When I started writing this column, the January blues were crashing into spiralling COVID-19 case numbers and deeper lockdowns, but I took hope from the fact that there is surely light at the end of the tunnel.
I set out to write about how, in the absence of other options (and with the awareness of the privilege of having dependable shelter and enough food and income right now), it is best for us all to slow down and find relief in warming, home-cooked food and a good bottle of wine and a blanket nest on the sofa.
That was the plan. Then the world had other ideas. Reader, I confess that, on that fateful Wednesday night, I went back to this bottle of wine – which I'd opened hours earlier for this pairing – ripped the cork out with my teeth and drank it down in greedy gulps as the news from the Capitol filled my living room with disarray and horror.
Lately, I find myself wondering: What can we do to make this broken-down world better? How can we do our jobs, maintain our friendships and look after our families when everything going on outside of our windows seems to be darker than what preceded it? Writing a column about finding comfort in food and drink seemed overly simplistic when the world has gone so utterly crazy. But we do need to seek out moments of, if not relief, then at least reprieve, where we can – the ability to briefly escape from all that is going on around us.
And if the stresses of the world can’t be banished by food and drink alone, I humbly suggest that a bowl of aromatic, spiced, brothy noodles with braised lamb and a glass of Grenache will at least not make things worse. If you decide to make this dish, know that the oven will warm your cold kitchen, that it will smell like heaven and that you should ideally start the day before you want to eat (in order to chill it overnight).
Waiting time aside, this recipe is so simple you can make it while only paying half-attention. Grenache and lamb are regular bedfellows and best enjoyed in cold weather; this lighter-concentration Grenache, bright in the glass and nuanced with red fruit, picks up the subtlety of the broth. Alternatively, you can neck it if the need arises – it is good every which way.
I hope this moment is our nadir. The benefit of bottoming out means that at least everything from here must surely be upwards. For now, though comfort is in short supply, I’ll try to cook through it. I hope you find your escape, too. Here’s to better days.
Brothy Braised Lamb Shanks and Noodles
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
3 tablespoons gochujang
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus additional
3 teaspoons allspice berries
3 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 whole star anise
4 banana/échalion shallots, unpeeled and halved
75g fresh ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, smashed
2 lamb shanks
500g pappardelle (or other wide noodle, as preferred)
250g pak choi, stemmed, washed, and roughly chopped
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
Crispy chilli oil, to garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 150° Celsius (300° Fahrenheit). In a Dutch oven or other large, lidded pan, add 2.5 litres of water, and place over medium-high heat. Stir in the gochujang, Shaoxing rice wine, brown sugar and soy sauce. Season with the 3 teaspoons of salt, allspice, cumin and star anise, and add the shallots, ginger and garlic.
2. Nestle the lamb shanks in the pan. They should be just covered by the liquid; if not, add additional water to cover. Bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn off the heat and place the lid on the pot. Transfer to the oven and cook for 2–2.5 hours, or until the lamb is starting to fall off the bone.
3. Using tongs, transfer the lamb shanks to a plate or chopping board and leave to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, using a fine-meshed sieve, strain the broth into a large bowl and discard the solids.
4. Once the lamb is cool enough to handle, roughly shred the meat using forks, tongs or your hands; discard the bones and any gristly bits. Add to the reserved broth, cover and chill in the fridge for a minimum of several hours, or preferably overnight.
5. The next day, remove the brothy lamb from the fridge. Skim and discard the solidified layer of fat on top, then transfer the rest to a saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt generously. Add the pappardelle or other noodles and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Two or three minutes before the noodles are done, add the chopped pak choi to the same pot.