastured animal—sold as “stew meat”—present opportunities far beyond what their appearance and label might suggest. These chunks of shoulder do well in braises, sure, but they transform into sublime succulence after a few hours of dry cooking inside a Dutch oven.
I rubbed the meat with salt, and with freshly ground toasted spices: black pepper, cloves, coriander, cardamom, a star anise and a dried Thai chili. The total amount of spices added up to maybe a tablespoon for a couple of pounds of meat (including bones), so they did not overpower; this was neither curry nor tagine, but merely roast lamb. I also added a generous shake of the homegrown herbes de Provence, happily ensconced in two one-liter jars. It’s a source of great comfort to have a winter’s supply of this herb mixture, so integral to so many Mediterranean meals.
Thus rubbed, I browned the meat all over in the cast iron Dutch oven, using only its own fat to lubricate it. Once suitably caramelized, I added a big double handful of small red onions and shallots, halved but not peeled, and a head of garlic separated into cloves but not stripped of their papery skins. Leaving the skins on allows alliums to caramelize to a sticky pudding without drying out, much as the lidded vessel keeps the meat moist through hours of cooking. I put the pot into the oven at 425˚ for about half an hour, then turned it down to about 350˚ and let it go for 90 minutes or so. The house at this point smelled absolutely outrageous, and it was difficult to concentrate. For the last hour (or two; once it gets low you can let it ride) I dropped it to 225˚.
As the dinner hour approached, I chopped up a variety of roots that I had dug earlier: parsnip, turnip, salsify, and carrot. I roasted them all with olive oil, salt, and more dried herbs; I left out garlic or onion because there was so much already in the pot with the meat. I also boiled a handful of small Yukon Gold potatoes and made a vivid pesto of arugula, sorrel, and parsley with a sprig of mint and a couple of sage leaves thrown in for complexity and lamby simpatico. (I also threw in a forkful of oil-cured green chilies, a mainstay of most meals since I made them back in late September.) I tossed the boiled potatoes in butter and a spoon of pesto.
The alliums needed to be peeled, revealing insides that had turned to glorious umber mush, slick with lamb fat and smelling like pure love. I set them aside and pulled the shreddy meat off the bones. Each bowl got some roasted roots, a few potatoes, a pile of meat, and a lashing of alliums, followed by a dollop of pesto on top.
It would be hard to overstate how good this was, what a sexy combination of fresh and slow-cooked. You don’t need me to tell you how good roasted garlic is, but garlic roasted along with onions and shallots and herbs in lamb fat produces one of the world’s most perfect condiments. Clean green pesto and plump potatoes meshed with the chewy, tender, oven sweetened roots, and the pieces of meat had chewy brown outsides and meltingly tender interiors. Stews and braises are of course lovely cold-weather fare, but this dry method gets to an essential characteristic of slow-roast meat: the compelling duality between the deeply umamified and maillarded exterior and the juicy lubrication of the interior. It’s more primal than stew, and brings out the particularly gamy complexity of pastured lamb.