"I can't believe how quickly the year is disappearing!" we comment to each other, as appointments are booked for July and August, and spring fashion is starting to appear in the shops while we're only just getting into the swing of wearing our winter coats.
It's a common refrain about how quickly the time seems to disappear. For me, I measure how quickly the year is going by the appearance of my Delicious magazine. I feel like I've barely glanced at the previous month's issue before the new one is in my letterbox. Some issues are full of inspiring dishes, while others barely stir my cooking passion. But the July issue, which arrived yesterday, is packed full of dishes I can't wait to try.
Generally, I flick through issues and mark which dishes I want to try. Some get made that month; unfortunately most don't and join my long list of "recipes to try". But this month was different. For the first time, I marked a recipe and made it the very next day. This is a first for me. But this was also a special dish. It was lamb shank cassoulet.
Cassoulet is a dish I've long wanted to try and I've collected many recipes over the years. It's a rich, slow-cooked casserole, originating in the south of France, that contains meat,m such as pork, goose or duck, and white beans, usually haricot, but cannellini beans are a good substitute. The dish is named after the cassole, the distinctive deep round earthernware pot with slanting sides in which the cassoulet is traditionally cooked.
Cassoulet doesn't seem a particularly complicated recipe but it does require planning and preparation - most of my recipes seem to involve duck confit and/or duck, which either require an extra trip to a specialist shop or, in the case of confit, another long preparation process - and it does require long, slow cooking time.
So this lamb shank version sounded ideal, especially as all ingredients were easy to hand. It's time-consuming but not complicated and the end result is a revelation. I think this is one of the best dishes I've ever made and I can't wait to make it again. It's an ugly duckling sort of dish: it's not the most attractive dish to look at but the flavours are sublime. The lamb shank meat becomes meltingly tender, while the cannellini beans give it guts and the crisp breadcrumbs sprinkled over the top add an extra flavour dimension. If you are after this winter's perfect recipe, I urge you to make this as soon as you can!
Lamb shank cassoulet
From the "French Connection" article by Valli Little, Delicious magazine, July 2009
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil, plus extra to fry
4 lamb shanks, French-trimmed
50g pancetta or speck, cut into strips
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
2 Tbs tomato paste
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs, plus 1 Tbs chopped leaves
1 cup (250ml) dry white wine
1 litre (4 cups) lamb or chicken stock
4 Toulouse sausages (I was unable to get these, so substituted with four mild Italian pork sausages instead)
2 x 400g cans cannellini beans, drained, rinsed
30g unsalted butter
1 cup (70g) fresh breadcrumbs
2 Tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat 2 Tbs oil in a flameproof casserole or heavy-based pan over medium-high heat. Season lamb, then brown for five minutes, turning, until sealed on all sides. Remove and set aside. Add pancetta to pan and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes or until crisp. Add onion, garlic and rosemary, season, then cook for 3-4 minutes. Add tomato paste, bay leaves and thyme sprigs, stir for 1 minute, then add wine and simmer over medium-high heat until reduced by half. Add stock and lamb shanks. Cover surface closely with a sheet of baking paper, then simmer on a very low heat for 2 1/2 to 3 hours until lamb is very tender.
Meanwhile, heat a little extra oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Brown sausages for 3-4 minutes. Remove, then slice into 2cm thick slices (they'll finish cooking in the sauce).
Remove lamb shanks from pan. Skim excess fat from sauce, then boil over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until reduced. Reduce heat to medium-low , add beans and sausages, then simmer for 10 minutes or until sausage is cooked. Return lamb to pan to warm through. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a pan over medium heat, add breadcrumbs and chopped thyme and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes or until crisp. Stir in parsley. Serve cassoulet sprinkled with herbed crumbs.