Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Good Stuff

It’s been one of those months when I’ve had too much on my plate—and not the good stuff. I’ve been overloaded with metaphorical canned peas. But now they’ve thankfully been swiped into the compost, and what better way to celebrate than to throw a dinner party.

We’ve had a string of beautiful late summer days here in Vermont, with a hint of fall in the air and clear, slanting light that reminds me of the South of France. I like to celebrate this time of year by inviting some friends over for dinner under our pergola.

That was the plan for last Saturday night. Since I had the South of France on my mind, I would make succulent, slow-cooked lamb rubbed with a mix of North African spices. 

But a storm brewing somewhere on the east coast kicked wind and rain up our way and foiled our plans. The dinner would have to be indoors. Oh well, we’d still have the lamb. And the scent of the braising meat warming up the house the entire afternoon. Slow-cooked means five hours in the oven, until the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender, so it’s the perfect dish to prepare on a day when you want to hunker down at home.

I first tasted lamb prepared this way when we were living in Aix-en-Provence in 2004. The restaurant was Bastide du Cours, located on Cours Mirabeau, the Champs-Elysées of Aix. To me, Cours Mirabeau is one of the most beautiful streets in the world, with its golden stone buildings, tall plane trees, and its series of fountains spouting water from the town’s renowned underground springs. 

The flavor of this lamb is forever mingled in my mind with that time and that place. Isn’t this true with so many of our favorite foods? 

I can’t remember which of us ordered the lamb first. It may have been Faye, who’s had a sophisticated palate from a young age (she had just turned six at the time), but all of us swooned when we tasted it. It was so meltingly moist and richly flavorful that it wasn’t long before we were back at La Bastide (as we have come to call it) so Chris and I could order our own. We returned a few more times that fall, and again when we went back for a visit to Aix in 2010, and the lamb was always just as good.

We’ve talked about that lamb often, but I had never tried making it until last weekend. Two of our friends who were coming to dinner, Pete and Katie, had visited us in Aix and tasted La Bastide’s lamb themselves (their son Will, who was around 11 at the time, had declared it the best lamb he had ever had). Feeling up for a food challenge, I set out to recreate the legendary lamb. I found a recipe in Patricia Wells’s The Paris Cookbook that seemed close, although I would need to tweak it a bit. 

You start by making a spice mix: whole coriander seeds, ground coriander, whole cumin seeds, ground cumin, curry powder, herbes de Provence, fine sea salt, and ground pepper. The recipe actually calls for fresh thyme and rosemary instead of herbes de Provence, but in a nod to Aix (and because the wind and rain had intensified at the moment I needed them and I didn't want to go outside to snip fresh herbs), I used my favorite dried blend of herbes de Provence instead.

Add to this some freshly minced garlic, and rub it all over the leg of lamb. The only leg I could find at the last minute (thanks to the aforementioned overflowing plate) was in two pieces, which actually worked out well because I needed to brown it first and the whole leg would have been difficult to stuff into my pan.

Once each portion was nicely browned, I transferred the meat to an iron roasting pan and poured chicken stock into the bottom. This pan is not exactly was the recipe calls for, but I improvised the lid with a tight covering of aluminum foil. If you use this method, it’s important to get a good seal, to keep the meat as moist as possible. The lamb went into the 300 degree oven around 2:00, and it didn’t take long for the aroma of exotic spices, garlic, and braising meat to fill the house. 

Five hours seems like a long time, especially since every half hour you need to baste the meat with the juices, but there was plenty to do in the meantime and the hours passed quickly. The sun came out for a few minutes, so I was able to gather some fresh herbs for the rest of the meal. I made basil ice cream for dessert, and later in the afternoon prepared couscous with Moroccan spices, chopped dried apricots, and shaved almonds.

Before serving, I added a sprinkling of garlic chive flowers, which in my opinion is the main reason to add garlic chives to your herb garden. They bloom in late summer, and the florets, when separated, add a pretty touch of mild garlic to any dish. 


Slow baked cauliflower and carrots with sliced shallots would round out the meal. They could cook alongside the meat for the last hour or so. To the vegetables, I would add fried sage leaves, one of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs. If you’ve never made fried sage, I highly recommend it. You simply fry the whole, fresh leaves

in a thin layer of olive oil on medium heat until crisp. They’re milder than fresh sage and a delicious addition to many dishes. They’re even tasty enough to eat on their own like an olive and make an unusual accompaniment to an aperitif.

Our friends Pete and Katie and David and Louise arrived while the lamb was still in the oven. They brought platters of fresh tomatoes and homemade salsa, and of course plenty of wine. At one point the rain stopped again, and we stepped out onto the patio to see the sun dip below the clouds. Orange light spilled through the trees and under the pergola, but we were soon chased back inside by more rain.

When the time came to carve the meat, it was an easy job. A quick taste confirmed that we wouldn’t be disappointed—this was a dish I’d be making again. A few olives were left from our appetizers, so I added them to the serving platter along with the fried sage.

And then we sat down with old friends to the warmth of a long, slow meal, my plate heaped full with all the good stuff.

Eric Lecerf’s Braised Leg of Lamb (from Patricia Wells’s The Paris Cookbook)

1 t coriander seeds, ground
1 t coriander seeds
3 t cumin seeds
1 ½ t cumin seeds, ground
2 t curry powder
2 t fine sea salt
1 t coarsely ground white pepper
4 t fresh thyme leaves
2 t minced fresh rosemary leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 bone-in leg of lamb (about 7 lbs), preferably with hipbone removed and excess fat and membrane trimmed and reserved
1 ½ cups homemade chicken stock
Fine sea salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

In a small bowl, combine the spices and herbs. Rub the mixture all over the surface of the lamb.

In a cast-iron casserole just large enough to hold the lamb, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the lamb and brown lightly on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Do not let the spices burn. Pour the stock around the lamb. Add salt and pepper. Cover all with a piece of parchment paper. (The paper will serve as a moisture tent, to keep the meat from drying out as it cooks.)

Cover the casserole and place it in the center of the oven. Braise, basting every 30 minutes, until the meat is very tender, about 4 to 5 hours.

Remove the casserole from the oven. Carefully remove the lamb from the casserole, and carve it into serving pieces. Keep warm on a serving platter. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a sauce pan. Place the pan in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to allow the fat to rise to the top and firm up. Remove and discard the fat. Warm the sauce, and transfer it to a sauce boat. Serve the lamb, passing the sauce.

Serves Six.

Note: I skipped the sauce. The meat is rich and moist enough on its own, and by that time we were all ready to eat!


  1. Sheila,

    You can bet I'm going to try this. Sounds so succulent! And the garlic chive tip: much appreciated. I'll look for them in the nursery and add them to my herb garden. Thanks!

    1. I can give you come of my garlic chives, Linda--I have plenty. Remind me next spring!