Casseroles are perfect winter food: they require long, slow cooking and are warming and comforting. They are also ideal if you are cooking for a large number of people because the quantities can easily be increased. Furthermore, if you are entertaining you can make your casserole ahead so that on the day it only requires reheating and you can concentrate on spending time with your guests.
Despite knowing all of this, for me there’s a problem: I hate making casseroles because I hate the meat-browning stage of the process. My kitchen is always left with a film of grease on every surface and my hair looks like I’ve spent the day working at the local chippy.
Browning the meat for a casserole, we are told, seals in the juices and assures flavour, so it probably isn’t a stage we should skip. But what if we could? One of my Aga recipe books suggests browning the meat for a casserole in the roasting tin in the roasting oven, which seems to me to be the answer. After all, you need a high temperature and the Aga roasting oven is hotter than the highest setting of most conventional ovens.
Then the other day this recipe for roasted lamb ragù caught my eye in the Waitrose Food Magazine under the heading “A Genius New Way to Cook”; you roast literally everything together in the oven, including the meat. Waitrose says you can try it with other combinations of meat, spices and herbs, and I’m thinking of trying to make one of my favourites – boeuf bourguignon – in this way. Anyway, this ragù was absolutely delicious and I will definitely be making it again and using the same method for other combinations of ingredients. (She says, with a flick of her ungreasy hair.)
Roasted Lamb Ragù
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 200ºC)
- 2 leeks, halved lengthways and finely sliced
- 2 carrots, finely diced
- 2 celery stalks, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 clove
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 2 bay leaves
- A few thyme sprigs
- 1 tsp honey
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 900g lamb neck fillets
- 250ml red wine
- 250ml chicken stock
- 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
- Toss the leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, spices, herbs, honey and anchoivies in the large Aga roasting tin. Season
- Season the lamb neck fillets and lay on top
- Place the tin on the third set of rungs in the roasting oven and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, turning everything at least once. You want the meat to be browned and the vegetables soft and turning golden
- Stir in the wine, stock and tomatoes and place in the simmering oven for 2 or 3 hours. You know the drill: no harm will come to it if left for longer. Mine was in the oven all afternoon
- (Or turn a conventional oven down to 160ºC, cover the tin loosely with foil and roast for one hour and 30 minutes.)
- Roughly shred the meat, turning it in the juices and put the tin back in the roasting oven for 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until the meat is browned in places and the ragù is glossy and thick
- (Or turn the conventional oven back up to 200ºC, remove the foil, shred the meat as above and roast for a further 30 minutes.)
We had ours with delicious sourdough bread, purchased that day from the wonderful Hart’s Bakery in Bristol, and a green salad dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. If we hadn’t had delicious, fresh bread to hand, I’d have served the ragù with pasta. Tagliatelle would be perfect.
Turkey, ham, Norwegian spiced pork belly, bacon, cold leftover turkey, turkey soup, ham sandwiches, Jamie’s Asian-style turkey salad, cold pork, more ham, beef fillet, Thai green turkey curry…and so it went on over the Christmas period, to the point where we said we never wanted to eat meat again. Except that we didn’t mean it. We love it of course and after a couple of days of eating mainly vegetables and pasta, we were ready to be carnivores again and I made lamb shawarma for the first time.
Since there were only going to be three of us, I bought a half shoulder of lamb instead of a whole one. At the last minute we invited a friend to join us but there was still plenty for four people. The recipe is one by Honey & Co like the pomegranate molasses chicken I did a while ago. I adapted it for slow Aga cooking for a change (joke) and I was very pleased with the result.
We ate ours in wraps with the white cabbage and pomegranate salad suggested in the Honey & Co. book, and a dollop of yoghurt. Delicious.
