recipe

Credit: EARL CARTER

Leading the roasted lamb shoulder charge

I think sometimes about what makes a dish popular. At the restaurants, we can gauge pretty quickly what people will like. But occasionally, it’s entirely unexpected. At the pub, it’s a freekeh salad.

When I came up with the lobster roll at Golden Fields, I thought it would be a nice element on the menu. We ended up selling close to 60,000 of them. Maybe more now. It’s great that something develops a cult status. The flip side is someone has to cook and clean and eviscerate 30 crayfish a day. For this reason, I can no longer eat crayfish. But it could be worse. The great thing about signature dishes is chefs don’t choose them, guests do.

There’s no rule as to what makes something popular. It could be because it’s quite novel. Or because it’s luxurious, like the lobster roll. Or it could just be something quite honest and generous, something that has fond associations. At Cumulus, the most popular dish we serve is a shoulder of lamb cooked for eight hours. It has all the qualities of a roasted piece of meat but none of the dryness that baking sometimes produces. Being lamb, it is also a quintessential part of Australian eating.

It’s quite an event to share such a large joint of meat at the table, particularly in a restaurant. A lot of us can relate to and have a reasonably nostalgic connection to family dinners past. 

With lamb, the size of the joint is important. This dish evolved directly from a meal I had in Spain, in a town called Haro in La Rioja. Relying on my pidgin Spanish, I ordered the lamb dish, and out came a whole shoulder. The joint itself was the size of my hand, which was kind of barbaric. But I liked the way the dish ate – the roast goodness with the succulent meat, which comes from the fact the whole thing was cooked and served on the bone. It came out unadorned and with potatoes. The simplicity of that dish, after a lot of eating on that trip, was what made this workingman’s bistro stand out.

Butchers in Australia have long sold legs, but more and more now we are seeing shoulders. If a butcher doesn’t have it, you could ask them to cut one or get one in. It’s important not just that the shoulder is small but that it has a good even covering so that, as it cooks, the meat is protected.

Back at home, I’ve adapted this recipe with various accompaniments and flavours, but I always seem to default to mint. Not the faux-green jellied variety, but mint fresh from the garden – which I sometimes pound using a mortar and pestle with a little bit of sugar and salt, and serve with a dash of white wine vinegar mixed into the paste.

Slow-roasted lamb shoulder

If lamb shoulder is unavailable, replace it with lamb neck. Leg of lamb tends to get a bit dry when used for this recipe. 

– 1 lamb shoulder, on the bone, about 2kg

Lamb marinade

– 3 fat cloves garlic

– ½ tsp black peppercorns

– 1 tsp fennel seeds 

– 1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves 

– 1 fresh bay leaf, shredded 

– 1 tsp salt flakes 

– 1 tsp sea salt

Using a mortar and pestle, bash the marinade ingredients together until you have a coarse, wet paste. Rub the mixture over the lamb, then wrap it tightly in cling film. Refrigerate overnight to marinate.

Preheat the oven to 150˚C. Remove the cling film and place the lamb in a roasting tray with a cup of water. Cover the tray tightly with foil and roast for two hours. Turn the oven down to 110˚C and cook for a further six hours, checking occasionally and adding a little more water if the tin is dry. Remove the foil for the last hour and turn up the heat to 160˚C to crisp and caramelise the skin.

Fried eggplant salad

Serves 6

– 1½ tsp cumin seeds

– ½ fresh pomegranate

– 3 eggplants

– ¼ cup olive oil

– handful of mint leaves, about half a bunch, to serve 

Pomegranate dressing

– 1½ tsp pomegranate molasses

– 2 tsp lemon juice

– ½ tsp salt

– big pinch sugar

– 2½ tsp olive oil

Over a high heat, toast the cumin seeds in a dry pan until nutty and aromatic. Then, using a mortar and pestle, coarsely crush them.

Gently remove the pomegranate seeds from their bitter pith.

Slice the eggplants into rounds about two-centimetres thick. In a frypan, cook the sliced eggplant in batches with a tablespoon of olive oil, until golden on each side and cooked through. Remove from the pan and rest them briefly on paper towel to soak up any excess oil.

Whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing. When you are ready to serve, toss the dressing gently through the eggplant and scatter over the mint, pomegranate and ground cumin.

Wine pairings:

2014 Chapter grenache shiraz, Heathcote, Victoria ($30) – Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "Shoulder charge". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.