A slow-cooked lamb shoulder heady with spices and smoky, fruity chillies, plus homemade baked beans that knock spots of those you buy in a tin.
Many people think that all Mexican food is spicy. While this is true of some ceviches and salsas, many dried chillies are not hot at all, and are instead used to add layers of flavour with their rich, fruity tones. Their gentle, mellow heat is just the ticket on cold, January days. These different tastes - herbaceous, fruity, smoky, raisin-like, tobacco-like, even petrol-like - are subtle, deep and intoxicating, and once you start experimenting, it is hard to go back. Get dried chillies online or at larger supermarkets and buy in bulk: they last for months and are handy to have at your fingertips.
Slow-cooked, spice-crusted lamb with sweet chillies
Shoulder of lamb is a wonderfully forgiving cut. It just needs long, slow cooking, so you can pop it in a low oven and forget about it - the oven does all the work and the shoulder emerges soft enough to pull apart with two forks. My take is marinated in classic Mexican spices and slow-cooked with sweet, smoky chillies. The results are spectacular and the leftovers even better. Serves five or more.
1 shoulder of lamb
Flaky sea salt
1 whole head garlic
2 carrots, peeled and roughly diced
2 onions, peeled and roughly diced
3 ancho chillies
1 chipotle chilli
350ml full-bodied red wine
1-2 tsp redcurrant jelly
For the spice mix
5cm cinnamon stick
2 large branches rosemary, leaves stripped
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 star anise
3 bay leaves
Cut off the excess fat from the lamb. Grind all the spices for the spice mix in a grinder or pestle and mortar, and rub all over the lamb with a teaspoon of flaky sea salt. Leave to marinate for four hours or more.
Heat the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2. Break up the garlic head with a rolling pin or pestle, and bash the cloves to release them from their skins. Roughly chop and scatter in a large roasting tray, and add the carrots and onions. Wipe clean the chillies with a damp cloth, tear open and discard the stalk and seeds. Tear each chilli into four or five pieces and add to the tray. Pour in the wine, place the lamb on top and cover with foil. Roast for four hours, turning it over once or twice.
Test the lamb after three and a half hours: if it is still a little tough and chewy, leave it in for half an hour or so, until so tender it falls apart when the flesh is pulled away from the bone. Lift out the meat, and place, covered, in a warm place to rest. Meanwhile, whizz the contents of the roasting tray with a stick blender, and warm through gently on the hob (either in the tray to save on the washing-up, or transfer to a saucepan). Add a teaspoon of redcurrant jelly and season to taste; add more jelly if need be. Serve with sweet potato purée, celeriac mash or mashed spuds and spring greens, with the lovely gravy poured on top.
Homemade baked beans
Homemade baked beans are so much better than tinned, and go brilliantly with poached eggs, a plate of sautéed greens, a salad or just on their own with toast when the cupboard is bare. The recipe below with one chilli has a lovely, smoky kick, which my kids love, but go for two (or more) if you prefer more spice. If you can, make the beans in advance, because the flavour improves immeasurably after a day or two. Serves six.
350g dried haricot beans, soaked overnight (or three cans of tinned beans)
1 whole head of garlic, plus 3 cloves extra, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
100g streaky bacon, chopped
5 bay leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
1-2 dried chipotles, torn open and seeds removed
1 tin plum tomatoes, chopped
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp maple syrup
If you are using dried beans, put the soaked beans in a pan, add cold water to cover by at least 4cm, and add the head of garlic, cut in half horizontally, and two bay leaves. Bring to a simmer, and cook for one to two hours, until tender.
Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Put the oil in a large, heavy-based casserole over a medium heat. Saute the onion, garlic, celery and bacon until the onion has softened - about 10 minutes - then add the herbs and chilli, and sweat for two to three minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, including the cooked beans (if using tinned, add them now), and season to taste.
If you are using tinned beans, add 250ml water to the casserole; if you have made your own beans, add water only if they look dry (you may not need any). Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and transfer to the oven.
Bake for an hour, until the beans are juicy but not swimming in liquid. Store overnight in a cool part of the kitchen, reheat and eat the next day - if you can wait, that is.
And for the rest of the week...
Make a Mexican-inspired shepherd's pie with the lamb leftovers: chop the meat into small pieces, mix with any leftover gravy, top with pureed butternut squash, perhaps seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon and/or allspice, and bake . Serve with a green salad. Excess beans are delicious in steaming hot jacket potatoes; add grated cheddar for a luxurious finish, or sprinkle with feta and serve with a fresh salsa. Take leftover baked beans for a packed lunch, to eat either hot or at room temperature and sprinkled into a salad with tomatoes, celery, fresh herbs and a good vinaigrette.