- 4 onions, peeled
- 1 shoulder of lamb, on the bone
- 3 tbsps ras el hanout
- 2 tsps salt
For the salad:
- ½ white cabbage, shredded
- ½ tsp salt
- juice of 1 lemon
- Small bunch parsley, chopped
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
- Seeds from 1 pomegranate
- Purée two of the onions with the ras el hanout, salt and pepper in a food processor
- Slice the other two onions and place them in a roasting tin
- Pat the purée all over the lamb and lay it on the bed of onions
- Place the roasting tin uncovered in the roasting oven for 20 minutes, by which time it will have started to colour and brown
- Pour in a glass of water and cover the tin with foil
- Place in the simmering oven for several hours; I’d say a minimum of four but after seven or eight it will be even more meltingly gorgeous. You should baste it every so often and maybe add some more water, but only if it’s drying out
- It’s done when the meat falls easily off the bone
- (Conventional oven owners: start it in a very hot oven for 30 minutes and then turn it down, after adding water and covering the tin, to 200ºC/180ºC fan, and roast for a further hour. Repeat the process and turn the oven down to 180ºC/160ºC fan for a couple more hours, basting halfway)
- For the salad, sprinkle salt on the shredded cabbage in a bowl, mix and allow to sit for 15 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the lemon juice, parsley and vegetable oil and mix well. Sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds, reserving a few to sprinkle over the lamb
I made a few mince pies this week. They’re now in the freezer but I might get them out this weekend as my youngest son is returning home from university and I think he’ll appreciate them. Apart from that and the Christmas cake, I haven’t done a huge amount of Christmas preparation but now that it’s December I will be getting my act together. I have had to postpone my plan to write up some of my Christmas recipes because I don’t have any decent photos to accompany them. I will aim to take lots of photos during this Christmas period so that I can write up the recipes in good time for Christmas 2018.
Meanwhile the Sunday roast continues to happen in our house and last Sunday it was gigot boulangère. If ever there was a dish that lends itself perfectly to Aga cooking, this is the one. If you love lamb and love boulangère potatoes, then this is one for you. On Sunday morning, after a cup of tea in bed with the papers on my iPad, I got up at 8 to prepare this dish. My neighbours may have caught a glimpse of me fetching some rosemary and nearly catching my death in my garden in my dressing gown. In less than an hour though lunch was in the oven, to be more or less ignored until we were ready to eat it at 2pm.
- 1 leg of lamb weighing about 2.4kg
- 1.8kg potatoes
- 2 onions, peeled and sliced
- 2 garlic cloves
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 100ml white wine
- Pound the peeled garlic with 1 tsp salt flakes (I use Maldon sea salt) in a pestle and mortar until you have a rough paste
- Add 1 tbsp olive oil and about 1 tbsp chopped rosemary to this
- Give it a stir and season
- Set aside
- Drizzle some olive oil into the bottom of your large Aga roasting tin, which you have lined with bake-o-glide
- Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. At this point many cooks would tell you to use a mandolin, but I don’t possess one so I use a nice sharp knife
- Cover the base of the tin with a layer of potatoes followed by the onion slices, chopped rosemary and some seasoning and then the remaining potato slices
- Pour over the white wine
- Stab the leg of lamb all over with the point of a sharp knife and then rub in the garlic and rosemary paste you made at the start, massaging it into the slits you’ve made
- Lay the lamb on top of the potatoes and hang the roasting tin on the third set of runners in the roasting oven and cook for 45 minutes
- Transfer to the simmering oven for at least 4 hours but, as always, longer is fine, if not better
- To serve, place the lamb on a large dish or board for carving, and the potatoes in a dish with all the juices. I put a bowl of redcurrant jelly on the table. Some mint sauce would have been nice too
Pound garlic with salt and add chopped rosemary, olive oil and pepper to make a rough paste
Layer slide potatoes with sliced onions, chopped rosemary and seasoning
Rub the paste into the lamb and place it on top of the potatoes
The cooked boulangère potatoes
- Conventional cooking: pre-heat the oven to 200ºC and cook the potatoes for about an hour before placing the lamb on top and roasting it for about 15 minutes per 500g depending on how you like it done.
- There were only three of us for lunch on Sunday so I asked my butcher, Ruby and White, to give me just half a leg of lamb, as you will see in the above photos. I halved the quantities of the other ingredients and used the small Aga roasting tin.
