Braised lamb and flageolet beans

The introductory ramble below and the recipe that follows are mine, but were initially published in the latest edition of Borough Market’s Market Life magazine. There are some lovely reads in that mag, not least Sybil Kapoor on squash and Gill Meller on connecting with the landscape, plus killer recipes from Zoe Adjonyoh and Rosie Birkett. Pick up a copy next time you’re down (it’s free and good) or browse their website right now.

Coincidentally, I can now say that one of projects that has been keeping this blog quiet over the last few months has been a seasonal cookbook that I’m (still) writing for Borough Market, which will be out next October. Plenty more on that in 2018, I’m sure. For now, flageolet beans…

Limited storage and flageolet beans

When I moved into my then-girlfriend, now-wife’s flat, I brought with me just two bags of clothes. Oh, plus multiple boxes of cookbooks and kitchen utensils, tonnes of crockery (“just in case I start a restaurant”) and a similar weight of dry larder items. Most of my chattels (edible or otherwise) duplicated things she had already. And there was barely any room for the additional bits until more shelves were put up, or gaps found underneath beds. Let’s just say the beginning of our new chapter was a little fraught.

Kitchen cupboard space was (and is) especially limited. Certainly, there was no obvious place for my eight different types of dried beans, seven of rice, three of lentils, fine polenta, rough polenta, spelt, wheat grains—you get the idea. The solution was to buy a batch load of Kilner jars, fill them with said ingredients, place on top of the cupboards and, well, neglect them.

Dried beans are no good for spontaneous cooking, are they? The need to soak them for multiple hours before simmering for a couple more removes them from midweek “what’s in the fridge?” territory. As a result, these staples are constantly glaring at me as I reach, once again, for something much quicker to cook, like pasta or noodles. But their visibility does from time to time prompt a necessary flip of the menu-planning process: yes, they’re no good for a last-minute forage, but they can inspire whole meals to be built around them.

Butter beans push me to poached chicken broths laced with kale or charred courgettes; cannellini beans are cooked as a sloppy side with garlic and sage, sometimes puréed, always excellent with pork; and the pale green, thin-skinned flageolet beans from Le Marché du Quartier (the confit duck specialists at the Stoney Street entrance to the market) prompt me to braise lamb, every time.

Flageolet beans are immature haricot beans, harvested before they’re ripe and dried in the shade to maintain their green tint. Is it their viridescence that draws me to match them with lamb every time? Does that sheen make me think of grass, mint sauce and other green things suggestive of sheep? Suffice to say that the delicate taste and texture of this particular pulse both suits and soaks up rich, fatty juices.

Theoretically, they can be used more off the cuff than other dried beans—their youthful shell apparently requiring only a couple of hours’ soaking in just boiled water, but I’ve found an overnight soak leads to a swifter simmer.

The same evening I left the beans to soak, I rolled a couple of lamb breasts and braised them with onions. Next morning, I simmered the soaked pulses for two hours before heading to work. Which meant that, perhaps ironically, the final effort of portioning the meat, tumbling in a few tomatoes, and browning it all in the oven took only a brief effort and 45 more unattended minutes in the oven. Quick and simple, if not wholly spontaneous.

Flageolet beans and braised breast of lamb

Serves 4

  • 300g dried flageolet beans
  • 2 lamb breasts
  • 5 sprigs of rosemary, 1 finely chopped
  • 4 large red onions, peeled and cut into 6 segments each
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 125ml white wine
  • 500g cherry tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 10 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp capers, chopped
  • 1 tsp caster sugar

Soak the beans for 8-12 hours. Drain and place in a large saucepan, with three times their volume of water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 2 hours. Drain, reserving the cooking water, and set aside until needed.

Heat your oven to 170C. Trim the lamb breasts into rectangles. Season the fleshy side with salt, pepper and the finely chopped rosemary. Roll and tie with butcher’s knots (YouTube is useful or just ignore the seasoning and ask the butcher to roll and tie them for you). Place a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add a splash of oil and, when hot, brown each of the breasts all over—it should take just 2 mins.

Lay the onion segments in a medium-sized roasting tin. Place the rolled lamb pieces on top. Add the wine, bay leaves and rosemary sprigs. Measure a piece of baking parchment a little bigger than the tin. Scrunch it up, wet it under the tap, then open it out over the lamb and onions, tucking the paper into the edges of the tin. Cook in the oven for 2½ hours. Remove and leave to cool. Refrigerate overnight if necessary.

One hour before you wish to eat, heat your oven to 200C. Remove the lamb from the tray, cut the string away and slice each piece into four portions. Remove 2 tbsp lamb fat from the baking tray, together with the rosemary and bay leaves. Add the beans, the sherry vinegar, about 100ml bean cooking water, the cherry tomatoes and garlic. Shuffle the contents of the tray, then place the lamb pieces among the beans—half in, half out. Braise for 45 mins until the lamb is brown and succulent and tomatoes burnished and sinking.

Mix the red wine vinegar, sugar, capers and chopped mint. Spoon the beans, tomatoes and onions into shallow bowls, add the lamb portions and plenty of cooking juices. Lace the meat with the mint sauce. Eat with a green salad and perhaps some crusty bread.