Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cheap food transformed: breast of lamb St Ménéhould

There are two main types of regional cuisine, those that are food-driven and those that are cook-driven. Food-driven cuisines use fresh, seasonal ingredients and do very little to them, and they're found in two places: 1.) areas where the people farm and grow their own food and so know exactly where the ingredients come from and what went into the making of them, and 2.) large, rich cities in historically affluent countries where the inhabitants can afford to pay through the nose for fresh ingredients sourced somewhere else and flown to the city at enormous expense. The classic example of a food-driven cuisine is the food of southern Italy. Only southern Italian peasants and rich city-dwellers in the rest of the world can afford to eat it. Food-driven cuisines tend to attract food snobs, because they're about obtaining and showing off ingredients that nobody else can get (this particular kind of tomato, that exact truffle, the other strain of hand-reared beef.)

Cook-driven cuisines, on the other hand, are the products of deprivation, imagination and enterprise, and they're found in many different places in the world. The peasant cookery of France is largely cook-driven, because French agriculture was historically based on handing over the classy cuts of meat and the best vegetables to the aristocracy for whom you were a serf, while you made do with the skanky cuts and the less palatable vegetables, and devised clever ways of making these things taste good. The historical irony is that this ingenuity-based approach turned into French haute cuisine, with its gobsmackingly complex array of stocks and sauces and garnishes, and its methods of transforming perfectly good food into extremely fancy food. But the basic idea - of learning how to treat cheap food so that it tastes expensive - is perfectly suited to where we are now.

These are the two basic approaches for those of us who don't have unlimited money; are you gonna pay more money for food that needs very little cooking, or pay less money and work a little harder to make cheap and difficult food into something delicious? Many of us have not had the choice. When I was first living in a flat on the dole, I had almost no money, could only afford the cheapest food from the most budget supermarkets (and Moore Street) and learned to cook by trial, error and two or three cookbooks. None of my cookbooks taught me the basic techniques I needed to know to turn the crappy food I could afford into something that would feed soul as well as body, but one of them - Elizabeth David's 'French Provincial Cooking' - did teach me about approaches that still inspire me today. Tonight, for the first time in ages, I cooked something out of Mrs. David's book that I'd never cooked before. It's a lesson in taking a cheap, gristly cut of meat and turning it into something memorable and delicious.

Breast of lamb St Ménéhould

I don't know who St Ménéhould was, and is less than informative, but there's a commune in NE France named after her, where the local speciality is pig's trotters. It should come as no surprise, then, that the whole point of this recipe is to treat breast of lamb like pig's trotters. It takes two days to make, so don't start it the evening you want to eat it.

You take a piece of breast of lamb. This is, or rather should be, dead cheap. I bought a piece in Sainsbury's that weighed 700g and cost £3.91. That's ridiculous.

Preheat the oven to 130C. Roughly chop a couple of carrots and a large onion. Take whatever fresh herbs you have and make a bouquet garni - I used bay leaves (which I always have) and thyme (which I bought specially, cost 90p). Cost so far of stuff I had to buy specially: £4.81. Cut a head of garlic in half; I always have heads of garlic in the fridge so no special buying here.

Make stock. I try to have M&S chicken stock on hand, but you could use decent vegetable stock. In any case, more stuff from the store cupboard.

Unroll the breast of lamb, if it isn't unrolled already. Season it well. Lay the chopped onion and carrot, the herbs and the garlic in the bottom of a roasting tin. Lay the lamb on top. Throw in a pint of stock and a glass of (preferably white) wine, so that the lamb is resting in liquor in the manner of a partially submerged iceberg. (I assume you've got wine, right?) Cover it all with foil and place in the oven for 3.5-4 hours, or until the lamb yields fairly easily to a fork. It shouldn't be falling apart, but it may well have separated into two distinct layers.

Take it out of the oven and let the lamb cool in the stock. (Why in the stock? Because if you let it cool outside the stock, it will dry out.) When it's cool enough to handle easily, wrap it in greaseproof paper and place it on a plate in the fridge with another plate on top and a weight on top of that, so that the lamb is pressed. (I used a kilo plastic pack of flour.) Leave it until the following evening.

You will need the following: a good sharp salad, e.g. rocket/watercress/spinach; eggs; breadcrumbs; Dijon mustard; the ingredients for salad dressing; a lemon; melted butter.

To finish: preheat oven to 170C. Take the meat out of the fridge and cut it into inch-wide strips. Spread each strip lightly with mustard and season. Here is this stage of the process - the cut-up lamb strips top right, the mustard below right, the egg dip left:

Dip each slice into beaten egg and then into breadcrumbs. They should look a bit like this:

Lay them all out on a grill rack. Brush them with a little melted butter. Place them, still on the grill rack, in the oven to heat up. This final stage will loosen up the lamb from its rather chewy present state, and will turn it succulent and pliable.

While it's in the oven, heat up a griddle pan until it's good and hot, and make salad dressing. Divide up salad between plates. When the lamb has been heating up for 15-20 minutes or so, take it out and put it on the griddle pan as it is - no need to add extra oil. You want to get nice charred grill marks on those breadcrumbs, so turn the lamb once, maybe twice, until it's looking really grilled. Don't let it burn, though. Then serve, with the salad and lemon wedges.

Yes, they're basically lamb goujons. The initial braising tenderises the breast of lamb and helps break down this very tough and gristly piece of meat, and also gives it flavour (you could always add more herbs to the bouquet garni- rosemary would be good). The final heating gives it succulence, the final grilling gives it crispness, and the bitter salad leaves balance the richness of the lamb. A good sharp dressing is essential. Just make sure that the initial braising leaves you with well-seasoned, flavourful lamb, and this will be a very luxurious and fairly light meal with very little outlay. The final version depicted above is actually a variant called 'Epigrammes d'agneau', which includes a stray grilled lamb cutlet just for variety's sake.

We had eggs in the fridge, and also a lemon. I always have Dijon mustard. The breadcrumbs came from some frozen burger buns that I'd thawed out overnight and blitzed into crumbs in the moulinex. Cost of lamb cutlet: £1.50, cost of salad: £1.50, so final cost of meal: £7.81.

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