We’re slowly adjusting to being empty nesters. Mind you, university terms are not that long and our youngest will be home for the Christmas holidays in just a few weeks. One thing I’m struggling with though, is reducing the amount of food I buy: I keep overestimating how much we’ll need. I imagine that just when I’ve got it right, it will be time to step up the quantities again for the family returning home for Christmas. And so it is that yesterday I suddenly remembered the San Marzano plum tomatoes I’d bought and not used. I don’t keep tomatoes in the fridge because they lose their flavour. This means they need to be used within a few days of purchase. My tomatoes were fine but starting to feel a bit squidgy; it was time to make a pasta sauce. Pasta with a really good homemade tomato sauce is one of my favourite dishes to eat. We probably had it at least once a week when my children were growing up and I still make it often. I have tried lots of different recipes over the years. The one I probably make the most is this one by Felicity Cloake. But sometimes I just make it up as I go along according to what I have in the cupboard and yesterday I decided to make a sauce using roast tomatoes, based on my friend Kate Percy’s from her book Go Faster Food (you don’t have to be an endurance athlete to enjoy her recipes: I’m certainly not one). Roasting tomatoes is a great way to use them up when they’re past their best and it also intensifies the flavour of disappointingly insipid ones.
- 3 x San Marzano tomatoes (or other plum tomatoes)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 250ml passata
- Pinch chilli flakes (optional)
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- Glug of red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp dried basil (or a couple of stalks of fresh basil if you have it)
- 250g spaghetti or pasta of your choice
- (Pre-heat conventional (fan) oven to 140ºC or 170º if you’re in a hurry)
- Place the tomatoes on a baking tray lined with bake-o-glide
- Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper
- Sprinkle lightly with sugar
- Place in the simmering oven for 3-4 hours until shrivelled and the aroma is intense
- Tip the roasted tomatoes and all the residual juices from the tray into a saucepan or small casserole
- Squash the tomatoes down a bit with a wooden spoon, add the passata, garlic, bay leaf, chilli flakes, a little more olive oil, red wine vinegar and basil
- Bring to simmering point on the simmering plate and transfer to the simmering oven for an hour or two for the flavours to meld and the sauce to thicken. You can leave it uncovered if you want it to thicken in less time than that
- (Or simmer covered on a conventional hob at low temperature for half an hour to an hour, removing the lid towards the end if you feel it’s not thick enough)
- Meanwhile cook the spaghetti until it’s al dente
- Check the sauce for seasoning and toss the drained pasta in it
- Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan
The photo above shows the badge on the front of my beloved Aga. It’s a shiny brand new badge because the old one melted. Having owned an Aga for eleven years, a few months ago I had the brainwave of purchasing some hooks for the Aga rail from which I could hang oven gloves and towels. What I did not realise is that if you hang things in the middle of the rail in front of the badge, it will get hot and melt onto the glove or towel, as you can see here:
I contacted Aga who told me that owners are warned about this upon purchasing their new oven. I have no reason to doubt this but as a conscientious reader of instruction books I was surprised that I seemed to have forgotten about this particular tip. Anyway, it’s too late now. I had to accept that a gauntlet I’d hung from one of my lovely new hooks had melted into the badge, ruining both.
I’m telling you this as a warning so that you don’t make the same mistake. I have now moved the hooks to each end of the rail like so:
I can’t think why I didn’t think to do it this way from the outset because it looks better.
By the way, I bought the hooks at our local Kitchens Cookshop. It’s the only place I’ve managed to find some with a wide enough gauge to fit the Aga rail.
Before you all shout “it’s much too early to think about Christmas”, I agree with you. Except when it comes to cooking. There are things you can prepare to get ahead and things you simply must make weeks, or even months, beforehand.
For me the Christmas/New Year period is not really a time for trying out new recipes. It gets so busy with the house full and lots of comings and goings that I prefer to stick to tried and tested recipes. We all have our traditions and my family is no exception; our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals do not vary much from year to year. Then for a few days after that most meals comprise leftovers in some form or other. During the whole Christmas period last year there were never fewer than 5 of us in the house and most days we were 7 or 8 with a maximum of 12 of us sitting round the table for the Christmas turkey. In recent years we’ve also stayed at home on New Year’s Eve instead of going to a party and I’ve cooked a special dinner. One year I splashed out on a whole beef fillet which was so popular it has now become our traditional New Year’s Eve meal.
