Lamb is a good choice for casseroles - the flavour blends well with a variety of herbs and spices, giving a wide repertoire of dishes from a basic theme, and the meat becomes meltingly tender.
Casseroling and stewing are flavoursome ways of cooking pieces of lamb or other meat gently in a little liquid, with added vegetables and herbs. Casseroling and stewing are virtually identical and the words have become interchangeable, but strictly a casserole is cooked in a slow oven and a stew on top of the cooker.
Types of meat
Almost any cut of lamb can be used for casseroles. Many lamb recipes, such as Lancashire hot pot or Dublin stew, are traditionally made with really bony cuts such as middle neck, scrag and breast of lamb. The flavour of these is excellent and a really tasty meal comes out of the pot. But for entertaining I prefer cuts with less bone in them and I usually go for shoulder meat, which the butcher will bone for you if you ask in advance, or for neck cutlets. Leg or loin make equally good casseroles, but these cuts are more expensive.
Making the casserole
In most cases when you are making a casserole, once the initial preparation has been done the dish can be left to cook unattended. There are two main methods of starting off the casserole - the cold start method and the fry start method. The cold start method is best for tough cuts such as neck and scrag chops. Bring the lamb slowly to simmering point and cook very gently, covered, for about 2 hours on the top of the cooker or in the oven at 150C (300F) gas 2.
The fry start method is used for cubes of shoulder meat or neck chops. The surfaces of the meat are sealed and browned by frying in hot fat. The meat can be tossed in seasoned flour and then browned in fat or it can be browned on its own. Then the meat is transferred to a tightly covered pan with flavouring vegetables, herbs, spices and liquid and cooked very gently at 150C (300F) gas 2 until meltingly tender.
Pot-roasting and braising
Pot-roasting and braising are such similar methods that there is little to distinguish between them. Pot-roasting is carried out in a covered pan — a flameproof casserole is ideal — either on top of the stove or in the oven at 170C (325F) gas 3, for a minimum of 1 1/2 hours, allowing 80 minutes per kg (40 minutes per lb) for lamb joints. Traditionally there should be very little or no liquid in a pot-roast, the moisture from the meat providing most of the liquid for cooking.
A braise is cooked in much the same way but there is usually a little more liquid added to form the cooking liquid and sauce. Braising is suitable for chunks of meat, leg, shoulder, chump chops or whole joints. Leg of lamb is particularly good boned and stuffed before braising.
Browning the meat
For both pot-roasting and braising the meat is first browned on top of the cooker. Use either olive oil or butter, or good dripping, preferably from the same type of meat as the one being cooked. If the joint is a fatty one trim off some of the fat and render it down in a frying-pan. Discard any crisp remains of skin and use the liquid to brown the meat.
If flavouring vegetables are to be added to the pot-roast or braise they can be browned in the same fat, or they can be added raw. If being browned, remove the meat from the pan while you brown the vegetables to avoid overcrowding. Traditionally the vegetables for a braise are made into a mirepoix — all evenly diced to the same size and browned well in the dripping. The vegetables then form a bed on which the meat rests while it is cooking. Other flavourings such as diced fat salt pork, bacon and herbs can be included.
Adding the liquid
When both the meat and the vegetables have been browned, return the meat to the pan and add the liquid. Choose a good stock and add a little wine for extra flavour if wished.
Whichever liquid you choose, always bring it to the boil before adding it to the meat in the casserole dish. If you add the liquid to the pot cold and bring it to the boil with the meat, it will then extract flavour and moisture from the meat.
Controlling the cooking
Whether you cook on top of the cooker or in the oven, cover the casserole tightly and control the heat to keep it just at a gentle simmer. If the liquid is allowed to boil the meat will harden and the liquid is likely to boil away before cooking is complete.