After finding some elusive new season scrag end of lamb (the old-fashioned cuts have the most romantic names) on the butcher’s counter in Waitrose I knew I had to make Ivan’s neck of lamb with lemon and thyme. A recipe that was originally published in the first River Cottage book, this was later adapted by Hugh F-W to include barley and kale, which is the version I have gone with here. Partly because I absolutely adore pearl barley with lamb and partly as the Ewing had just discovered a clump of kale that has escaped the interest of the rabbits on the allotment.
Growing up my mum’s lamb stew with barley, carrots, swede and suet dumplings was the one dinner the whole family always agreed on. There is something of Proust’s madeleines when I think back to days of getting home from school and eating a big bowlful while sitting around the fire watching Neighbours. Before fighting with my sister over who would get the last dumpling (me, of course).
I love lamb neck and lemons, and thyme, and barley and kale, I did worry slightly that it wouldn’t quite live up to my Mum’s lamb stew. But, worry not; while it was a simpler affair (the original recipe has just five ingredients) it was still a big, sticky hug in a bowl. The lemons brought a pleasing astringency to the fatty lamb, cooked long and slow until the meat divested itself from the bone. Proper, old-fashioned cooking that gets the maximum flavour from the fewest ingredients.
Lamb neck with lemon, barley and kale
1kg scrag end or neck of lamb on the bone, cut into slices (I couldn’t find enough neck on the butcher’s counter, so I also added some lamb neck fillet, cut into big chunks)
1 tbsp of vegetable oil
Juice of 1½ lemons
4–8 sprigs of thyme
Water or lamb stock to cover
A big handful (200g-ish) of pearl barley or pearled spelt
A handful of, kale, shredded savoy cabbage or spring greens, roughly chopped, tough stems removed, per person
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based flameproof casserole, add the lamb and allow it to brown (you may have to do this in batches), turning until it is lightly browned all over. Tip out any excess oil, add the browned lamb, lemon juice, thyme and some salt and pepper, then enough water or stock to barely cover the ingredients.
Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and put in an oven preheated to 140°C. Cook for an hour and a half, then add the pearl barley or spelt, check the liquid, adding more if needed (the pearl barley / spelt will swell up as it cooks) and cook for a further hour or until it is nearly tender and the lamb is falling from the bone.
Remove the casserole from the oven. If you want to serve it straight away put the pan on the hob, skimming any extra fat from the top if there seems like a lot, and bring to a simmer. Add the greens and simmer for a couple of minutes, until they are just cooked through. You could also steam the greens separately, or any other veg of your choice, and serve alongside the stew.
If you want to make in advance, as I did, to allow the flavours to improve, then cool the stew once it is cooked and chill in the fridge overnight. The next day reheat thoroughly (removing any fat on top beforehand, if you wish) and cook the veg as above.