A languid seven hours to perfection

Special to The Times

THE French are famously talkative, but any conversation at table pauses for the arrival of a gigot de sept heures, or seven-hour leg of lamb. Once tasted, never forgotten, the lamb is poached just below a simmer until it is falling off the bone, the meat tender enough to cut with a spoon (another name for it is gigot a la cuillere, or spoon). Mounds of colorful carrots, leeks and turnips border the giant platter, distracting the eye. Over all wafts the aroma of garlic from the dozen or more cloves cooked in with the meat and vegetables.

Here is the one-pot meal par excellence, a splendid roast on the bone surrounded by the appropriate trimmings of root and green vegetables, moistened with broth.

On a chilly winter afternoon, the aroma of slow-cooked lamb pervades the house, a warm welcome for guests and family. Children love seven-hour leg of lamb as much as Grandma does.

Where you find flocks of sheep in France, you find gigot de sept heures, and I came across several versions recently when researching a book on country cooking. Sheep are remarkable animals, far more hardy and versatile than cows.

The meat takes on the flavors of their pastures; in lamb from Languedoc and Provence for example, you'll find nuances of the wild Mediterranean herbs such as fennel, thyme and oregano that carpet mountains from the Pyrenees to the Alps. Farther north, meat from sheep that have nibbled the grassy salt marshes of Normandy and the Atlantic coast is prized for its piquant tang of the sea.

No matter where the lamb has been raised, garlic is its natural partner. In seven-hour leg of lamb, two or three heads are not excessive because the aggressive flavor of fresh garlic mellows to fragrance during the long cooking.

The classic version hailing from Languedoc includes onion, carrot and turnip (which has an affinity for lamb). To make it, first trim the meat, leaving a little fat for richness, then tie it firmly with kitchen string so it forms a compact bundle on the bone and will hold together as it cooks. Poach it simply in water with a bundle of herbs and a bit of salt for several hours.

Note that I say poach. Never, never let the meat boil or it will turn tough and stringy. Vegetables, added as the cooking progresses, may take longer than you expect, two hours or more, to be fork-tender.

Beyond these basics, the hand of the country cook takes hold. In Brittany, seven-hour leg of lamb comes with kidney beans, and around Avignon it comes with artichokes and favas. Somewhat to my surprise, my fellow cookbook author Patricia Wells adds fresh tomatoes to her gigot de sept heures -- but why not as she lives in Provence?

In the Auvergne, where winter arrives early and lingers long, I was served a seven-hour gigot that had been cooked with bacon, in red wine and Cognac. The vegetables, butter-tender after so long in the pot, had been pureed to make a concentrated sauce to sop up with dark crusty bread. Guaranteed to keep out the cold!

Simpler version

WHEN I tried this idea at home, I was delighted. I found that lamb and vegetables can all cook together, along with a chunk of bacon, in the pot from the start, making it even simpler than the classic version. Predictably, after such long cooking, the root vegetables are easy to puree with a stick blender in the pot or in the processor (avoid leeks, which tend to make strings). The bacon is diced and stirred back into the intense golden puree.

The folkloric name of seven-hour leg of lamb is no longer quite accurate. It dates back to the days of elderly animals and tough mutton. Today's lamb is usually less than a year old, and may require only about five to six hours of poaching time.

Good, mature lamb is colorful with some white, not dark, fat. When buying a leg, it may include three bones: the hip, thigh and shank. A smaller, more meaty cut will have been "frenched," with the hip bone removed. The leg, however, should always include the sinewy shank end to intensify flavor. A smallish leg will weigh 5 to 6 pounds, serving six to eight people, with a larger one running up to 9 pounds, for eight to 10.

As for the cooking pot, a big oval casserole is ideal. Measure the leg of lamb's length and, if necessary, get your butcher to saw through the shank bone so it can be bent to fit. Alternatively, a turkey roasting pan can be used if you place the leg diagonally and create a cover with a double layer of heavy aluminum foil tucked on top.

Although it's the perfect dish for a stay-at-home weekend, you don't have to have six consecutive hours. You can interrupt the cooking time after four hours, completing the remaining two hours just before serving (plus an extra half an hour for the pot to reheat).

Seven-hour leg of lamb is an all-day event, but certainly not seven hours of work. The actual time in the kitchen is relatively short, less than an hour.

After tying the meat and prepping the vegetables, you need to be around to check on the pot, turning the meat from time to time while you savor the aromas that gradually perfume the air.

At the end, you will have a glorious one-pot feast for six or more, a triumph of French country cooking.

food@latimes.com

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Gigot de sept heures (Seven-hour leg of lamb)

Total time: About 7 hours (mostly unattended)

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Don't hesitate to add generous amounts of vegetables as they lose a surprising amount of volume and contribute intense flavor to the cooking juices. To make this a one-pot meal, add unpeeled potatoes, cut in quarters, about 40 minutes before the lamb is done.

1 (5- to 6-pound) leg of lamb, on the bone

22 to 27 garlic cloves, divided

Salt and pepper

1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, 3 to 4 sprigs thyme and 5 to 6 parsley stems), tied with kitchen string

4 leeks (about 1 1/2 pounds total), white and light green parts

1 medium celery root (about 1 1/2 pounds)

4 large carrots (about 1 pound total), peeled and each cut into four lengths

4 turnips (about 1 pound total), peeled and quartered

4 onions (about 1 pound total), peeled and quartered

1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Trim the meat of excess fat and any skin (fat on mature lamb can be very strong). Peel and cut 12 of the garlic cloves into slices lengthwise. Poke holes in the meat with the point of a small knife and insert the garlic slices. Tie the meat as tightly as possible with kitchen string, first across the entire length, then around the lamb at intervals of about 2 inches. Season with salt and pepper. Put it in a large, flameproof casserole with the bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon of salt and enough water to cover it by three-fourths.

