an ugly but a goodie


roast lamb shank & barley soup

It’s a well known fact that we eat with our eyes. From market shopping for fruit & veg to cruising the supermarket aisles for mass-marketed packaged goods our first judgments are based on appearance. And while this is generally a good practice to help guide us away from less-than-fresh food choices, there are times when there are great flavour rewards for taking a chance and tasting something not so good looking.

One such time that sticks in my mind was during my winemaking days towards the end of my first vintage.  The Hunter Valley winery that had employed me was renowned for, among other great drops, their succulent Botrytis Semillon. This was one of the driving reasons for my decision to work there but I was a little taken aback on the day the botrytis grapes made their way into the cellar.

Of course I was expecting mould. What self respecting blue cheese lover would be put off by that? But when the winemaker started urging me to try the bee infested, shriveled, manky-looking fruit I really did think that he was pulling my leg. I was, by then, wise to the practical-joking nature of life in the cellar. There was no way that stuff could possibly taste good.

After badgering me for a while, my boss realized that the only was forward was to lead by example. When he managed to take a few bights from a particularly nasty looking bunch with no apparent ill effects, I had no choice. Gingerly I chose a small bunch and closing my eyes, took the plunge.

Flavour explosion! Greedily I went back for more. Dried apricots, honey, something floral, my Mum’s fruit cake complete with the brandy hit, sugar plums, bees dancing across my tongue. I was hooked.

Ever since, I’ve tried to keep an open mind and always taste something at least once, regardless of whether it is an ugly duckling or not. Sometimes I’m rewarded (hello celeriac) and other times not (tripe anyone?) but as someone who loves to take photographs of her food, I do still have a preference for a good looking dish, and I’m not just talking about my love life.

This weekend past when I was at my folk’s farm, I made a soup for lunch with my brother and my cousin Josh that was so well received, I just had to share it with you. It definitely won’t be winning any food photography prizes but that’s just fine with me. The memory of the warming meaty soup, thicken with that chewy, stick-to-the-ribs texture that only barley can bring,  accompanied by satisfied appreciative murmurs from around the table is reward enough for me….all good things

a warming winter lunch
roast lamb shank & barley soup
milky coffee by the fire

roast lamb shank & barley soup
Serves 6

Lamb and barley are great mates from way back and if you’re in the mood for a less soupy experience then you should check out my earlier (and not-so-creatively-titled) recipe for lamb shanks with barley.

Roasting the veg and shanks first makes for a lovely depth of flavour in the final soup. This is definitely one of those meal-in-a-bowl dishes that would improve with time, if you have the strength of character to leave it around for a day or two.

The almonds as a garnish were my half hearted attempt to pretty things up. Feel free to abandon them as I did when I actually served it to my guests. A more rustic warts and all approach seemed much more suitable.

4 lamb shanks
2T ground coriander
1T fennel seeds
2t smoky paprika
1t sea salt
2T olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and sliced cross wise into 4 rounds
2 sweet potatoes approx 600g, peeled and quartered
2 carrots, quartered
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4 sprigs thyme
1.5L chicken stock
1L boiling water
150g (3/4C) pearl barley
Handful sliced almonds, to serve, optional
Crusty bread, to serve

Preheat oven to 200C. Combine oil spices and salt in a small bowl and rub spiced oil over shanks. Place vegetables and thyme in a roasting pan and top with oiled shanks. Season with pepper and bake 1hr, turning once or until well browned.

Transfer roasting dish contents to a very large saucepan and add stock. Rinse roasting pan with boiling water making sure you get all the delicious bits and transfer the water to the saucepan. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer partially covered for an hour. Stir in barley and continue to simmer for an hour and a half or until shank meat is melting off the bone.  Skim and excess fat from the top if you like. (This is a good point to refrigerate the soup if you have the time as the fat is much easier to remove once it has solidified).

Remove shanks and using two forks shred the meat into bight sized pieces. Return meat to the soup and warm through. Divide between 6 warmed soup bowls and serve hot with a sprinkling of sliced almonds if using and crusty bread passed separately.

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