This blog post tests the theory that contemporary food blogging is 95% about food photography and 5% about the food. I am very much aware that Susan eats London has been suffering lately from a paucity of posts, especially recipe posts. The reason for this is that for the past two and a half weeks, I have been without my beautiful Nikon SLR camera. I left it in a McMenamin’s in Olympia, Washington, where I had lunch immediately before going to the airport to return to London. (It was found and is being mailed to me. In my defense, I was under a fair amount of stress at the time.) But I have been cooking lovely food and testing delicious recipes, many of which I hope to blog once my dang camera finally gets here. This recipe, however, I photographed using my recently-acquired hand-me-down iPhone 3G. I will be the first to admit that the photos are not stellar. But this recipe is in true blogger-on-a-budget spirit. It’s made using the most inexpensive ingredients, it’s got great flavours, and it is something you could proudly serve at a dinner party.
To a great degree, this recipe stems from my work with a charity here in London called the Food Chain. Inspired by American charities such as God’s Love we Deliver and Project Open Hand, since 1988 the Food Chain has been providing nutrition services, including home-cooked meals, to men, women, and children who are chronically ill with HIV-related illnesses. The idea is that we cook nice, nutritionally-appropriate food for individuals whose appetites may be uncertain and/or who may not otherwise have a nutritious diet during the week. (There are educational and other components as well; check out the Food Chain’s website if you want to learn more.) In the 20+ years since the Food Chain has been engaged in this work, the demographic of its service users has changed, and the Food Chain has tried to change with it. Many of our current service users are Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or from different parts of Africa, so when we plan meals we research and attempt to develop recipes that will be appealing to them, as well as recipes to suit the dietary needs and preferences of other service users. Our budget is limited, so our recipes also must be sensitive to issues of cost. This recipe is based on a dish I created one week when I was lead cook (running the kitchen service). I liked it so well that I decided to duplicate it at home.
A note about ingredients:
- The neck of lamb is my substitution – at the Food Chain we used boneless lamb shoulder, but I think the neck of lamb greatly improves the dish while being a much less expensive cut of meat. Neck of lamb is similar to oxtail, and like oxtail, if added to a stew it will thicken it as well as bringing an immeasurable amount of flavour. Also like oxtail, neck of lamb requires proper slow-cooking; plan on braising the meat for at least three hours before it is done.
- African yams are a very different beast from what Americans think of as yams. They’re great big knobbly brown things with very starchy, yellow or white dense flesh. I learned the hard way that the juice of uncooked African yams can cause skin rashes, so if you are using African yams (you should be able to find them in any market that specializes in Afro-Caribbean produce; I got these in Brixton) be sure to wash your hands well after peeling and dicing. You can substitute ordinary yams but you will wind up with a very different stew.
- Okra is much maligned because of its allegedly “slimy” texture. I like okra and don’t mind the texture, but it is possible to cook okra in such a way that the “sliminess” disappears almost entirely. Trim the tips of the okra but otherwise cook them whole for about 15 minutes or until tender. You will find that very little ‘slimy feel’ remains. Added to a stew like this, they will also help thicken the sauce.
- Although this recipe calls for two scotch bonnets, nearly all of the heat is absorbed by the yams. If you are nervous about spice, however, feel free to use only one scotch bonnet.
1 kilo lamb necks on the bone; ask your butcher to separate at the joints.
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon dry coriander
1 teaspoon hot dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric
1-2 teaspoons salt
2 scotch bonnets, seeded and minced. If unused to handling hot peppers, wear gloves while doing this
2 bay leaves
10-12 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 kilo African yam, hard outer peel removed, and cut into one-inch cubes
2-3 cups water
Half a kilo (about 1 pound) okra, washed and just trimmed at the thicker ends
Fresh cilantro (coriander), washed, leaves picked from stems, and coarsely chopped
Preheat your oven to 140 degrees Celsius (150 degrees Fahrenheit).
Rinse and dry your lamb necks, and then season liberally with coarse salt and black pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium high heat and brown the lamb necks on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
In the same pan, or in the casserole dish in which you eventually will be cooking your stew, fry the garlic, onions, scotch bonnets and all of the dry spices except the additional salt and bay leaves over medium heat until the onions and garlic are transparent and the spices start to release an aroma. Add about half a cup of water and stir to deglaze the pan. If you’ve been using your frying pan, transfer the cooked aromatics to your casserole dish. Add your browned lamb necks. Try to pack them into the dish snugly. Add the chopped tomatoes, just enough water to cover the meat, and the bay leaves, cover the pot, and put it in the oven to braise.
Remove and discard the bay leaves. At this point, you (optionally) also may remove the lamb neck pieces from the pot and when they are cool, strip the flesh from the bones and return it to the stew. Some people (e.g. my mother) like the meat on the bones so whether you do this is entirely up to you. If the stew seems too liquid to you, you can simmer it, uncovered, to reduce it, but this should not be necessary given the gelatin from the lamb necks and the starch from the yams.
Stir in the okra and either cover and return the stew to the oven or simmer on the top of your stove uncovered, stirring occasionally so the bottom doesn’t burn, until the okra is tender (about 15 minutes).
Serve over rice or with warmed flatbread, topped with chopped coriander and spring onions.