2. Bring the water slowly to a boil on top of the stove, skimming often, 15 to 20 minutes. Cover the casserole and transfer it to the oven. Poach for 3 to 4 hours, checking every hour or so, turning the meat and adding more water if it evaporates rapidly. If the water starts to simmer, lower the heat as slow cooking is important.

3. Cut the leeks into 2-inch lengths, wash them and tie them in bundles of two with string. Peel and quarter the celery root and cut each piece in quarters to make 16 chunks. Season all vegetables with salt and pepper.

4. After 3 to 4 hours, or when the lamb is fairly tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork, lift it out and transfer the meat to a baking pan. Add the leeks, celery root, carrots, turnips and onions to the pot with the remaining 10 to 15 peeled garlic cloves and set the meat on top. If necessary add water so the leg is half covered. Continue cooking until the meat and vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours more.

5. To finish the dish, lift out the lamb again, place it on the baking pan, cover it with foil and set it aside. If the vegetables are not very tender, simmer them, uncovered, on top of the stove. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a deep platter, discarding the bouquet garni and the strings for the leeks. Boil the cooking broth until well reduced and concentrated -- this may take 15 to 20 minutes. Skim the fat from the surface, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning.

6. If the lamb has cooled down, place it back in the casserole in the broth and reheat it on top of the stove. Discard the trussing strings from the meat and set it on the vegetables; moisten it with a little broth and serve the rest of the broth separately. You will not need to carve it as the meat will fall apart into chunks with the touch of a spoon.

Each of 8 servings: 458 calories; 51 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 154 mg. cholesterol; 570 mg. sodium.

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Gigot de sept heures d'hiver (Winter seven-hour leg of lamb)

Total time: Up to 7 hours, 15 minutes (mostly unattended)

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: This leg of lamb in a rich broth that is dark with wine and surrounded by a golden puree of the cooking vegetables is from the Auvergne. You might want to serve it with a contrasting side dish of Swiss chard or spinach. The local St. Pourcain red wine, light and slightly tannic, would be perfect in the pot and in the glass at table; Beaujolais from just to the east is a good alternative. Leftover broth and puree can be used for making soup or frozen for future use.

1 (5- to 6-pound) leg of lamb, on the bone

1/2 cup Cognac

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound bacon, very thickly sliced

1 small celery root (about 1 1/2 pounds)

4 large carrots (about 1 1/2 pounds total), peeled and each cut into four lengths

4 turnips (about 1 1/2 pounds total), peeled and quartered

4 onions (about 1 1/2 pounds total), peeled and quartered

10 to 15 garlic cloves, peeled

1 large bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, 3 to 4 sprigs thyme and 5 to 6 parsley stems), tied with kitchen string

1 bottle red wine

1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Trim the lamb of excess fat and any skin. Tie the meat as tightly as possible with kitchen string, first across the length of the meat and then around the meat at intervals of about 2 inches. Put it in a large, oval flameproof casserole and pour the Cognac over the lamb, reserving a tablespoon. Warm the lamb on the stove over moderate heat, and light it with a long match, standing back as the flames rise high. When they die after about 2 to 3 minutes, remove the lamb to a baking pan, season it with salt and pepper and set the casserole aside. Blanch the bacon by putting the strips in a saucepan of cold water. Bring the bacon to a boil, simmer 5 minutes and drain. Peel and quarter the celery root and cut each piece in quarters to make 16 chunks.

2. Set the bacon on the bottom of the casserole and spread the celery root, carrots, turnips, onions and garlic cloves on top. Add the lamb with the bouquet garni, wine, a pinch of salt and enough water to cover the meat by three-fourths. Bring the casserole slowly to a boil on top of the stove, skimming often, for 20 to 25 minutes. Cover and transfer it to the oven. Poach the lamb until the vegetables are very tender, with the meat almost falling from the bone, 5 to 6 hours. Check every hour or so, turning the lamb and adding more water if it evaporates rapidly. If the water starts to simmer, reduce the heat.

3. To finish the dish, transfer the lamb to a baking pan, cover it with foil and set it aside to keep warm. Discard the bouquet garni. Drain the bacon and vegetables in a colander, reserving the cooking liquid. Skim off the fat. Separate the bacon, dice it and set it aside. Return the vegetables to the casserole, add about half the reserved liquid and puree the mixture, coarsely or finely as you prefer, with a stick blender (or you can puree the vegetables with a bit of liquid in a food processor and return the puree to the casserole). Stir in the bacon dice, with more liquid if needed so the puree just falls easily from a spoon. Stir in the reserved Cognac, taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Warm the puree in the casserole on top of the stove. Discard strings from the meat, set it on a deep platter and spoon the puree around the edge. Reheat the remaining cooking liquid; serve with the lamb. You won't need to carve the meat as it will fall apart in chunks with the touch of a spoon.

Each of 8 servings with one-half cup puree: 466 calories; 51 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 160 mg. cholesterol; 343 mg. sodium.

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