Don’t you hate it when a good myth gets debunked? Turns out one of Mark Twain’s cooler quotes may never have been uttered by him. I say "may" because while no one can find it in his writings anywhere, they also can’t find anyone else who said it.
The quote in question? “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I thought of this line the other day when I came across a recipe for something called Lancashire hotpot. It’s a traditional dish from England’s northwest coast, lamb and onions topped with sliced potatoes and baked in the oven. The very name reminded me of one of the coldest winters I ever spent, a summer in the UK.
My brother Michael was living there at the time, and we tooled around much of England, Wales, and Scotland in a rented Mini Cooper. I not only wore all of the clothes I’d brought with me, pretty much all at the same time, but borrowed sweaters from Michael. And I still froze.
So simple, hearty comfort food like this coming from this beautiful, but chilly landscape makes sense. Calling it something as warm and promising as "hotpot" makes even more sense.
The thing about traditional dishes is that the handing down of them happens in countless kitchens. Recipes are seldom written down and almost always tweaked to family tastes, so the variations are endless. Nowhere is this more evident than with Lancashire hotpot. At its most basic, the dish is little more than lamb, onions, potatoes, stock, salt and pepper. Some versions include root vegetables – carrots, turnips, parsnips and such. Some add garlic, leeks, celery, bacon and lamb kidneys (the Brits do love kidneys, don’t they?). More than one recipe also called for dozens of oysters, apparently an ingredient in the most traditional version before they became so expensive. For seasonings, thyme, bay leaf and parsley were the most common.
The lamb itself is subject to variation, too. As Edward Schneider says in The Washington Post, hotpot is often made with “bone-in slices cut from what English butchers call the neck (just north of the rib rack).” When these or other chops are used, they’re often left whole, both while cooking and when served. Other recipes call for chunks of lamb shoulder or lamb stew meat. I went with stew meat – it was easy to work with and to serve. If you can’t find stew meat already cut up, look for shoulder or arm chops, which are relatively inexpensive. Trim away most of the fat and cut the meat into chunks. If you’re using these chops, cook the bones along with the meat and just serve around them. The bones will add lots to the flavor of the broth. Lancashire hotpot is also the perfect dish for mutton, with its slightly stronger flavor.
So here’s my take on this wonderful traditional meal, hearty, flavorful and truly satisfying. Served with a salad and some crusty bread for sopping up the juices, it’s perfect for a December night in Chicago – or an August night in Lancashire.
Serves 3 to 4 (see Kitchen Notes)
2 large potatoes, Yukon Golds or russets
1 pound lamb stew, cut into bite-sized chunks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 strips bacon cut crosswise into matchsticks
2 cups sliced onions, about 2 medium
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced on an angle
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 cup water
about 1 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Special equipment: 3-quart lidded casserole (see Kitchen Notes)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Peel the potatoes and slice them into rounds, 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Place in a bowl of cold water and set aside. Season lamb with salt and pepper and brown in a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat, 6 to 8 minutes. Don’t crowd the lamb; brown in batches, if necessary. Using a slotted spoon, transfer lamb to a bowl.
Reduce heat to medium under skillet and add bacon, onions and carrots, tossing to combine and coat. Drizzle in a little more oil if needed, to keep onions from sticking or burning. Sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so, until onions are soft and just starting to brown. Add garlic and thyme to pan, stirring to combine, and sauté until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Return lamb to pan, along with any accumulated juices, and stir to combine.
Transfer lamb mixture to casserole and add 1 cup of water. Tuck bay leaves into the mixture. Drain the potato rounds and arrange on top of the lamb, overlapping slightly. If you have more potato rounds than surface area to cover, tuck the less perfect rounds under the top layer. Carefully pour broth over potatoes until the liquid in the casserole is just below the potatoes. I used about 1 cup. Season potatoes with salt and pepper, cover the casserole and place on middle rack in oven.
Bake hotpot for 1 hour. Check to make sure the liquid hasn’t cooked away, then bake, covered, for another 15 minutes. Increase heat to 450 degrees F. and uncover casserole. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes begin to brown. Remove from oven and let rest uncovered for a few minutes (the liquid will be bubbling when it comes from the oven – let that calm down before serving).
To serve, spoon potato rounds into shallow bowls, pushing to one side of the bowls. Spoon lamb mixture next to potatoes, along with some of the pan juices. Devour.
Three servings? Four? This recipe will generously serve three on its own. Together, Marion and I ate a little more than half of it, and although we greedily wanted more, we couldn’t eat another bite. If you serve it with a salad and a rustic crusty bread, you should be able to get four servings out of it. Let your appetites be your guide.
Casserole dishes. These vary quite a bit in size and shape. For this recipe, an oval casserole that is reasonably deep is ideal. You don’t want the lamb mixture spread too thin over the bottom of a wide, shallow casserole, or it will dry out. A smallish Staub La Cocotte or Le Creuset French Oven would work as well.
Related post: Roast chicken with root vegetables