If you love unctuous, sticky slow cooked lamb then you need to make this recipe. If you love perfectly cooked, tender and flavoursome cannellini beans then you need to make this recipe. If you love the flavours and textures of cassoulet then you need to make this recipe. Am I making myself clear people – this is really delicious and I’m so glad I discovered this recipe from one of my all time favourite food heroes, Simon Hopkinson. I know it’s the height of summer in the northern hemisphere and maybe this isn’t something that you want to whip up on a blistering hot day so you’re allowed to file this for a later date but for readers closer to home where the days are cool and the nights are darn right chilly this is the perfect winter warmer. I mentioned cassoulet above and this really does mimic the flavours one finds in a traditional cassoulet but with half the work and not as many diverse cuts of meat – no duck confit, sausages or pork belly. All these are replaced with lamb shanks and a small amount of thick cut slab bacon or speck. What it does have in common with cassoulet is the beans and oh what beans these are. Slow cooked along with the lamb so they soak up all their amazing flavour with a wonderful crust forming on top of the dish just as you would find in the best cassoulets.
Ingredients – Serves 4 Adapted from Simon Hopkinson
350g dried white beans, cannellini, or haricot
400g cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic
Several sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped off by hand
200ml sweet vermouth
2 tablespoons olive oil
250g streaky bacon in a piece, rind removed and cut into 2cm chunks – I used speck
4 large meaty lamb shanks
300g onions, chopped
300g carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks
2 bay leaves
350ml best quality beef stock
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Put the beans in a roomy pan and cover with water (no salt) to at least 4cm above the beans. Bring up to a boil, switch off the heat and leave in the water for 1 hour – or longer, if desired, as they won’t spoil.
Put the tomatoes in a liquidiser together with the garlic (unpeeled), thyme leaves and vermouth and process until smooth. Suspend a fine sieve over a deep pan or bowl and tip the mixture into it. Press well down into the sieve with a small ladle until a “raw tomato soup” has been passed through from the messy mulch (skins, seeds, etc), which should then be discarded. Now put this mixture to one side.
Using a large, preferably cast-iron pot (a Le Creuset would be ideal) heat the olive oil over a moderate flame. Tip in the bacon and allow to fry quietly for about 5 minutes, or until lightly gilded and its fat has run. Lift out the bacon and reserve on a large plate. Season the shanks and slowly fry in the bacon fat until all surfaces are nicely browned. Lift out and place alongside the bacon.
Introduce the onions and carrots to the pot and allow them to sweat for about 10 minutes, or until lightly coloured. If your pan is running dry add a little more oil. Add the tomato mixture, bring up to a bubble and allow to cook for a further 10 minutes.
Stir in the bay leaves, cloves and stock. Now, reintroduce the bacon and lamb shanks and push under the liquid to cover them. Bring up to a simmer, partially cover the pot and cook very slowly, for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 150C. By this time the beans should have had their hour’s soak. Drain them, rinse well and return them to the pot in which they soaked. Cover with fresh water and bring them up to a simmer (again, no salt). Allow to cook quietly for about 20 minutes, switch off the heat, cover and put to one side. Once the lamb has had its hour’s simmering, drain the beans once more and stir into the partly stewed lamb and vegetables. Stir together well, thoroughly distributing the beans among the meat.
Bring up to a quiet but significant simmer before sliding into the oven. Cook for a further 1½ – 2 hours, uncovered, until both beans and lamb are meltingly tender and the liquid surrounding them has somewhat reduced, having by now formed a nice and gooey burnished look to the surface of the stew.
Remove from oven, add the parsley and carefully stir it in. Serve just as it is, directly from the pot, onto heated plates, at the table.