Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips (Welcome to Braising Season)

Braising season is full upon us, that time of year when meats and roots and wines and seasonings convene in the stew pot, the dutch oven, the cocotte, even the crockpot, and slowly simmer to succulence, producing homey, savory dishes that warm the hearts of those chilled of cheek who come in from the frosty outdoors to the warm kitchen with grateful appetite and glasses all a’fog.  Or perhaps it’s incorrect to speak of braising season, since that occupies better than half the year in these parts; more like braising semester, plus.  Or a twist on the old joke about the two seasons of the Northland—road repair, and braising season.

I do love a braised meal, both for the simplicity and for the phenomenally satisfying results.  But given that our climate is more than generous in providing us opportunities to enjoy braised dishes, it’s wise to look for ways to keep our simmered suppers interesting.  Case in point, today’s plate of Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips. That’s a mouthful—and a delectable one, though I say so myself.  Let’s break it down.

The danger with braised dishes is that they can all start to taste the same—the pot roast factor, if you will.  Exactly what is comforting about this type of cooking is what can also make it dull.  The deep, meaty flavors imbue everything in the pot, and without some thoughtful flavor additions, the end result can be kind of one-dimensional.  So we look for flavors to counter-balance the meaty, salty, and fatty; we want acid, maybe even a little bitterness, and perhaps sweetness, and interesting spice.

This dish has them all:  acid from wine, cider vinegar, and honey; bitterness, just a smidge, from the turnips; sweetness from the honey, of course, and also the turnips, shallots, and garlic; interesting spice, from the hua jiao, aka Sichuan peppercorns, and my beloved thyme, which goes so well with lamb and with honey.

I think it’s about time for hua jiao to burst upon the American culinary scene.  It’s such an intriguing, appetizing spice, I think it’s a simple matter of unfamiliarity that keeps it on the back shelf—or, more literally, on some dusty shelf in a corner of the Asian market, where it may be labeled Sichuan pepper, but just as likely flower pepper (the literal translation from Mandarin), dried pepper, or even xanthophyllum (the plant genus from which it comes, a type of “prickly ash” related to citrus).  For a long time it was hard to find good hua jiao; I don’t know if mainstream sources like Penzey’s even carry it.  What I’ve been finding in my local Asian markets lately is pretty good.  But if you happen to travel to China, or know someone who’s going, of course getting it from the source is the best way to go.

Hua jiao is the spice responsible for the ma, numbing quality, in Sichuan ma la dishes, the la being chile heat.  But it also has a wonderful aroma, slightly sweet, a bit tart and citrussy, appetizing in the way that a well balanced curry powder piques the appetite.  It goes well with hot, sweet, and sour flavors, and in a long-simmered meat dish it creates a flavor layer that tempers the richness of the meat—in this case, it mellows the potentially gamy flavor of the lamb.

You could put the hua jiao in cheesecloth and remove it at the end of cooking, but I like to bite into the individual peppercorns, which will have lost most of their numbing quality in the long cooking, but which still provide intriguing bursts of flavor.

I only made this dish for the first time last night, and as soon as the various components began coming to mind, I started to write it down, thinking this might be something I might want to replicate, and pass along.  We were not disappointed.  Served over soft polenta, with the brothy sauce combining all the aforementioned flavors beautifully, still allowing the individual elements to come through, it was beyond satisfying. 

The lamb was from the Lamb Shoppe  via Seward Co-op, a lovely piece of shoulder that actually contained the end of the rib rack—just spectacular meat.  Anyone who thinks they don’t like lamb should give Lamb Shoppe meat a try.  Often when people say they don’t like lamb, it’s because the lamb they’ve had was closer to mutton.  Knowing your source in matters of meat can make all the difference.

Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips

Serves four

3 pound lamb shoulder, bone in
1 ½ cups stock, water, or a combination
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
¾ teaspoon whole hua jiao, Sichuan peppercorns
6 to 8 small shallots, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved the long way
A few sprigs thyme
Salt and freshly ground glack pepper
4 small turnips, quartered

Season the lamb with salt and pepper.  In a dutch oven or similar, heavy-bottomed pot, brown the lamb in a little bit of oil (I used Smude sunflower).  Working over medium-high heat, brown it well on all sides.

Combine the stock, wine, honey, and vinegar, stirring to mix well.  When the lamb is browned, remove it from the pan and deglaze the pan with the combined liquids, scraping up the brown bits with a wooden spatula.  Return the lamb to the pan along with the shallots, garlic, thyme, and hua jiao.  Add a couple good pinches of salt and a few coarse grinds of black pepper.

Bring to a simmer and place, partly covered, in a 350 oven.  Roast for 30 minutes, then turn the lamb over and cook another 30 minutes.  Remove the lid, add the turnips, and raise the heat to 425.  Continue to roast, turning and basting occasionally, for about another 45 minutes, until the turnips and lamb are both tender.

Remove the lamb from the pot and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.  While the lamb rests, reduce the cooking liquid on the stovetop to your desired consistency—I like it fairly brothy, but with a bit of viscosity.  Swirl in a knob of butter at the end, if you like, taste for salt.  Serve over polenta, noodles, or rice.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Jen said...

This post made me realize that it's time for me to get an ovensafe dish with a cover!

Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

ah.. yes, indeed. Brasing season has arrived here too in the Virginia Northern Piedmont. I agree about judicious seasoning of braises. I tend to get my inspirations from India, Mexico, Morocco or Reunion Island (that is if I don't do French-french)... but the principles are the same - spices for flavors, for balance, to combat dullness/boredom... and for health. After all, many spices have health-enhancing properties.

It's interesting about Sichuan pepper. I first read about it in Mark Diacono's Food Lover's Garden. I will have to track teh spice and try it. Although it ought to grow here, it would be a challenge to find a plant. But since several species of Zantholylum produce edible berries used as spices, I may yet have a chance..

PS - that last pix looks particularly appetetizing....

Nancy @ rivertreekitchen said...

I just got sichuan peppercorns at Penzey's today. I threw a half-dozen or so into warm stock while I made bacon risotto. I love how they nearly collapse but still provide heat. Thanks for the inspiration to shake up the standard braise.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

clinton nancy said...


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