Recipe: Fresh meets mature - Mutton braised in sherry, garlic and rosemary, with char-grilled asparagus and salsa verde

Mutton in sherry with asparagus and salsa verde
Mutton, asparagus, salsa verde - yum!
Sometimes, it can be good to mix things up a little, especially when it comes to cooking. Pairing a just-in-season ingredient with one that is more mature. Matching fresh and vibrant flavours with those that are more rich and complex. During spring – when new-season crops become ready to harvest, and certain produce from the preceding year matures – it can be a great time to partake in this form of culinary experimentation. As I found out last weekend…

With JML in the USA on business, rather than rattle around Scrumptious Scran Towers by myself I decided I would head for Edinburgh Farmers’ Market to purchase something interesting for Sunday lunch. In terms of vegetable ingredients I already had a specific idea in mind. Early May means that we are smack in the middle of the British asparagus season, and for me this has to be one of our finest, home-grown, seasonal vegetables. I love the fresh grassy flavour to be had from the bright green spears, and it is an ingredient that really doesn’t need much in the way of adornment.

So, with the vegetable component of my Sunday repast taken care of, my attention turned as to what to pair with it. The idea of a nice cut of lamb sprang to mind, but unless you are someone who favours very early spring lamb, it's a bit too soon in the season for Scottish-reared examples of this meat. Plus, for me, early spring lamb can be a bit underwhelming in terms of flavour. This is why I often go for cuts from more mature incarnations of sheep, in the form of either hogget (over one year old) or mutton (over two years old). These have a much greater depth of flavour, and the meat benefits from longer, slower cooking which all combine to produce some mouth-wateringly good meals.

Schmoozing amongst the stalls at the farmers' market I was delighted to encounter the pitch occupied by Annanwater blackface and blackface-cross lamb and mutton. Blackfaces are an ancient Scottish breed of sheep, which are both slow-growing and ideally suited to the rough upland grazing found in many areas of Scotland, including the Borders region of Dumfries and Galloway, where the Annanwater farm is based. And nestling on their stall I spied an appetising-looking neck cut of Blackface mutton. Combined with the right ingredients, this richly-flavoured succulent meat would make an ideal pairing for my asparagus. But how to cook it?


Stairwell herb garden
My little plot in the stairwell.
Well, I took inspiration from Spain, deciding to slow braise the mutton with a combination of garlic, rosemary and sherry. The rich, near-gaminess of mutton sits really well with other bold ingredients, and slow cooking ensures not only that the meat is beautifully tender, but also that all the flavours combine splendidly. But I didn't just want the mutton and asparagus to sit disparately on the plate. I wanted to add something that linked their respective richness and freshness. So thank you to Delicious magazine, and the article in the May 2014 edition by Debbie Major on salt marsh lamb, for giving me the idea to pair garlic, citrus and herb-laden salsa verde with the rest of my dish. Even better, I was able to use herbs from my stairwell herb garden in preparing the sauce.

So if you are looking for a flavour-packed lunch or dinner that balances spring fresh and carefully matured ingredients do give my recipe for mutton braised in sherry, garlic and rosemary, with char-grilled asparagus and salsa verde a go. You taste buds won't be disappointed.

Serves 2 (ingredients can be multiplied up to feed more).

Ingredients

For the meat:
  • Neck of mutton joints (allow around 250g per person)
  • 1 or 2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped (to taste)
  • A couple of large sprigs of rosemary, leaves removed from stems and finely chopped
  • A large-sized glass of dry sherry - a good quality Fino would be ideal
  • 2tbsp of olive oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper to season.
For the asparagus:
  • 1 bunch of British asparagus
  • 1tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to season.
For the salsa verde:
  • 1 fat garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • A bunch of fresh mint leaves (about 20g) roughly chopped
  • Small bunch of flat leaf parsley (about 10g) roughly chopped
  • 2tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1tsp Dijon mustard
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • A good glug of olive oil - 50-100ml, depending on taste.

Preparation and cooking

Neck of mutton:
  1. Preheat your oven to 140 degrees Celsius.
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy-based frying pan, over a medium heat. Remove the mutton from any packaging and season with salt and pepper. Brown the meat on all sides in the frying pan, and remove to a plate.
  3. Place a heavy, lidded casserole pan over a medium heat and add the sherry. Whilst it is resting on the plate, cover the mutton with the garlic and rosemary. Transfer the meat and any remaining garlic and herbs to the casserole and bring to a simmer for a minute or two, to boil off the alcohol from the sherry.
  4. Tightly cover the casserole pan with a sheet of aluminium foil (to ensure a good seal) and then put the lid on top. Place in the oven for between 3 and 4 hours - depending on the size of your mutton joints - until "fall apart" tender.
Asparagus:
  1. About 20 minutes before the mutton is ready, heat a griddle pan on a high heat so that is comes up to a temperature to allow char-grilling.
  2. Trim any woody ends from the base of the asparagus spears. Pour the olive oil onto a backing tray and season with salt and pepper. Roll the asparagus in the seasoned oil, until well coated.
  3. When the griddle is blisteringly hot, put on spears and cook for a few minute each side, until the asparagus is tender with charred lines.
Salsa verde:
  1. Place the garlic, herbs and capers on a chopping board and chop these into a course paste.
  2. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the lemon juice, mustard and sufficient olive oil to make the mixture into a thick sauce.
Plate up the asparagus, mutton (add a couple of spoonfuls of the braising sauce to each serving), and add a good dollop of salsa verde.
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