Written by William Dobson
I’m not the easiest person to buy presents for. I think it’s probably more difficult buying for boys anyway – make-up, perfume, jewellery or chocolates just won’t do – and I’m just not particularly materialistic. As such, on the rare occasions when people deem it appropriate to present me with a gift, they’ve started to give me things relating to food. To be honest, this suits me pretty perfectly. My birthday present from my mum every year is a meal at a restaurant of my choice , while my brother gave me 200g of jamón ibérico de bellota last Christmas…I’m salivating just writing that!!
One of the best and most unexpected presents I’ve received recently was given to me by a friend of my parents. She had studied at the American University of Beirut and, as is my wont, when we first met we started discussing Lebanese cuisine. The next time I saw her she arrived with a very large bag of za’atar in hand, a wonderfully aromatic Levantine mix of dried herbs – usually thyme, oregano and marjoram. It’s not the easiest thing to find in this country, so I wanted to cook something really special to do justice to her generosity. Those flavours work fantastically with lamb which, along with chicken, is the staple meat of the Middle East. Beef is a rarity, certainly in the Levant, although it’s more common in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, of course, pork is off limits. So, off to the butcher I popped – not the one in the supermarket mind – and selected a beautiful looking half-shoulder of lamb, perfect for slow-roasting, as the fat just melts away, imparting so much wonderful flavour.
This dish couldn’t be simpler to cook. Once you’ve whacked the joint in the oven, you can just sit back and pretty much leave it for three to four hours, with just the occasional basting to make sure it is as moist and tender as possible. The result is sublime, soft and sticky with the aromatics from the herbs adding a wonderful Eastern fragrance and a slight smokiness. You don’t even need to carve it, as the meat can just be pulled away from the bone with a fork. It makes a lovely twist on the standard Sunday roast – in fact, the only downside that I can think of is that, if you want to serve it at lunchtime, you have to askew your morning lie-in. Having said that, you can always head back to bed while it cooks. I’d serve it with some form of potatoes and something green (preferably edible) and use the juices it was cooked in, with the fat strained, as a delicious ready made gravy.
- Shoulder of lamb (about 2kg)
- 2 tbsp za'atar
- 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Good glug of olive oil
- 750 ml wine
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 1 large carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, whole
Score the lamb all over with a sharp knife. Make a paste out of the garlic, za'atar, salt, pepper and olive oil in a pestle and mortar and rub all over the joint. Leave to marinate for anything from a couple of hours to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 140C. Place the lamb into a deep roasting tray, skin side down, and pour in the wine until it reaches about 1/3 of the way up the joint. Add water if you need to top it up. Add the vegetables, molasses and the garlic and place in the oven for about three and a half hours, basting every so often.
Turn the oven right up, to about 230C, flip the joint over and leave to cook for another half an hour so the skin will caramelise and become deliciously crispy.
Remove from the oven, strain the fat and the vegetables from the liquid to be used as gravy, and leave the meat to rest for about 20 mins, loosely covered with tin foil. When ready to serve, just gently pull the meat of the bone with a fork! Couldn't be easier...