Spring has finally arrived, bringing with it the froth of cherry blossom, fat bunches of asparagus, and spring sunshine to lift our spirits. However, these first spring days often end with a certain chill and the need for what I call “a proper dinner”. A glowing pot of lamb, left to putter away in the oven, the meat slowly nudged towards tenderness by a couple of hours in a mildly spiced tomato sauce is a perfect choice. This week, I stirred in a deep, fragrant warmth with a spoonful of rose harissa. I introduced tart little dried apricots and the fizz of lemon, partly to put a spring in its step and partly because I like the marriage of lamb and apricots. Everyone wiped their plates clean with leaves of pink-tipped chicory – perky, like rabbits’ ears – and slices of what is probably the last of the year’s blood oranges.
The week had already had something of a celebratory ring to it. I had found a couple of bunches of early asparagus and brought them home, cradled at the top of the shopping bag to protect the fragile tips. The occasion felt special enough to make a bowl of hollandaise sauce made all the more seasonal with a handful of wild garlic leaves. We piled the asparagus and sauce onto thick slices of toasted focaccia to make the somewhat spendy spears go further.
This is one of the slowest starts to spring for many a year, but just walking round the markets and shops right now, you can feel the mood is changing. As well as local wild garlic, the first French Gariguette strawberries are here, boxes of loquats for poaching with sugar and lemon, and fat bunches of purple sprouting, as beautiful as a bunch of violets. Slowly, but surely, the fun is starting.
When I first started cooking, hollandaise carried a certain terror. A fear that vanished once I cottoned on that all will be well as long as you add the butter slowly, drop by drop at first, and that the sauce mustn’t get too hot. Should it do its worst and curdle on you, the naughty sauce can usually be rescued by lowering the bowl into a sink of cold water and giving it a damn good whisking. Should that fail, place another egg yolk in a clean bowl, over the simmering water, and slowly beat in the curdled sauce. Wild garlic is available from farmers’ markets, greengrocers, and some supermarkets.
To make the hollandaise sauce, put a pan of water on to boil and find a heatproof glass or china bowl that will fit neatly into it without touching the water. Drop in the egg yolks and vinegar. Whisk in the melted butter, very slowly at first, then in an intermittent stream, whisking all the time until you have a thick, creamy sauce.
Finely chop the garlic leaves and stir into the sauce, along with the lemon. Remove the pan from the heat, but leave the bowl over the water. Whisk from time to time to prevent it from separating.
For the asparagus, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Trim the asparagus, removing any dry ends. Lower in the asparagus and leave to cook for 5-7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. I like to cook them until they are just tender enough to bend. Remove from the water with a draining spoon or kitchen tongs (tipping into a colander may damage the fragile tips), then let them drain.
Toast the slices of bread lightly, then place a spoonful of sauce on each. Divide the asparagus between them, then spoon over some of the sauce and serve any extra at the side.
A simple, quietly pleasing rice pilau would work well with the fruit and spice notes of the lamb. A few salad leaves – chicory or watercress perhaps – would be good to mop the juices from your plate. Like many such casseroles, this is something of a keeper and will come to no harm if kept in the fridge for a couple of days. Reheat the dish slowly, over a low to moderate heat. I have also made this recipe with pork and it is very good.
Put the ground spices – cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, paprika – into a mixing bowl, add the lamb and toss thoroughly and set aside for a couple of hours. If you had overnight, that would be even better.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Warm the oil in a deep, heavy-based casserole over a moderate to high heat, then add the lamb and fry until lightly browned, stirring and turning the meat from time to time. Take care not to let the spices burn.
While the meat is frying, peel and roughly chop the onions. Lift the meat out with a draining spoon and set aside, then add the onions to the pan (with a little more oil if necessary) and let them cook for a good 10-15 minutes, stirring regularly over a moderate heat. Peel and thinly slice the garlic, then add to the onions.
Halve and stone the apricots, if they have stones. Add the sultanas, honey, stock, tomatoes, and apricots and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, add the browned meat and cover with a lid. Transfer the casserole to the oven and cook for 2 hours till the meat is tender, but not soft.
Stir in the rose harissa and the juice of half the lemon; taste and adjust with more lemon, harissa, and salt if you wish. Enjoy!
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