An alternative Christmas meal…

I was going to have a break today, having written half a dozen or so posts yesterday, but I feel so remarkably shitty I need a distraction.

So, I thought I’d tell you about my alternative Christmas dinner (I don’t do lunch). Obviously, on my own, turkey would be entirely over the top, and I don’t do Christmas any more than I do lunch, as I’ve explained here a short while ago. I do, however, like to make something I wouldn’t make normally, at Christmas (either because it’s expensive or, as this year, because it’s pushing my personal spoonie limits), and this year it’s the French classic lamb with white beans, flavoured with lots of rosemary and a little garlic. Frankly, it’s amazingly good and worth the effort.

This morning I tipped it out of the slow cooker, where it was simmered for 8 hours yesterday, and spent the night, tightly covered with clingfilm, cooling down on the kitchen floor.

The plan, today, was to strip the meat from the lamb shanks – of which there was a surprising amount (Waitrose, fantastic quality and highly recommended), while the beans drained in a colander, into the larger of my stainless steel casseroles.

My intention was to toss a lamb stock cube into the drained stock, tweak the seasoning, and thicken it slightly. In the event the flavour was so good I decided against the cube, just adding a little sea salt and black pepper, a pinch of celery salt, and thickening it.

I last had lamb shanks back in the days when they could barely give the things away, and they went for silly money, well under a pound each as I recall (30p each is stuck in my mind, but that seems cheap even for then). This time I paid a tenner for 2, and in terms of the results, which is what matters, worth every penny.

So, on to the recipe:-

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Lamb with White Beans, Rosemary & Garlic.

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2 lamb shanks, about a kilo in total weight. You could use other cuts, but the bone is really essential.

500g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed. It really must be dried beans, as they hoover up flavour and fat as they cook and soften, in a way that canned beans don’t.

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds. As always, in winter, it’s Sweet Spear carrots.

½ a swede, diced.

2 medium onions, or 4 fat Echalion shallots, diced.

A bushy sprig of rosemary, leaves only, roughly chopped. If you don’t like rosemary, try fresh thyme. I freeze rosemary leaves, in olive oil, in a plastic pot – they keep for months. It helps to remove the pot from the freezer in advance, to thaw – I didn’t!

2 – 4 cloves of garlic, depending on size, peeled, trimmed,** flattened with the blade of a knife and finely chopped. Omit if you don’t like garlic.

**Cut off the root end and, if there’s any sign of a green shoot, open up the clove and remove it as they can be bitter.

Good splash of olive oil

Boiling water

Sea salt (for special dishes, like this, or cooking greens, I use Maldon – it does make a difference)

Black pepper

Celery salt

I also added a generous handful of dried vegetables – carrots, leeks, parsnips, onion and tomato.

***

Prep the veg first, as well as draining the beans.

I chopped the garlic and rosemary, and put them in the bottom of my slow cooker (5 litre size) which wound up filled to within a few millimetres of the top – against the rules, but it worked (unless you do something really stupid, a slow cooker won’t boil over). Even then, I had to hold back about a good mug full of beans, but they can be used for something else (soaked beans freeze very well).

I put a good splash of olive oil in my stainless steel casserole, and browned the shanks as best I could – they’re an awkward shape. This left a thick, caramelised layer on the bottom of the casserole, plus the oil. Remove from the heat and set aside for a few minutes.

Put the shanks in the slow cooker, add the carrots, swede and dried veg.

Briefly soften the onions or shallots in the oil in the casserole, then tip them, oil and all, over the shanks. With a little boiling water, deglaze the casserole, scraping up any stuck bits, and add that too.

Do not add salt or stock cubes until the dish is cooked, as the beans won’t cook properly.

There is no need to boil the crap out of any beans, and I don’t care what it says on the bag. What IS essential is to ensure the beans are cooked until tender, which will destroy any toxins (found in serious amounts only in red kidney beans anyway). I’ve been cooking beans in a slow cooker since the seventies, including red kidney beans, and I’ve never come to any harm.

The reason all beans carry a “boil the bejesus out of us” message is that back in the 80s, a bunch of students ate a chilli they’d made, and the red kidney beans were mostly uncooked – some of them died (as they were too stupid to realise that beans aren’t supposed to be crunchy, I tend to look upon this as Darwinism in action).

Ever since, beans have carried the boiling injunction, which is entirely unnecessary. True, in red kidney beans it will destroy the toxins, but so does normal cooking.

Anyway – back on track, add the beans, as many as you can safely get in, and just cover with boiling water.  Put on the lid and cover with a tea-towel (the slow-cooker container is double-walled, but the lid isn’t – covering it reduces heat loss). Set to High until you see the first bubbles appear, then turn down to Low, and leave it for about 8 hours. Every couple of hours, push down the beans floating on top, just to ensure they cook properly.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, put them in the oven, on the middle shelf, at 100C overnight – they should be fine, but if you’re up in the night, check them out in case the water needs a top up, and to see how they’re progressing.

When the beans are cooked – cannellini beans break in half naturally when they’re tender – remove the lid, cover tightly with clingfilm, put the lid back and leave until cold. I cooked mine during the day, then left the slow-cooker’s casserole dish on the kitchen floor overnight.

The next day, with scrupulously clean hands, fish out the shanks and put them on a plate. Then set a colander over a suitably sized casserole or pan, and tip the beans and veggies into it to drain.

Once drained, set aside in the colander (on a plate so they don’t dibble everywhere).

Heat the stock and taste it. At this point I’d planned to add a lamb stock cube, but it was so tasty I just seasoned it and added a little home-made celery salt, whisked in three tablespoons of plain four (I use bread flour, mainly because it’s always there, but also because it mixes very easily), and brought it up to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cooked out the flour for about 10 minutes.

Then I sorted out the edible meat from the shanks – you want just the meat, which will leave a surprising amount of waste. It doesn’t matter as you’ve already cooked out of it all it has to offer.

Break up the meat, removing any connective tissue and fat, add that to the thickened stock, pour in the beans, plus any liquid that’s leaked out of them, give everything a good stir, put on the lid and leave to cool. If it turns out there’s not enough liquid, or you over-thickened it, just add a little hot water and stir it in.

Minus the shank bones and all the other left-over gubbins, the original slow-cooker full will fit into a 3 litre casserole with just enough room to spare (which suggests the claimed 5 litres for the slow cooker is a tad on the ambitious side).

As I made this for Christmas, it’ll sit in the fridge for a couple of days without coming to any harm. In fact, it will almost certainly improve for being kept, as the flavours mellow out and snuggle up to each other.

By the way, I get my dried veg here. The mixed veg is a bit variable, often quite high in leeks, but even so they are an invaluable ingredient when it come to adding flavour. In fact, I made soup a couple of weeks ago, when they were the only veg I used, and it was excellent.

In addition to the mixed veg, I have dried tomatoes, on the above link (nothing like sun-dried), dried onions, onion powder and tomato powder.

Onion and tomato powders, and a good handful of grated cheese make a quick and tasty meal stirred into a bowl of instant mash with a good knob of butter.

I covered how to make Smash actually enjoyable in this post.

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3 thoughts on “An alternative Christmas meal…

    • Should be great – it’s very good now and it’ll only get better for being kept – the meat is amazingly soft, and all the marrow has cooked out of the bones into the sauce.

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