This was almost a culinary disaster.
Well, as close to a culinary disaster as I ever really get. I've never dropped anything on the floor rendering it totally ruined. I've never burnt anything. I've never accidentally smashed glass into a dessert (though my mother has). I've never curdled mayonnaise (largely because I've never tried to make it, but still), collapsed a souffle, made something involving gelatin that has failed to set or accidentally used salt instead of sugar.
I have, however: sliced off part of my finger on a mandolin; spent the night weeping in agony over chilli burns; hideously overcooked a beautiful joint of beef that I was planning to serve medium rare; attempted to make gnocchi and ended up with a sieve full of watery mashed potato; put contact lenses in too soon after handling chilli; added water to melted chocolate resulting in a grainy mess...
...and nearly made this stew into something totally, mouth-puckeringly inedible.
The recipe was one with unknown provenance: it was hastily jotted down from a magazine article during a waitressing shift about five years ago. The identity of the magazine in question has long escaped me, but I must have liked the sound of this recipe because I'd taken the time to stop serving customers their morning coffee and furtively dart down behind the counter to pilfer the recipe contents of the weekend supplements. This was when I was just starting to get into food, when I'd finally worked my way out of the 'only-eating-cottage-cheese-sandwiches-and-fish-fingers' phase and consequently was obsessed with trying out new flavour combinations.
This passion has stuck, and the idea of combining lamb and rhubarb still seems as wonderful to me now as it did back then.
How is this not a more common pairing? For something so ubiquitous at this time of year, rhubarb is sorely underused in most British kitchens. It's common in crumbles and prevalent in pies, but its savoury applications are somewhat ignored. Serving it with mackerel has become more of a normal idea, but is still one that might strike some people as a bit wacky. Serving it with fatty cuts of meat like pork belly seems to be a relatively new concept, yet it is one that works so well. If you think about it, it makes just as much sense as pork and apple sauce: using that astringent fruity foil to cut through the richness of the meat. Apples, rhubarb - both interchangeable in their ability to be sharp, colourful and intensely British.
Rather like myself, I like to think.
Anyway, apparently the notion of a lamb and rhubarb stew is of Persian origin, where they use rhubarb like a vegetable in savoury cooking. Hence the word 'khoresh', which is a Persian stew often flavoured liberally with saffron and using various meats and vegetables.
Don't get me started on how much sexier the word 'Persian' is than 'Iranian'.
So, I finally decided to have a go at the lamb and rhubarb khoresh recipe jotted down on a scrap of paper in my recipe journal, seeing as rhubarb is everywhere at the moment and there's a limit to how many crumbles I can eat without expanding wildly. My recipe was a bit vague in places - perhaps a customer had come along during those moments demanding my barista services - but I changed a few things anyway, seeing as I have a total inability to directly follow a recipe these days.
The near-disaster occurred as a result of such a humble little thing: a lemon. My recipe clearly stated to add the juice of a lemon. Sceptical about this, I added the juice of half before putting the lamb on to braise for a couple of hours. Upon tasting it, it was rather too rich and fatty for my liking, so I added the juice of the other half, then the rhubarb. Big mistake.
I don't know if it was because my lemon was on the large side, or because rhubarb is obviously quite sour anyway and I hadn't factored that in, but on my next taste the khoresh was unpleasantly sour. I was prepared to overlook it, as I quite like tangy flavours, but the look on my mum's face as she tested it made it clear that immediate action would have to be taken. She looked like I'd just made her eat a lemon. Pure and unadulterated. A lamby lemon.
Salt, pepper, brown sugar and honey all worked to no avail. It still tasted...of lemon juice. Not of lamb. Or of rhubarb. Or of onions, stock or saffron. Just of lemon juice. Far too sharp and too sour.
What on earth to do? Adding other ingredients hadn't worked. I know what to do if a dish is too salty - you add lemon juice (!) or a raw potato to soak up the salt. I know what to do if it's too sweet - add salt or citrus. But if it's too sour? I had no idea, convinced sugar would work but sorely disappointed and still being grimaced at by a mother with a face like one of the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings. (Because of the sourness, I mean, not because that's what my mum looks like normally).
But you know what I did, like an utter genius? I went on the internet. I found out that you should add bicarbonate of soda to dishes that are too acidic.
Suddenly, GCSE Chemistry came flooding back. Of course, acid plus alkali equals a neutralisation reaction.
And also a bloody exciting mini volcano.
My stew erupted as I stirred in a bit of bicarb, frothing madly and developing a curious fishy smell that had me terrified for a second but quickly disappeared. Once it had subsided, I discovered to my delight and amazement that the sourness was gone. In its place was a pleasant deep, lamby flavour with a slight fruity tang from lemon and rhubarb.
I added fresh mint to lift the dish and give it a lovely vibrant edge. I scattered over toasted flaked almonds to give an earthy note that would counteract the still-rather-tangy sauce. I served it on a bed of rice which I'd boiled with a few crushed cardamom pods. The sauce was flavoured with saffron, ground coriander and more cardamom (my own idea, because it goes so well with rhubarb), with simple sliced caramelised onions to give it depth.
After its lucky rescue, this turned out beautifully. It's a bit like a classic Moroccan lamb tagine, but the use of rhubarb makes it really unusual. It lends a welcome bite to the otherwise very rich sauce, and is the perfect sharp foil for the earthy lamb chunks, which just fall apart under your fork due to the slow cooking. The subtle use of spice, especially the cardamom, give the sauce an intriguing flavour, and the garnish of fresh mint and almonds is the perfect complement to the whole thing.
Don't be sceptical - it really works, and provided you don't overdo the lemon (I've only suggested half in the recipe below, and if you go for it too much you can always rely on the trusty bicarb), it will be a triumph of exotic and unusual flavours.
Lamb, rhubarb and cardamom khoresh (serves 4-5):
- 1kg diced lamb (neck or shoulder is best)
- Olive or rapeseed oil
- 3 onions, sliced
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- Salt and pepper
- 600ml lamb or chicken stock
- A large bunch of fresh mint, shredded
- A generous pinch of saffron
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- Juice of half a lemon
- 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
- Toasted flaked almonds, to serve
- Rice, to serve
Heat a little oil in a heavy-based casserole with a lid. Brown the lamb in batches over a high heat, then remove and turn the heat down a little. Fry the onions in the lamb fat until softened and golden. Add the coriander and a little seasoning. Return the lamb to the pan and add the stock, half the mint, the saffron, cardamom and lemon juice. Cover and cook on a very low heat for 2 hours.
After 2 hours, remove the lid and simmer for 20-30 minutes to reduce the sauce (you could use cornflour or arrowroot to thicken if you like a thicker sauce). After this time, add the rhubarb and cook for 10 minutes or so until it softens (if you like, add some right at the last minute so it keeps its shape - for presentation purposes only, it makes no difference to the flavour) Check the seasoning - it might need more salt or pepper.
Serve the khoresh over plain or cardamom-infused white rice, with the remaining mint sprinkled over the top along with the toasted almonds.