When Sam and I moved to the UK, we took only a few duffel bags containing the bare minimum of our belongings. We brought some clothes, a few photos and knick-knacks to make our flat feel homey, some treasured kitchen items, and a handful of books. The books were the hardest thing to cull through. Among the four books that made the agonizing cut was a tome on the history of Southern food that Sam gave me for my birthday.
I’ve always been interested in learning about foods that are born of necessity and place and struggle. I find the impact that geography and social implications have on food fascinating. While we live in an age when ingredients from around the world are easily accessible (and that’s exciting in and of itself), I also think that it can diminish our appreciation of the history of a particular place along with the unique cuisine born there.
These kinds of foods I think about from the area where I grew up are things like corn bread; red beans and rice; stewed okra. Simple and comforting.
Living in England has opened my eyes to new dishes born out of geography and social setting. I’ve found that for the relatively small island that England is, there are countless regional foods. Lancashire Hotpot is an excellent example.
Lancashire (lan-cuh-SURE) is the historic county in which the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, and Blackpool reside (though Manchester and Liverpool now enjoy their own counties). Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1820), Lancashire was largely countryside and coastlines. Manchester and Liverpool boomed once the Industrial Revolution took off. Lancashire’s countryside fed the cities with the common items found in the meadows and farms: sheep, cows, potatoes, and any vegetables that were in season.
Lancashire hotpot–which is simply a braise with a bit of gravy–was a staple during the height of the cotton industry. A family could put a heavy pot of lamb and potatoes over a low fire and have meal waiting for them after hard manual labor. Food that needed little attention was paramount. Because it was easy to make and offered hearty sustenance for little money, the Lancashire hotpot developed a reputation as the “poor man’s pie.”
The hotpot was created to feed poor, hungry families. The place determined the ingredients, and the culture determined the technique.
I’ve taken a bit of liberty with this recipe. I added some fresh thyme and dried bay, used a bit of potato starch to thicken the sauce instead of flour, and cooked the dish in a cast iron skillet instead of a proper pot. The heart of the dish remains simple and nourishing, just like the land from which the ingredients came.
If you like this Lancashire Hotpot, then you might like:
- 1 1/4 pound braising lamb cut into about 1 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt divided
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper divided
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium yellow onion chopped in large pieces
- 2 medium carrots peeled and cut into 1- 1 1/2 inch chunks
- 1 celery stick chopped
- 3 cups beef stock
- 1 1/2 tablespoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 1/2 pounds potato sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds (Yukon Gold would work well)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter melted
Preheat oven to 300*F
Heat a 12" cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the lamb with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 black pepper. Add 2 teaspoons butter to the skillet. Once the butter is hot, add the lamb. Brown the lamb on all sides, about five minutes. Remove lamb from the skillet to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onions to the pan. Cook the onions until softened but not browned, about five minutes. Once the onions are softened, add the carrot, celery, and beef stock and bring up to a simmer. Place the potato starch in small bowl. Scoop 1 1/2 tablespoons of the simmering beef stock out of the pan and whisk it into the potato starch. Stir this mixture into the pan. Stir in 1 tablespoon thyme and both bay leaves. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper. Simmer until the sauce begins to thicken a little, about five minutes.
Put the potatoes on top of the hot pot, slightly overlapping them. Brush the top of the potatoes with the melted butter. Sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, and teaspoon of thyme leaves.
Cover the skillet with a tight fitting lid and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the lid and cook for another half hour. Remove the hotpot from the oven and let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.