Babs used to despair a little about the number of hours I'd spend faffing in the kitchen, just to make a laid back dinner for friends. (Well he calls it faffing. I call it affordable weekend therapy.)
Then one day he discovered sous vide eggs and lamb belly.
Sous vide, the french for "under a vacuum", refers to cooking an item in an airless environment, at a lower temperature than conventional methods. The process ensures that the meat never overcooks, and maintains its integral flavour. The bigtime chefs have been doing it for years I'm sure, but my sense is that it's becoming a topic of conversation among us adventerous amateurs only much more recently. I won't spend a ton of space on sous vide science -- read about it here if interested.
And so, wouldn't you know it, last Saturday night -- a whole 24 hours before our friends were due to show up and eat -- there Babs was, pottering about the kitchen with me. Determined to slow cook lamb neck as the main course. Without the fancy electronically-regulated waterbath used by the professionals.
The result was declared "the best lamb I've ever had", by a friend whom over the years has decided to eat only good meat or not at all. Personally, I really enjoyed the tender bite-tiness of the neck, which had more personality than traditionally tender cuts such as chops or leg. I was also really impressed by the fullness of flavour given the really simple seasoning.
We promised to write up the recipe and send it along to our won-over friend. We thought you might like it as well.
6 lamb neck fillets (we got ours from Sussex's Old Hall Farm at our local farmers market. Beautiful meat aside, I was really taken by this blog post by Old Hall farmer Todd Cameron-Clarke).
3 sprigs of rosemary
Sprinkle of coarse sea salt
Sprinkle of fine ground black pepper
Glass of red wine
6 ziploc bags (big enough for the lamb neck)
1 big pot
If you're going to try this at home without a professional waterbath, Babs highly recommends using at least an oven thermometer to check on progress.
- Rub salt and pepper on the lamb neck fillets
- Remove the leaves from 3 sprigs of rosemary, and chop up the leaves finely
- Sprinkle the rosemary onto the lamb
- Place 1 lamb neck into each ziploc bag. Zip it up 90% of the way
- Fill up a basin of water (e.g. the sink)
- Lower ziploc bags 1 by 1 into the water slowly. As you do this the air will be squeezed out
- When all the air has escaped, seal each bag
- Heat up half a big pot of water to about 60 deg C
- Place the bags of lamb into the pot of water
- Place the pot and bags in the oven, set at 60 deg c
Note from Babs: Ovens can be moody imprecise creatures, so use your thermometer to check the temperature of the water at regular intervals. Adjust the oven temperature slightly as needed. Whatever you do, make sure your temperature stays above 55 deg C, to ensure that bacteria doesn't grow. This is especially important when cooking sous vide, because the lack of oxygen in the bag provides the perfect environment for botulism to thrive. In fact, Babs insists that you read this article about sous vide safety by Douglas Baldwin before beginning your project.
- Let the lamb sit in the oven for 20 6 to 8 hours. Try not to think about the impending electricity bill
Monday morning update: In retrospect Babs admits 20 hours is probably overkill. The lamb will reach medium rare in about 1 hour -- the rest of the time is really for breaking down the collagen in the meat, which will tenderise it. Our rehearsal batch cooked for about 6 hours and I liked it just fine, but partly because I like some fight in my meat. So we're going to recommend 6-8 hours for those of you trying this at home.
- When you're about ready to eat, retrieve the lamb from the oven. If you need the oven for other purposes before the meal, remove the lamb but leave it in the pot of water to keep warm (again, for safety, cook within an hour of removing the bags from the oven)
- Heat up a small drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan
- Pan fry the lamb for about 3-4 minutes, to get a nice even char all around the outside
- Set aside the lamb
- Pour the red wine into the frying pan, and also all the lamb drippings from the ziploc bags. Let it reduce for a few minutes to create a gravy
- Place the fillets on a board, and cut into thick slices on the bias, and plate up
- Spoon a little gravy on the lamb, or leave gravy in a bowl for guests to help themselves
Tip from Babs: If trying this for the first time, buy 1 extra neck fillet, and run a rehearsal batch to test the temperature of your oven before launching into a full scale effort. This will reduce your stress on D-Day itself, and it produces a rather tasty snack!