Three times this week I have woken to find thick frost on the box hedges that surround the herb beds and once the bare soil white over with snow. At seven o'clock, such a sight can only mean porridge, but by mid-morning my thoughts have turned to something more substantial: to meat and bones and simmering soups, sauces rich with wine and slow-cooked onions, steaming piles of canary-coloured polenta, mashed chickpeas, parsnips or haricot beans. In cold weather I have no wish for quick fixes, but for suppers that slowly announce their presence some hours beforehand, teasing your appetite as they gradually simmer their way to tenderness.
I have long wanted to make the dish of lamb that is baked for four hours or more, till its flesh is almost soft enough to part from its bones with a spoon. That I was prevented from doing so has only been because of a nagging worry that I prefer my lamb rose-pink and juicy. But I remained intrigued and this week, as the snow fell in gentle flakes from a pearl-white sky, I had a go. As it turned out I had several goes, because I wanted to do it in a sealed dish and in an open roasting tin, in the conventional oven upstairs and in the slow oven of the Aga in the basement. And then I couldn't make up my mind whether to do a version with garlic and rosemary or one with faint hints of the Middle East. I did the lot.
Rarely has a meal got such a resounding thumbs up as the leg of lamb I slow-roasted with cumin, thyme, garlic and the merest hint of paprika. Once it was joined by a sloppy mash of chickpeas and the few mahogany juices from the roasting tin, approval rocketed from the mildly grateful to the almost ecstatic. Yes, it may well have been the recipe, but I suspect the fact that the smell of quietly roasting lamb had been teasing everyone for the best part of the afternoon had something to do with it - come supper-time, everyone was gagging for it.
The key to slow-cooking of this sort is in the basting. Which is why I put a glass of water in with the lamb so that the spice rub and the fat from the lamb formed an aromatic liquor with which to moisten the meat's surface. In the case of the lamb, I basted every hour. With a fatty cut I might do so less often, leaving it to sort itself out.
Apart from its ability to get everyone to the table, slow-roasting gives the spices and herbs time to work their way into the meat. Spooning them over during cooking can only help. Trial and error found that the most moist result came from roasting in a deep cast-iron casserole without a lid. Although I did have to ask the butcher to shorten the leg bone so that it would fit snugly. If you use a shallow roasting tin, then it is a good idea to cover the meat with foil, and just remove it for basting.
I have known people to cook this version of roast lamb on an even lower setting for up to seven hours, but let's not limit this to lamb but think about pork, too. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's seminal meat book River Cottage Meat Book (£25, Hodder) has a pork recipe that is cooked at 110C/gas mark 1/4 - for anything up to 24 hours. Now that is what you call slow-roasting.
Now the downside to this slow-cooking lark is that of something very dear to my heart, the small matter of roast potatoes. Because of the juices in the pan you will get a cross between boiled and roast spuds: that is, meltingly tender with the juices of the roast, and faintly crunchy around the edges - a delicious hybrid.
Slow-roast lamb with chickpea mash
a leg lamb, about 2.3kg
for the spice rub:
2 garlic cloves
1 tbsp sea salt flakes
1 tbsp cumin seed
1 pinch sweet paprika
2 tbsp thyme leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
a thick slice of butter
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Make the spice rub: peel the garlic cloves, then lightly crush them with the salt using a pestle and mortar. Mix in the cumin, paprika and thyme. Gradually add the oil so that you end up with a thickish paste. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir it into the spice paste.
Put the lamb into a deep-sided casserole and rub it all over with the spice paste, then put in the oven and leave for 35 minutes. Pour in 250ml of water. Baste the lamb with the liquid, then continue roasting for a further three hours, basting the meat every hour. If the juices are evaporating rapidly, then add a little more water.
Remove the pan from the heat and pour off the thin top layer of oil from the cooking juices, leaving the cloudy, herbal sediment in place. Cover the pan with a lid and set aside for 10 minutes or so.
Carve the lamb, serving with the mashed chickpeas below, spooning the pan juices over both.
3 x 400g cans of chickpeas
a small onion
3-4 tbsp olive oil
Drain the chickpeas and put them into a pan of lightly salted water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer. You are doing this to warm the chickpeas rather than cook them any further. Peel and finely slice the onion, then let it soften with the olive oil over a moderate heat. Let the onion colour a little. Drain the chickpeas, then either mash them with a potato masher or, better I think, in a food processor. Mix in the olive oil from the onions to give a smooth and luxurious puree. Stir in the onion, season with a pinch of hot paprika, salt and black pepper, and serve with the roast lamb above.
Baked rhubarb and blueberries
Lovely clear flavours, perfect for when the sky is grey and you need something sharp and fresh. Serves 2-3.
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp water
Cut the rhubarb into short lengths. Put it into an oven-proof china or glass dish, tip in the blueberries, then add the sugar and the water. Bake at 160C/gas mark 3 for about an hour, until the fruit is soft and the sugar and water have turned to deep pink juice. Serve warm or thoroughly chilled, without cream or any other embellishment.