11 March 2015

Navarin of lamb - at long last!

Way, way back in the olden days (also known as "when I had horses"), I didn't have a lot of time for cooking but did have a great relationship with my slow cooker.  I would prepare the ingredients the night before, then throw them all into my little slow cooker, turn it on and leave it to chuckle all day while I was at work - much to the annoyance of my dogs, I dare say.  Coming home to a ready to eat meal, usually around 9pm and once I'd walked the dogs and put the horses to bed, was just such luxury.

One of my absolute favourite meals cooked this way was Navarin of Lamb.  However, not the authentic kind of Navarin of Lamb, but a Colman's Casserole Mix - yes, one of those from a sachet, just add water, pour over ingredients and cook.  I would whip up some mashed potato and cook some frozen runner beans and sit down to a fantastically comforting hot dinner.  Just perfect.

Then there came a bit of a hiatus in my lamb cooking as I swapped from horses and one person cooking, to babies and two persons (and a baby!) cooking.  Over the course of this period, eating lamb was a once in a blue moon experience owing to the price - we didn't have a lot of cash at the time.  Well, babies cost more than horses to run y'know.  Who'd have thought it!  So I lost touch with my favourite Navarin of Lamb and in the meantime, sadly Colman's decided to discontinue production of the casserole mix.  I never forgot that particular dish though - and would often hope that I'd be able to re-create it one day.

Over the years, various cuts of lamb came (largely due to special offers and money off counters) and were devoured.  However, none of them were really suitable for a voyage back in time to the lovely Navarin of the past.

I found recipes that seemed as though they would get close to how the casserole mix tasted, but there was always something missing.  I'd think about the recipe and, over the years, had pretty much got the recipe in mind.  All that I needed was the right cut of lamb - for the right price.

Then came Farmer's Choice (Free Range) Limited and as we got to know one another through working together over various recipes, I plucked up the courage to ask for the correct cut of lamb for my Navarin - the fillet (see here for details).  Lo and behold, two perfect fillets arrived for me to wreak creative havoc with.  I was in quiet transports of anticipation at finally being able to (fingers crossed) get back to the halcyon days of satisfyingly lamby deliciousness.

Now, if you look at various recipes and photographs of Navarin of Lamb on t'internet, you will see different cuts of meat, some bone in, some bone out, but largely all in a broth type of liquid, accompanied by spring vegetables of different shapes and sizes.  Yes, I am sure that is a perfectly authentic Navarin of Lamb, but the one I was aiming for was nothing like this.  (As is often the way with sachet casserole mixes).  I make no apology for this, because I was on the trail of a food memory, not authenticity.

My Navarin of Lamb was in a fairly thick sauce, that was orangey red in colour, contained flecks of herbs and tasted very lamby.  Nothing like these Navarins looked.  So I had to back-engineer the flavour that was in my memory.

I will admit that I included one ingredient that wasn't part of my memorised recipe, but was included in most up to date recipes - and that was beans.  Because I was aiming for a real comfort food vibe, I went for butter beans.  Is there anything nicer than butter beans for delivering that comforting substance in a casserole?  I don't think so.

I also wanted the flecks of herbage, but without being inundated with tasty greenness and as most recipes recommended the use of a bouquet garni, it made sense to follow along.  However, I also used some fresh parsley (love parsley) to give that "herbs in here" feel.

The flour in the recipe gave the sauce the opaqueness of the original casserole mix, while the tomato puree gave it the colour.  The real stroke of genius, that made the flavour just right, is the inclusion of the whole shallots.  Over the course of the cooking period, the small shallots just melt into the sauce whereas the larger ones stay around for a supporting role to the lamb once on the plate.

The long slow cook (even though it wasn't THAT long or slow) was perfect for this cut of lamb as it enabled the marbling through the meat to render down, adding its perfect lamb flavour to the sauce.  The meat was as tender as butter and the flavour was sublime.  All those years of virtual recipe development carried out in my head were worth every minute.  It was even better than I'd hoped and so very close to the original flavour that I'd held in my memory for all those years.  Satisfied?  I should say so!

I don't even have any cook's tips for you.  The recipe is so simple, it is difficult to imagine how it could go wrong for anyone, so long as you follow each instruction and include all the ingredients listed.

Even if you've experienced the authentic Navarin of Lamb, do give this one a go.  Comfort food at its best - and then some.

NAVARIN OF LAMB    (serves 2)

Ingredients :

2 tbsp olive oil
300g lamb fillet (neck fillet is perfect), cut into centimetre thick medallions
1 onion, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, sliced finely
8-10 small shallots, peeled
15g salted butter
20g plain flour
1 tbsp tomato puree
pinch sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
600ml strong low salt lamb stock (Essential Cuisine lamb stock is perfect for this)
2 bouquet garni
400g tin of butter beans
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley.

Method :

1.  Heat the oil in a frying pan until very hot.  Gently add the lamb pieces and leave them where they fall, to gain a golden crust.  Once the crust has formed, turn them onto their other side and cook for another 3-4 minutes.  Remove to a casserole dish.

2.  Reduce the heat under the pan to moderate and add the onions, garlic and shallots along with a pinch of sea salt.  Cook until the onion (not the shallots) is transparent and softened - around 8-10 minutes.

3.  Add the butter and, once melted, the flour and tomato puree.  Stir to combine and cook gently for 2-3 minutes, taking care not to let it burn.

4.  Add one half of the stock and stir well to combine with the flour mixture without forming lumps.  Add the other half of the stock mixture and stir until a smooth, thickened sauce has formed.  You may need a little more stock or a little less, depending on your flour.

5.  Taste the sauce for seasoning and add more salt if required, plus a good helping of pepper, to taste.

6.  Stir in the two bouquet garni plus the drained butter beans and decant the sauce into the casserole dish.

7.  Stir to combine with the lamb, then add the lid and bake in a pre-heated oven at 160degC/325degF/Gas 3 for two and a half hours.  Check the casserole contents half way through, to make sure the liquid level is still good.  You can take this opportunity to give the contents a bit of a stir, making sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the casserole.

8.  Once the cooking time is up, remove the casserole dish from the oven and add all but a pinch of the chopped parsley.  Stir through and taste for seasoning, adding a little more if necessary.

Serve with the remaining parsley sprinkled over, with mashed potatoes, runner beans and carrots.

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