Lamb and artichoke heart ragout

Last weekend in a fit of madness I decided to attempt a “simple autumn menu” from Richard Olney’s French Menu Cookbook. This being Olney the meal was not simple, though it looked it at first. I suppose if you’re familiar with French cooking then much of this would be second nature, but the logic of the recipe is not obvious the novice. It came out just right – possibly out of luck, and possibly from following the recipe to the letter.

The other dishes were relatively simple – a salad of grilled, peeled and cooled green, yellow and red peppers (“the taste of raw peppers contains no hint of the subtle flavor brought out through grilling”) and a method of pilaffing rice that effectively transforms it from a healthy and necessary grain into a potent and lip-smacking carrier for huge amounts of butter.

The lamb is shoulder, boned and trimmed, and then browned in the oil in which onions have cooked, in a pan “precisely the right size to hold the pieces of meat placed side by side but barely touching; if it is too large, its surfaces not contacted by the meat will burn while the meat browns; if it is so small that thepieces of meat have to be packed in, they will boil in their juices rather than brown.” So much attention to a very basic process. In any event, you brown the salted meat, caramelize sugar in it, pour off the fat, sprinkle with flour, brown the flour, return the onions to the pan, add herbs, garlic and bay leaf and cook some more. You then turn the heat up, pour in a cup of white wine, and deglaze scraping up all the bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Tomatoes are then added, and continuing rounds of heating, skimming, skinning (two different processes, as Olney carefully explains), removing bits, returning bits – the artichokes go in only at the end.

After cooking Indian and Thai dishes with their focus on many different ingredients and pungency of flavor, or Italian dishes where the key is combining ingredients in a certain way at a certain time, I have to say that the list of ingredients looked boring and the complexity of the recipe appeared ridiculous. How could it make much difference in the taste of the lamb what size the pan was, or exactly when I skimmed or skinned?

Predictably, the answer is: a huge difference. Partly because, this being Olney, I hadn’t been keeping in mind a crucial component of the meal: the wine. His meals never stand apart from wine. We drank two wines from Maison Champy in the Côte-Chalonnaise: a white 1997 Rully “Les St.-Jacques” (the wine in the ragout) and a red 1998 Volnay “Fremiets,” both obtained cheaply as bin-ends at Burgundy Wine Company. The lamb was comforting, rich and tender on its own, but when the wine came into the equation, especially the Volnay, both took on an added dimension of voluptuousness and layered flavor.

I’ll be making this one again, when I have a lot of time to spare.