I’ve been so busy with ‘the improvised life’ that I can’t seem to see my way to giving a dinner party. A solution was proposed recently by my friend Burt Wolf, who has his hands full with a television show, hosting boat tours in Europe and a small child. “Let’s do dinner, pot luck”, said Burt.
Pot luck is an age old tradition: each person brings a dish to forge a meal. If everyone pitches in, the burden falls on no one. The better the cooks, the better the fare will be. But just about everyone has one great dish in their repertoire.
The secret of pot lucks is that they work best if you plan them a bit, so you’re assured of getting a complete and satisfying meal. The ever-brilliant Burt emailed my boyfriend David and me the number of a free conference call service; just punch in the code and we’d find each other.
“Gee,” said Burt when we’d all gathered on the call, “This is what conference calls should be about. What to eat is much more interesting than business.”
So we began, listening to our hunger, free associating what we’d like to eat and would enjoy making, until we had the ultimate stress-free menu:
-Sally: Seven-hour “Spoon” Lamb (“It’s still chilly out; I can make it while I’m working; I can’t mess it up hauling it uptown to Burt’s in a taxi. It’ll be the first big dish of winter.”
-Burt: Gratin Dauphinoise (“A friend in South West France always served some great, gooey potato dish with the lamb he cooked in his fire place. A Dauphinoise is kind of like scalloped potatoes”)
-David Celery Root Puree ( “…my best vegetable dish”)
-Natalia, Burt’s wife: Baked apples with whipped cream: (“A new recipe to try, where the apples are peeled, sliced horizontally and stacked”)
-Burt and Natalia: Steamed French beans: (we ended up forgetting them)
-All of us: wine
We all knew the menu we’d plotted wasn’t cut in stone. We were just roughing out the elements, figuring who-does-what of the general categories (side dishes, dessert, etc). Each one of us could have switched gears on a whim and brought a different dish, to surprise the others.
Our simple conference call pot luck lasted for hours and proved as good as any meal we could get in a restaurant. It is a perfect approach to a stress- free dinner party. And everybody got to take home some lamb and potatoes for the next day. (I warmed some shredded lamb in its juices and served it with crushed new potatoes, for an impromtu lunch while Ellen Silverman and I was making some photographs (above).
Seven Hour “Spoon” Lamb
This is my revisionist version of Paula Wolfert’s famous spoon lamb recipe. The original was too labor intensive for my lazy bones and called for pricey dessert wine, whose flavor I successfully duplicate, for cooking purposes, with white wine, wildflower honey and orange zest. The dish takes one half hour max to put together, then cooks unattended for, truly, seven hours, until it is tender enough to eat with a spoon. It’s the perfect no fuss, make-ahead dinner party dish that elicits both sighs and raves. It would make a great alt-Thanksgiving dinner.
This dish yields over 3 cups of rich juices, a kind of concentrated lamb consomme that is a treasure; heat some in a small saucepan and float raviolis or tortellinis in it, for a divine supper. Use it to reheat shredded leftover lamb in the days to follow to forge quick meals: spoon it over crushed new potatoes, use it as a taco filling or toss with cooked pasta, along with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino.
Serves 6 to 8 with leftovers
One 5 to 6 pound leg of lamb tied (have the butcher trim off the shank bone trimmed)
OR a boneless lamb shoulder, about 5 pounds, tied into a compact bundle
5 heads garlic
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup Cognac or Armagnac
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons wildflower honey
1 or 2 strips orange zest
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
A few hours before cooking the lamb, rub it with the kosher salt. Place on a platter uncovered in the fridge to marinate. Meanwhile, break apart and separate the cloves, pulling off any extraneous papery skin; don’t peel unless you want to.
Heat the oil in a large heavy flameproof casserole (enamel on cast-iron is perfect), over moderate heat. Pat the lamb dry and brown to golden, about 5 minutes per side, 20 minutes total. Pour off fat and add the Cognac. Tilt the pan to ignite, taking care to stand back. When the flames have died out, add the white wine, honey, orange zest, thyme and the garlic cloves. Cover with a sheet of foil and press the lid down to seal. Roast in a preheated 200′ oven, until the lamb is fork tender, about 7 hours, turning the lamb once halfway through.
Transfer the lamb to a platter and cover with the foil. Pour the juices into a cup and skim off the fat. To give the juices a more concentrated flavor, pour into a heavy saucepan and simmer until reduced by about one quarter, or the flavor is right. Pull the meat apart or slice it against the grain and arrange on a platter. Pour some of the juices over and pass the rest.