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

Time 7 hours
Yields Serves 6 to 8
Gigot de sept heures (Seven-hour leg of lamb)
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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.

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.

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.