Food and Drink: A feast justifies the joint effort: We have lost the habit of Sunday lunch, so now it can become a special treat

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SUNDAY LUNCH with a capital L and all the trimmings has been forced to change with the times. Traditionalists and butchers may mourn a national institution's loss of status, but in fact it is a great liberation: given an occasional airing, it can be appreciated in its original glory.

My definition of Sunday lunch proper is fairly basic: a feast founded on a fine joint of prime meat; it is not, I am afraid, an occasion for vegetarians. The meat gives me an opportunity to splash out in a way I never would at any other time; and the rest of the meal is infinitely variable, depending on my timetable and current culinary obsessions.

If, like me, you are an irregular Sunday lunch cook, you may feel daunted by the prospect of dealing with a large joint. Don't. You will probably turn out a better roast than the over-confident cook who pays no attention to detail.

For both the novice and experienced cook, the best ally is a helpful butcher who knows the business inside out. Choosing a good butcher is largely a matter of common sense. Look for clean, sweet-smelling premises and fresh-looking meat displayed with pride; beware of grime, slovenly presentation and the lingering scent of dried blood.

When you have found what looks like a good shop, check on the staff's enthusiasm and commitment by asking questions. Do they stock free-range meat? Will they prepare special cuts on request? Do they make any of their own meat-products such as sausages?

To avoid wearing out your shoe leather, try the newly published Food Lovers' Guide to Britain by Henrietta Green (BBC Books, pounds 9.99) which lists the best butchers and meat suppliers (including mail-order) in the country.

If that fails, try ringing the Q Guild on 0908 235 018 and asking for a regional list of its members (the Q stands for quality, and membership of the guild represents a guarantee of high standards and professionalism).

A good butcher can be relied on to choose high-quality meat. Place your order well in advance and explain how you want to cook it; how many people you are feeding; whether you want organic or free-range meat (ethics aside, free-range meat usually has more flavour than intensively reared); and seek advice on cuts and cooking temperatures.

There is no single, perfect way of cooking a joint. Roasting is relatively straightforward, as long as you remember that the meat should be kept moist by frequent basting.

More detailed information on roasting can be found in most basic cookery books; I particularly recommend Frances Bissell's Real Meat Cookbook (just published by Chatto & Windus, pounds 12.99) as an invaluable guide.

Except for lamb and beef, I tend to favour pot-roasting or a combination of braising and roasting (as in the venison recipe, right). Both methods are virtually foolproof, producing excellent results with minimal effort.

Roast leg of lamb with flageolets

Spring green flageolets beans are a classic French accompaniment to a roast leg of lamb. I can find them locally at an Italian deli or a wholefood shop, but when stocks run out, white haricots (or cannellini) beans are almost as good.

Serves 6 generously

Ingredients: 1 leg of lamb, weighing about 6lb (2.7kg)

2-3 cloves garlic, cut in long slivers

leaves of 2 sprigs rosemary

2-3tbs olive oil

1/2 pint (290ml) white wine

salt and pepper

For flageolets:

1lb (450g) dried flageolet beans

1 onion, quartered

5 cloves garlic, peeled but whole

1 large sprig rosemary

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs parsley

1 sprig thyme

salt and pepper

2tbs olive oil

Preparation: Soak the flageolets overnight, then drain and rinse. Place in a pan with the onion, garlic, herbs and enough water to cover by about 2in. Bring to the boil and simmer until beans are tender (1-1 1/2 hours).

Strain off most of the water that is left and reserve, leaving the beans in the pan. Fish out the bedraggled herbs and discard.

Liquidise about one-quarter of the beans with as many of the garlic cloves as you can find and enough of the cooking water to make a thin puree. Stir back into the pan of beans. Reheat when the lamb is cooked, adding the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and a little more of the water if needed.

For the lamb: make slits all over the meat with a small knife and push in slivers of garlic and rosemary leaves. Rub with olive oil, season well, place in an oiled roasting tin and pour the wine around the joint.

In calculating the roasting time, allow 12 minutes per lb for rare meat, 16 for medium and 18-20 for well cooked. Start the meat at 240C/450F/gas 8 and reduce heat to 200C/400F/gas 6 after 15 minutes. Baste frequently as it cooks, adding a little water if the juices threaten to dry up.

When ready, turn off the heat, leave the oven door slightly ajar and let the meat rest for 10 minutes before carving. Skim any fat from the juices and pour into a jug to serve as a thin gravy, or stir into the flageolets for extra flavour.

Memories of a Silesian Heaven

Many years ago I tried a dish called Silesian Heaven: pot-roast pork with dried fruit. It was simplicity itself and quite delicious. When I tried to find the recipe recently, all I could dig up in German cookbooks were much more complicated, though no doubt far more authentic, versions. I decided to let memory guide me and luckily it worked.

The tartness of the fruit (apples and apricots are particularly important here) sets off the richness of pork perfectly. If the fruit is of the old-fashioned, bone-dry, leathery variety, let it soak in the wine and water for 4 hours or so.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) dried fruit: mixed apricots, prunes, apples, pears

1 generous glass dry white wine

1 rolled, boned joint pork

weighing 3-4lb (1.3-1.8kg)

1 onion

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1oz (25g) flour

salt and pepper

Preparation: Mix the fruit with the wine and enough water to cover generously. Place the pork in a casserole and surround with the fruit, their liquid and their soaking water. Stick the cloves into the onion and add that and the cinnamon stick as well. Dust with the flour and season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly and cook in the oven, set to 170C/325F/gas 3 for 2 hours. Turn the pork a couple of times as it cooks.

Swedish braised venison

Shoulder of venison is astoundingly cheap. Demand is almost entirely for haunch or saddle, so suppliers are happy if they can sell other parts, even at a relatively low price. This is a good recipe for cooking shoulder, which can be dry if roasted naked in the oven. It is slightly adapted from one in Julia Drysdale's Classic Game Cookery, a book that, for once, lives up to its name. Since farmed venison can be rather bland, I prefer to use a good streaky bacon, rather than plain pork fat, for larding.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 6lb (2.4kg) shoulder venison

2oz (55g) pork fat, or streaky

bacon, cut into thin strips

1 1/2 oz (45g) butter

1 1/2 pints (290ml) beef or venison stock

1 1/2 pints (290ml) creme frache or double cream mixed with soured cream

1tbs arrowroot

1tbs redcurrant jelly

salt and pepper

Preparation: Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas 7. Make little slits all over the venison and push in strips of fat. Season with salt and pepper and place in a greased roasting tin. Dot with the butter and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 170C/325F/gas 3. Mix stock with cream and pour over the meat. Cover and cook for a further 2 hours, basting frequently, until meat is tender.

Transfer the venison to a serving dish and return to the oven, heat off and door slightly ajar, and leave to relax for 15 minutes while you finish the sauce.

Skim the fat off the cooking juices as best you can, and strain back into the roasting tin. Place on the hob over a gentle flame and stir in the redcurrant jelly.

Mix the arrowroot to a paste with a little of the juices, then stir back into the tin. Simmer for a minute or so, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with the meat.

(Photograph omitted)