Friday 29 January 2016

Lancashire hotpot, made with mutton, two ways.

I gave up trying to take a 'nice' photo of hotpot. This is what I served my family.
This is the low and slow version.
There's no such thing as hotpot. Honestly, even the name is in dispute. It almost certainly doesn't refer to the cooking vehicle but instead it's a corruption of hodge-podge, of ingredients. Hotpot is merely a vague mind map drawn around the west of the Pennines, encompassing lamb or mutton, onions... and even there the consensus stops. You can also include: carrots, potatoes or pastry, thyme, garlic, rosemary, water, stock or (god forbid) white wine, oysters, black pudding and kidneys. The pastry/potato topping debate is particularly virile. There are families who haven't spoken for generations. Even if we settle on a potato lid, which particular tubers are best? Waxy or floury? Edwards or Charlottes? Make even the slightest change and you are at risk of being accused of preparing a Lobscouse (the people of Liverpool are named after the dish apparently), a tattie pie/tatie pot or a Bolton hotpot.

The choice of lamb or mutton is key. If you've not had sheep meat, this is a good introduction. Mutton is worth seeking out, it's a different gig to lamb, darker and with a closer texture. Not as much as veal is to beef but a noble difference nevertheless.

I assumed it would be a dish of the working class: a slow simmer of tough mutton; a scrag end stew. But even the oldest recipes call for 'fine chops' from the best end. Some specify quite short cooking times; 90 minutes or so. That would mean cuts of tender lamb. We might be dealing with the suppers of the self-improving sorts.

The earliest reference comes via the rather wonderful site. Worth a trawl if you've the slightest interest in English culinary history.

"...consisting of a trifling portion of beef or mutton, either raw or boiled, cut into small pieces and mixed in a dish of sliced potatoes, proportioned to the size of the family, to which you add pepper and salt and a little water with butter or dripping, as gravy, the wholesome and savoury addition of a shred onion is often made, and gives a good relish. The dish of hot-pot, or lob scouce as termed by sailors, is composed of the same ingredients except a crust and that it is simmered over the fire in a pan or in a pipkin in an oven." 
Annals of Agriculture 1795

I do like the term 'a shred onion'. But at some point, fun though it is, you have to end the research and nail your colours to the oven. This is mine. Purists take aim!

The New River Restaurant Mutton Hotpot (with thanks to Lancashire).
Serves six.

You will need a large, lidded casserole dish, metal or pottery. It's more assembly than cooking as all the ingredients are raw. No need to sweat onions or brown meat. The only prep you need to do is make some lamb stock. Let's start with that.

Take a couple of small pieces of cheap lamb (cheap cut not quality, I should add). I used £1 of scrag end, diced, placed in a small lidded pan and simmered very gently in 750ml of water for about an hour. The liquid will reduce to about 400-500ml. Strain and if you have time, chill to separate fat from broth. Season the broth well with salt and black pepper. If you insist on a thick gravy you could now stir in a couple of teaspoons of slaked cornflour. I don't think it's necessary; the flour on the meat and the potato starch will thicken the juices.

To make the main dish: Butter the insides of your pot.

Peel and slice six large floury potatoes - about a 2p coin thickness if you can; a mandolin is your friend here. I'm a Maris Piper man as they have the highest proportion of dry matter. Arrange a third in the bottom of the pot. Salt and pepper these. 

Peel and thinly slice three onions (again with the mandolin). Arrange half on the potatoes. Season.

take 700g of diced mutton shoulder - you'll only get this from a proper butcher - and roll in very well seasoned flour. Don't worry about fat and even sinew. It will all melt away.

Rich, garnet red mutton.

Finley chop three inches of rosemary. Dice two big carrots and two sticks of celery. Not too small. Chunks. Carrot? Celery!? I know. The horror. Live with it. Mix with the meat and herbs. Pile this neatly onto the onions. Season well. You can swap the rosemary for thyme but try it my way once, please.

Now place the rest of the onions on the meat and the rest of the potatoes on the onions. Season all. You can do a nice overlapping potato pattern, if you like that kind of thing.

pour the stock into the pot. It should sink below the potatoes. Dress these with 50g of melted butter and a final sprinkle of sea salt.

Now you have a choice. You can go 'fast' and bake for three hours in a 180°C oven, removing the lid for an last half hour to finish the potato topping, which will be crisp and golden.

...Or you can go very low and slow and do six hours at 130°C. The potatoes will look brown and chewy (as below) and they probably won't crisp up properly... but the meat and onions will have a more developed flavour. This isn't necessarily better than the quick version, just different. But with the slow version, your house will fill with the most delicious aroma. Of all the stews/braises I've done, this smells the best.

Traditionally served with pickled beetroot... or beetroot... on a bed of dead Yorkshire-men. (Non UK readers - you'll have to read up on the Wars of the Roses. People have long memories in these parts.)

Further reading: aromatic, sweet & sour red cabbage (in ten minutes)

It's not pretty but it is hot and made in a pot. It's also easy and delicious.

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