Writer Beth Craggs shares her journey of going local and unearths the perfect family winter stew.
When I announce my resolution to turn my family-of-four into locavores, I am met with more incredulity than I would have liked. My three-year old daughter, who shall henceforth be known as Bashful, seldom strays from her diet of pizza, garlic bread, Rice Krispies, and Petits Filous. My one-year-old son, Greedy, is inexplicably addicted to chocolate. Clearly none of these things grow in Oxfordshire.
I redefine my resolution: I’ll start small, one meal a week. Everything must be either reared, grown, or produced (handy chocolate/garlic bread loophole) within 20 miles. Will this prove feasible? I pray that someone in the area has taken it upon themselves to make pasta.
Thankfully, when I finally do a bit of (rather late) research, I discover three things:
- There are plenty of local food producers, covering fruit, veg, meat, dairy, flour, and even honey.
- ‘Marco Polo’ variety locavorism allows for dried herbs, spices, and salt to be from outside the area.
- January is not the most appealing time to start this diet.
My first batch of ingredients comes from local food cooperative Cultivate, which has an online shop. I can browse available produce, order on the website, and pick it up from a trendy pub on my route home from work. There are plenty of root vegetables, squash, onions and cabbage. Not too shabby. There’s also a choice of organic diced lamb, steak, or chicken fillets. £18.87 (!) later, I have leeks, carrots, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, butter, diced lamb, and potatoes.
Garlic doesn’t seem to grow around here, which is a bit of a blow for us as I’ve never cooked a meal without it. I’m sure our taste buds will thank us eventually, even if it takes them years of therapy.
The Jerusalem artichokes were an impulse buy. I’d never eaten them before, let alone cooked with them, but I scrolled through pages and pages of Google searches until I found one recipe precedent for combining lamb and artichokes. Not a typical pairing, apparently!
The shopping bags seem pleasingly weighty when I collect them, but my excitement diminishes considerably when I discover how much of that is down to mud. Oh the joy of buying local: think clods of earth bigger than some of the minuscule artichokes. The mise-en-place is considerably messier and more time consuming than I’ve been used to with packaged supermarket goods.
They scrub up well, though, and it feels good preparing produce with a more tangible connection to the ground. How have I made it this far through my life without a vegetable brush? I’ve put it on the top of my shopping list for next week.
My first mental battleground is fought over the very first ingredient. I haven’t been able to acquire oil locally but I am not convinced that the local butter will handle searing the lamb without burning. I nearly fold and use the olive oil but I overcome the urge, and drop the butter into the pot, followed very swiftly by the lamb. (Ah, the lamb! Incredible meat from a very ethical local farm: it has hardly any fat on it and plumps up really beautifully while it browns.)
Hands up: two potential cheats. Old rosemary from my windowsill plant is used in the gratin topping. Also, citing my Marco Polo exemptions, I use one of those teabags of bouquet garni for extra flavour. So, without further ado, here’s my recipe:
Winter lamb stew topped with artichoke gratin
- Feeds 4 very hungry people
- Best cooked a day ahead
- Prep time: up to 45 mins
- Cook time: up to four hours
- Butter, 100g
- Diced lamb, 500g
- Onions, 2 medium, chopped fairly chunky
- Leeks, 3 large (approx 500g), halved vertically and sliced into 1cm sections
- Carrots, 3 large (approx 500g), quartered or halved where thickest, sliced into 1cm chunks
- Parsnips, 3 large (approx 500g), sliced as carrots
- Boiling potatoes, 4 large (approx 500g), chopped into 1-2cm pieces
- Bouquet garni, 1 sachet (optional)
- Jerusalem artichokes, 500g, peeled (!) and sliced thinly 2-3mm depending on your knife skills
- Rosemary, leaves of two sprigs, chopped, (optional, to taste)
- Salt and pepper
- Heat a very large pan on your highest hob setting for quite a while to ensure the cooking surface is sizzling hot.
- Drop in a good sliver of butter then immediately follow with all the lamb.
- Sprinkle over some salt and pepper.
- Fry, turning constantly, until fully browned (might take up to five minutes).
- Remove lamb to a bowl.
- Turn the heat down to medium.
- Pour water into the pan, to a depth of about 5mm, and scrape up any sediment from the lamb. Allow to simmer for a few moments more, then tip this juice into the bowl with the lamb. (White or red wine, or ale, might work nicely here in place of the water, if you’re lucky enough to live near a local producer.)
- Add another decent slice of butter, and stir around until melted.
- Add the onions, leeks and carrots.
- Stir to coat with butter, and add more salt and pepper.
- Cover, and sweat for about 20 minutes, until very soft and glossy.
- Add the lamb (and juices) parsnips and potatoes.
- Pour in enough water to just cover all the ingredients.
- Bring to the boil, then simmer gently on the stovetop, or (if you prefer and your pan is up to it), put into a 180 centigrade oven to cook.
- Cook for at least an hour, stirring and poking very occasionally, until the veg is tender.
- In the meantime, drop the artichokes into boiling salted water and cook for 10 minutes.
- Drain, then add a generous knob of butter, some more salt and pepper, and the rosemary (if using).
- Stir to coat all the artichoke slices, then cover and set aside.
- If it isn’t already, transfer the stew to an ovenproof dish.
- Gently tip the artichokes onto the top of the stew.
- Bake in a 180centigrade oven for 30 mins.
- If cooking ahead, remove to cool. (Just ignore this line if you plan to eat the stew the same day you cook it).
- Turn up the oven heat to 200centigrade and cook uncovered for another 30mins (an hour if reheating), until the artichoke slices are browned and crispy. Add more dots of butter to the top if necessary.
- Remove from the oven and dish up at the table.
Beth Craggs lives, works, shops, and cooks in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children.