Last year I told you about my Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and I wrote a post about the Norwegian apple cake we always have on Christmas Eve. In the coming weeks I plan to write up a few more of my Christmas recipes and tell you how I’ve adapted them for Aga cooking. I’m starting with braised red cabbage because it’s a delicious accompaniment to many winter dishes and there’s no reason you shouldn’t cook and enjoy it right now. It also freezes brilliantly: I nearly always do this and then defrost it and zap it in the microwave on the day I plan to serve it. This recipe is based on one by Delia Smith.
Braised Red Cabbage
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 150ºC)
- 1 red cabbage
- 1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- About ¼ of a whole nutmeg, grated
- About ¼ tsp ground cinnammon (optional)
- About ¼ tsp ground cloves (optional)
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 10 g butter
- Salt and pepper
- Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and remove the hard stalk
- Shred each quarter but not too finely
- Place the cabbage in a casserole and mix in the apple, onion, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, nutmeg and other spices if using.
- Pour over the wine vinegar and dot with the butter
- Cover with a lid and place it in the simmering oven for at least four hours; as ever though, it will come to no harm in your Aga if left for longer than that. (Conventional oven: 1½ to 2 hours.)
- Take it out and give it a stir every now and then. It is done when it is tender
Take one red cabbage
And a cooking apple, garlic, onion, nutmeg…
Cut in half then quarter
Add spices, seasoning, apple, onion, garlic, sugar, red wine vinegar
Dot with butter
Four hours later…
My husband was in London recently and on a whim, bought a black truffle that had just arrived in a new Italian Deli on the King’s Road and brought it home; he adores truffle. It was expensive (about £7) but you don’t need very much and can make it last for several meals. I wasn’t sure I could do it justice at first but the beauty of this small black nugget of earthy flavour is that you don’t actually have to do anything to it for it to enhance a meal. What made it really expensive was the Affetta Tartufi I bought (see photo below)! I’m always interested in quality when buying for my kitchen.
I made mushroom risotto one night: my husband acted the Italian waiter and with “pennacchio” shaved some of the truffle onto our bowls: delicious.
Then last night I cooked chicken forestière and again, we shaved truffle onto the finished dish. We don’t cook as seasonally as we used to, do we? But I do like to try. For example, I wouldn’t dream of using strawberries in December, even if they were available to buy in the supermarket. I also only cook asparagus when the British version is in season in May/June.
Chicken forestière, with its wild and chestnut mushrooms, feels like the perfect autumnal supper so I’m going to tell you how to make it here (adapted from a Diana Henry – who else? – recipe from her book A Bird in the Hand for my AGA):
- 8 chicken thighs or 4 chicken legs, skin on, bone in
- 20g dried wild mushrooms
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, halved and sliced
- 75ml Madeira (or if you don’t have any, sherry would work)
- A couple of carrots, cut into batons
- 175ml of chicken stock
- 150ml double cream
- 150g whole button or quartered chestnut mushrooms
- 1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over 50ml boiling water. Leave to soak for about 20 minutes
- Meanwhile, season the chicken and heat a sauté pan on the simmering plate and place the chicken in it in a single layer. No need to add oil at this stage.
- Brown the chicken on both sides, taking care not turn the pieces over until they can easily be moved, or the skin will tear
- Remove the chicken from the pan and put it in a dish
- Pour the chicken fat into a frying pan and put this to one side
- Add the tablespoon of oil to the sauté pan and cook the onions (slowly in the simmering oven if you like) until soft
- Deglaze the pan with the madeira and add the carrots, stock, wild mushrooms and their soaking liquor
- Bring to the boil, cover and cook for 10 minutes on the simmering plate or if you have time for 30 minutes in the simmering oven
- Return the chicken to the pan with any juices that have run out of it. Cover and cook, choosing the simmering oven if you have plenty of time (an hour or more) or a hotter oven if you are in a hurry. I wouldn’t leave it in the roasting oven for more than 15 minutes. You could start if off there and then finish it off in the simmering oven
- Stir in the cream and return to the simmering oven for at least 10 minutes with the lid off
- Now place your frying pan on the boiling plate to heat the chicken fat and cook the mushrooms briskly until they are golden brown. Season and add to the chicken, stirring gently to combine everything
- Taste for seasoning and scatter over the chopped parsley
- The addition of the shaved truffle to individual servings is recommended but not essential
We had ours with steamed new potatoes, broccoli and green beans.