Now that the weather has turned cool (cold, some might say), my thoughts recently turned back to our summer visit to Newcastle, where we had free run of a huge garden. This was soon after I’d read the first issue of David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Lucky Peach magazine, which reminded me that bacon is a fast-acting flavor booster and which provided a recipe for an excellent broth (dashi) that uses bacon to make it even better. One of my vacation recollections involved putting that reminder to good use.
About 90 seconds after we arrived in northeast England, Jackie’s sister, Val, put on her Wellington boots, went into the garden and dug up nearly 10 pounds of perfect potatoes. This was a bonus, because we’d all thought that the patch had stopped yielding a year earlier. It also locked us into a week of potato eating, which was not such a bad thing.
On that first afternoon we did only minimal shopping. The idea was to stock basic supplies but not to overstuff the fridge in case we felt like eating out sometimes (which, as it happens, we did). So we didn’t have a wide range of ingredients in the house — a limitation that (almost) always offers a pleasant challenge to the cook.
To my mind, the meat of choice in that part of the world is lamb. One of the local butchers works with nearby farmers and always has delicious meat from flocks that graze the area’s hillsides. It is lovely to see them as you drive around. So lamb was on the shopping list: inch-thick bone-in slices cut from what English butchers call the neck (just north of the rib rack), one per person, plus one for the pot. The puzzle was what exactly to cook with the lamb and — even more important — the potatoes.
The British culinary repertory does not lack meat-and-potatoes dishes, and one of the best — not well known in the States — is Lancashire hotpot. Like other traditional English food, this brothy stew requires only a handful of ingredients, which makes it ideal for those with a depleted larder. A description of one version of this dish is almost its recipe: browned lamb and sweated onions topped with sliced potatoes and moistened with broth, then baked, covered, until the potatoes are done and uncovered to barely brown the top.
Thing is, there was no broth. Some cooks use Worcestershire sauce to enhance plain water, but there was none of that either — and, in any event, it sounded like an unappetizing copout. Then I remembered Chang’s bacon dashi. Happily, I’d bought a quarter pound of lightly smoked bacon at the butcher — the meatier back bacon, which is just starting to show up in American specialty stores.
Here’s just what I did (for three people): After I browned the well-seasoned lamb in a little oil, I removed it from the casserole and sweated a biggish onion, sliced, along with about three ounces of thick-cut bacon cut into matchsticks. This, I deglazed with rose wine (white would have been my preference, but a strange pink merlot from Chile is what we had in the house). When that liquid was reduced to nearly nothing, I added water and simmered it for about five minutes. Sure enough, the resulting liquid was delicious — mildly smoky, oniony and porky. And the lamb would improve it further.
While that was happening, I peeled enough potatoes for all of us and cut them into slices a bit less than 1/8-inch thick, which I left in cold water until needed. I returned the lamb to the casserole, nestling it into the onion-bacon mixture, then topped it with potato slices, seasoning each layer as I went. The bacon broth wasn’t quite sufficient, so I added enough boiling water to submerge the lamb and onions completely (and just to reach into the layers of potato), covered the casserole tightly and placed it into a 350 degree oven for just shy of an hour, basting the potatoes from time to time.
The potatoes were good and tender, so I removed the lid, gave the spuds a light drizzle of oil and returned the casserole to the oven for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, until the potato slices had just begun to turn golden around the edges. This dish is better with melting-soft potatoes rather than a crunchy crust. If you want crunch, serve the dish with crusty bread, which you should do anyway to mop up the unthickened sauce. (Some cooks use flour to thicken it, but I prefer a clearer-tasting result.)
Great lamb and great potatoes is what Lancashire hotpot is about, but thanks to Lucky Peach, this version also had a better broth than I had any right to expect from an empty fridge. I thought at the time that I’d never again cook this dish with pre-made stock; I’m not sure that’s true, but I certainly won’t cook it without bacon!