Belly of pork has become very popular lately and for good reason; the combination of crispy skin and melting strands of fatty meat is a winner. But while its cousin, breast of lamb, has many of the same qualities - namely good flavour, plenty of lovely fat and being even cheaper than pork belly, it doesn't seem to have taken off in the same way.
Although there is a lot of flavour in it, breast of lamb is a shy cut of meat; it takes some coaxing to bring it out, and to keep it from being tough. Elizabeth David recommends braising it, then cutting in into fingers, which are then dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, grilled and served with tartare sauce. I decided to go for a cross between roasting and braising by first searing the meat then cooking it in a hot oven with a bit of liquid.
For the lamb (enough for four)
Breast of lamb
1 tsp each fennel seeds, black pepper, ground cinnamon, crushed chillies
Half a star anise
4 cloves of garlic plus another whole bulb
2 small leeks
A glass of red wine
For the fennel (enough for one)
1 bulb of fennel
A thick slice of butter, about 20g
Grind the pepper, fennel and star anise to a rough powder in a pestle and mortar, then mix in the cinnamon and flaked chillies. I rubbed this into the flesh side of the meat, then crushed the garlic with a teaspoon pf oil to make a paste and smeared this over the top. In retrospect it would have been much simpler to mix everything together and then apply it to the meat - crushed garlic doesn't stick very well to meat when with a layer of spices on it.
Roll up the meat and secure with string, or cocktail sticks would work. Although it's normally recommended to roll it lengthways, starting at the fleshier end so that the thickest layer of fat is on the outside, the fat on mine was fairly evenly distributed so I rolled it across the width to make a thinner sausage shape that would cook quicker.
Sear the meat on all sides in a hot roasting pan until it's a deep gold colour, then add the leeks and onion, cut into big pieces, and garlic bulb, halved. I wasn't sure if red wine would go with the fennel, star and anise and cinnamon but had a sweet, berryish Australian Shiraz to hand, so I added a glass of that then poured in water to come about an inch up the side of the pan. Cover with foil and put into the over, set to 200°C for about an hour.
About 30 minutes in check to make sure it isn't drying out too much. I found that the liquid had reduced by about two thirds so I added about another 250ml of water.
For the braised fennel, trim off the green stalks, reserving any green fonds to use as a herb once it's cooked, and cut the bulb into quarters. Melt a thick slice of butter in a dish with a lid that can go in the oven.
Toss the fennel in the butter until it's glossy and there's butter caught in between its layers. Add water to come just under halfway up the fennel - you can use a light chicken stock if you want something richer, but with the lamb I didn't think there was any need for that.
If I was eating this, as the centre of attention, with bread and salad then I might be more tempted to use stock. Put it in the oven with the lamb, feeling virtuous that you're saving energy this way, and cook for about half an hour until tender.
Once you can stick a knife into it with very little resistance it's cooked, so remove it from the oven and let it rest while you put the roasting pan on the hob. Fish out the pieces of leek and onion and if they still look edible, eat them (mine were delicious).
Taste the juices and if they are too strong then add a bit of water. Squish the garlic cloves to release the creamy flesh and blend it into the sauce. Sieve it - although this seems fussy, it's necessary to get rid of all the garlic and onions skins.
Despite the fairly assertive flavours involved - fennel, chilli, cinnamon - this melded into something mellower than I had expected, and the fat emulsified the water, wine and the juices that leaked out of the lamb into a silky sauce. You need something to soak this up, I went for potatoes but I think rice could be good as well.
The next day I cut the leftovers into thin rounds and cooked them under the grill until they were crisp - they were like little lamb pinwheels and I was tempted to eat them as they were as a snack, but in an effort to make them into a proper meal had them on top of couscous with toasted almonds and some chilli sauce.
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