Long and slow

Long and slow

The delights of slow cooking

Growing up in Greece, Easter was a far bigger occasion than Christmas.

It's the one feast in the calendar that brings together extended families, calls for special occasion cooking and all-day, indulgent meals.

After the 40 days of fasting during Lent, Easter is the first occasion to eat meat again, and it's done in style: the traditional festive meal for Easter Sunday is a whole lamb roasted outside in a fire pit.

Roasting a whole animal like that is an art in itself, and my dad was an expert in it.

It involves long and slow cooking over the hot embers, careful to apply the heat evenly, without burning the outside while the inside is still uncooked (not to mention taking care your fire is just right, you have a continuous supply of burning charcoal, and no pieces fall off the roast). 

This is a process that takes many hours, typically from early morning to late afternoon, during which the spit has to be turned continually or the roast will start burning.

With that much meat roasting, inviting your extended family, friends and/or village to come and share in the proceedings is imperative, and the perfect set up for the most amazing all-day feast: everyone gathering around the spit, taking turns in turning it, picking on a a variety of meze dishes, drinking wine, and being jolly.

It's a big thing, such a full-blown Easter feast, so it wasn't something we could do every year, but some of my most cherished memories are from such Easter festivities.

I even managed to find a photo from one such occasion! (Yes, the roast is wrapped in paper - one of my dad's tricks!)

I still like to make long slow cooked lamb for Easter. Not on a spit though, as it's just two of us eating.

These days, we only really eat meat raised by myself (or someone I know personally). That means we eat older animals from 'primitive' breeds (tougher meat, better flavour) so most of the meat we eat is slow cooked anyway.

Slow cooking has many advantages:

  • Saves time: you put it on and then you can forget about it for a few hours. You don't even have to carve it as it should just fall off the bone at the touch of a knife.
  • Saves money: the cheaper, tougher, fattier cuts of meat are ideally suited to this kind of cooking.
  • Saves flavour: slow cooking in a pot means all the flavours collect in the pan juices.
  • Saves energy: all types of slow cookers use very little energy.

Here are my top tips for slow cooking a cut of meat:

Keep the heat down!

  • You want the faintest simmer only, or your meat will dry out. Roughly between 90-150C, and no higher than that! The longer you intend to cook it, the lower you go (e.g. 2 hours at 150C or 6 hours at 100C).
  • If your pot or your meat dries out it's too hot (this still happens to me sometimes as I keep forgetting how low it really needs to be). Fix: drown it in the pan juices and go lower next time.

Use cheap cuts

  • Use fattier, cheaper cuts, rich in connective tissue (legs are fine, but brisket, shoulders or shanks are better) - the long cooking breaks down these 'chewy' tissues to form a rich gelatinous sauce.
  • Lean, prime cuts will tend to dry out with this kind of cooking - avoid.

Season well

  • Make sure the meat is well seasoned, ideally in advance of cooking.

Layer the flavours

  • Keep in mind: unless you take the extra step to brown your meat & veggies first (who has time for that?) you are missing the base layer of caramelised flavour. Counteract this by going bold on the flavours you add to the pot. Knowing your flavour bombs is a good place to start.
  • I like making a paste with olive oil, garlic, herbs and spices, to rub on the meat. When I feel lazy, I just use harissa paste.
  • Anchovies make for a great background flavour too, especially for lamb: cut small slits all over the meat and stuff with anchovies. They will melt into the meat for amazing savouriness!
  • You can just cook meat but I like adding a bottom layer of sturdy veggies (onions, carrots, celeriac, parsnip, etc) and a bit of liquid (stock, wine, tomato paste, water) to make sure there is enough moisture. Adding fresh tomatoes also adds extra moisture.
  • Obviously you can also just slow cook robust veggies (e.g. roots, squash, aubergines) & pulses without any meat. They will need less cooking time.

Keep the moisture in

  • Prevent steam from escaping as best as you can.
  • A tight lid is a must, covering the meat with foil or parchment paper before putting on the lid is even better. Slow cookers are designed to keep the moisture in.
  • If your cut doesn't fit your pot, or if you are struggling to keep things moist throughout, consider wrapping it in several layers of parchment/baking paper. (Make sure you add your spices and flavourings inside the paper parcel.)

Choose your method

  • You can slow cook on the stove or in the oven - each method has its merits. Find out what works for you.
  • A slow cooker is worth having if you like this type of cooking: they are not expensive, very easy to use and extremely energy efficient. Also safe to leave alone all day. Really useful for all sorts of other types of meals too (soups, curries, stews, and even pasta sauce). I don't have a lot of kitchen equipment, but my slow cooker gets a lot of use!

Good things with lamb (slow cooked or otherwise)

  • cumin, chilli, cinnamon, allspice, oregano, rosemary, mint
  • tomato, carrots, aubergine, bell peppers
  • beans, lentils, chickpeas, broad beans
  • anchovies, olives, lemons, preserved lemons, pickles, harissa paste, olive oil
  • yoghurt, tangy salty cheese (parmesan, feta)
  • sharp green salsa
  • raisins, apricots, prunes (think Maroccan tagine)

Categories: COOK


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