by Simon Hopkinson from The Good Cook (BBC Books / Penguin)
Photography: Jason Lowe
The Rhône meets Ramsbottom! Well... that’s how I like to see the connection between a dish that Elizabeth David wrote about in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, possibly my most favourite of all her books. In one chapter she describes a dish of beef and onions, ever so slowly braised in the ovens of barges, cooked by sailors on board, as these huge vessels chugged up and down the Rhône river. It brings to mind a romantic vision of an older France, together with the simple fact that strong, hard-working men need sustenance, but that it should be truly delicious sustenance and easy to cook in cramped, overheated conditions.
The basic premise is this: sliced beef, huge amounts of onions and no liquid. Cook for hours until done. In other words, great trays of this assembly are pushed into huge ovens and forgotten about. However, a magical thing happens when onions and meat are put together with added heat; they simply make their own gravy.
Once the beef is soft and tender, together with onions all slippery and golden, other flavours of the region are put into play, making the dish a work of genius. Chopped garlic and parsley (called ‘persillade’ in the Midi), vinegar for piquancy, some chopped anchovy for salt and finally, of course, local fruity olive oil for essential lubrication. Just perfect for the sunny Rhône valley, but maybe not for rainy old Ramsbottom, the Lancashire mill town very near to where I grew up.
That which I wanted to achieve was to turn the dish into a simple, inexpensive and homespun meal using breast of lamb.
Note: if you would like to prepare the leftover dish from the lamb braise (click for recipe), make sure you cook extra meat or feed fewer.
1kg boned, rolled and tied lamb breast
salt and freshly ground white pepper
a little dripping or oil
1kg onions, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp vinegar
2–3 tbsp anchovy essence, or to taste
2 tbsp finely chopped p
Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3.
Season the lamb well on all surfaces. Melt the dripping/oil in a large, roomy, lidded pot until hot. Lay in the lamb breast, turn down the heat a little and colour well on all sides, until golden brown. Lift out the meat and remove all fat from the pot with a spoon. Tip in half the onions, then return the lamb to the pot and push it down into them. Pop in the bay leaves and cover with the rest of the onions.
Now, take a sheet of greaseproof paper and cut it into a circle slightly bigger than the diameter of the pot lid. Dampen it, lightly grease one side, and lightly press it over the onions (greased side down), while also against the side of the pot. This effects a kind of baffle over the lamb and onions, so that steam and juices stay intact, producing a moist and more flavoursome result (in professional kitchens, this paper covering is known as a ‘cartouche’). Put on the lid, slide the pot into the oven and leave there for 1 hour.
Have a peek in the pot, now, and see how the onions are doing; they should be starting to collapse. Don’t disturb them too much, but maybe scrape some down the side of the pot where they may have stuck a bit. You should, however, be able to see some of the natural juices of the onions seeping out and moistening the assembly. Replace the paper and lid, return the pot to the oven and continue to cook for a further hour. Note: if there are plenty of juices already visible at this stage, turn the oven down to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2.
After 2 hours’ cooking, the onions should now almost be swimming in juices. Push a skewer into the lamb to see how tender it is; there should be little resistance. Lift out the meat, put it into a small roasting tin and cover with foil. Turn down the oven again to 140°C/275°F/gas mark 1, and return the meat to the oven while you deal with the onions.
Remove the bay leaves. You will notice that a fair amount of fat has accumulated on the surface (lamb breast is a naturally fatty cut), so remove almost all of this with a few sheets of kitchen paper. Now, stir in the vinegar and anchovy essence, place the pot over a high heat and bring the onions and their juices to a simmer. Quietly reduce this mixture, stirring occasionally until sticky and beginning to become a deliciously unctuous mass; if you have ever made French onion soup, think of the early process of making that.
To finish the dish, check for seasoning; you should not need any extra salt, due to the anchovy essence, but I would always add more pepper at this stage as I like the dish quite so. Finally, stir in the parsley. Remove the lamb from the oven (if any meaty juices have exuded from the resting lamb, add them to the onions), cut off the strings and thickly slice the meat. Arrange the slices on a hot serving dish and pile the onions alongside. Mashed potatoes, anyone?