Cooking with my mum – Lamb and Aubergine ragu

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I know, I know, I promised you some South African dishes, and pasta, well, ain’t. I had planned to try my hand at a few things this week, and I don’t really know why I haven’t – so for now, here’s a yummy lamb dish instead.
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For one thing, I have been starved of pasta over the past few weeks. It’s one of my absolute favourite things to eat, probably the one thing I really could eat every day – a legacy, perhaps, from time spent in Rome ten years ago, although I think I’ve always loved it. I read these diets in magazines promising miraculous results – I flip eagerly to the page, and realise, no, you have to give up pasta. In a choice between a super-svelte bikini body and pasta, pasta would win, every time.
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My brother, on the other hand, has given up eating carbs in the evening – with above-mentioned miraculous results – and so while he’s been here in South Africa as well, pasta has been off the menu. It’s a small price to pay for the wonderful holiday we’ve had together – he’s a singer, and was here with some of his singer friends for performances of Handel’s Messiah and Faure’s Requiem, among other things. Once the work in Johannesburg was done, we headed down to the Cape for a wonderful week which was largely based around eating and drinking. The days followed a fairly consistent pattern: rise, at leisure, and breakfast. Set off for the winelands, take in a tasting. Find somewhere delicious for lunch. Decide we should probably do one more tasting before heading home. Roll, slightly sozzled, back into the car for a snooze on the way home. Cook dinner all together.
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It’s pretty high on my list of all-time favourite things to do on holiday. There is something truly magical about tasting wine at the wine farm itself – looking out over the vines, with the most knowledgeable and passionate people possible sharing their wine with you. Add in beautiful sunshine, family and friends, and the fact that I can’t drive and therefore always get to drink – and you have a winner.
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Everyone else has gone home now, and it’s just me and my parents. There’s something strange and wonderful about going home to to your parents – it involves a relinquishing of independence and all its attendant responsibility which is in equal measure liberating and frustrating. Back in my parents’ home, I change from someone who cooks and cleans and washes, who gets themselves to work and social events, to someone almost entirely dependent on my parents for these things. In my defense, this is in part because I can’t drive and getting anywhere in Johannesburg without a car is nigh-on impossible (although I am willing to accept this is not really a defense…)
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As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been very happy both to sit back and enjoy my mother’s wonderful cooking, and to cook with the rest of the group – although there have been a few occasions where I have cooked for my parents. However, even when I’ve done so, I still find myself turning to my mum for help with everything! I ask her ridiculous questions (‘Mum, is this stick of celery ok to use?’ Honestly, how have I survived thus far if I have to ask that?!) – so even when she is sitting on the sofa and I am in the kitchen, I am ‘cooking with my mum’. Not that I mind – it’s a rare treat these days, and she is so full of knowledge, I’d be a fool not to take advantage.
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This dish was the result of me being let loose in the kitchen – and I was really pleased with the results. I’d been meaning to make a lamb and aubergine pasta dish for a while, and the happy coincidence of lamb in the fridge and an afternoon to spare meant I got the chance. This version uses lamb knuckles, which I have to confess I’ve never seen outside of South Africa. It’s a great cut for slow cooking, if you can get it – but if not, any stewing lamb will do. I gave this three hours as the meat was on the bone and had a lot of sinew – if it’s a slightly leaner cut or not on the bone I’d suggest checking from about two hours, though I doubt it will come to grief from a slightly longer cooking if you have it on a slow heat. I had also planned to use minced lamb when I first thought of doing this – and I do think this would work well as an alternative if you prefer, and would also need a shorter cooking time, probably more like one hour.
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I have a love-hate relationship with aubergine – cooked well, it is hard to beat. It has a luxurious, pillowy softness that melts in the mouth – truly wonderful. However, it is so often disappointing, usually because it has been undercooked, and is therefore hard and with none of the silkiness which makes it so delicious. It also soaks up oil, so if it has been sauteed, can be overly greasy. These days, I almost invariably roast the aubergine in the oven, at least briefly, to start the process. It needs less oil than if you were to saute it, and as with all roasting it brings out the sweetness of the aubergines. It also has the advantage of meaning you can put it in the oven for 30 minutes and forget about it, which, as Delia Smith says, is ‘much less tiresome than standing over a frying pan watching them soak up masses of oil’.

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The inspiration for this recipe is the Italian aubergine dish, caponata – an aubergine stew, in which the aubergines are cooked in both vinegar and salt to give a slightly sweet-and-sour taste. The meatiness of the lamb works really well with this – and you can add more or less sugar and vinegar to either make it a feature or a background note. I like the combination of balsamic and either red or white wine vinegar, although I don’t think this is at all authentic!

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Lamb and Aubergine ragu
Prep time: 30mins; Cooking time: 3hrs
Serves 6

  • 750g/1lb 10oz lamb knuckles
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 x 400ml tin tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or to taste)
  • 2 tsp sugar (or to taste)
  • 1/2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar (or to taste)
  • 2 large / 3 small aubergines
  • Sprig of thyme
  • 1tbsp pine nuts
  • Freshly grated parmesan, to serve

Heat the oil in a large skillet/frying pan over a high heat. Season the lamb with salt and pepper, and sear in the pan until well-browned all over – do this in batches, if necessary. Remove the lamb from the pan and set aside.

Reduce the heat to low, and a little more oil if needed, and add the onion, garlic and celery to the pan. Cook over a low heat until the vegetables are very soft. Stir in the tomato puree and season with salt and pepper – allow the mixture to cook for a couple of minutes.

Increase the heat slightly, and return the meat to the pan, arranging it in one layer as far as possible. Add the tinned tomatoes, the balsamic vinegar, and 1 tsp of sugar. Bring the pan to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, cover and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 hours (NB: you can also do this in the oven, at 150c/300F)

In the meantime, prepare the aubergines. Heat the oven to 180C. Cut the aubergine into 1 inch chunks, and arrange on a baking tray. Season with salt, pepper and a little olive oil, and roast in the oven for around 30 minutes, until the pieces are softened and golden.

When the lamb has around 1 hour cooking time to go, stir the aubergine pieces into the dish. Taste at this point and adjust the vinegar/sugar balance if necessary – bearing in mind that the wine vinegar will add more tang than the balsamic. Add a sprig of thyme and allow to cook for another hour.

Just before serving, heat a small pan over a medium heat, and toast the pine nuts until golden brown. Serve with pasta, sprinkled with the pine nuts and parmesan.

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In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.