Slow Food Throwdown – Oven vs. Crockpot – 8-Hour Lamb Shoulder with Apricots and Green Olives

It’s killing me not to title this post I want a lover with a slow lamb…  But that wouldn’t reflect the drama, the intrigue, the sheer fingernail-gnawing suspense in this week’s contest of titans.  Tradition versus convenience.  8-Hour Lamb with Apricots and Green Olives.  In a covered roasting pan in the oven.  And in a slow-cooker.  Two lamb shoulders, two methods.  Hold on to your hat.

Inspiration?  Last April while visiting our son Oliver in Paris I declined an opportunity to eat at L’Atelier Joël Robuchon.  Oliver and I, along with our good friend and host Amy were wandering about in search of a place to dine.  In that most desperate of all Parisian circumstances, on foot at the end of the afternoon and without a reservation, we found ourselves suddenly standing before the door of the Chef Robuchon’s eponymous eatery.  We all looked at another.  Pourquoi pas?  Hélas! the hostess said with exaggerated regret, they could only admit two of us, if we were willing to eat in half an hour, at 6:30.  The remaining member of our party was welcome to dine at 8:30, when they had another opening–for one. 

Amy volunteered to fall on her culinary sword and dine on leftovers back at her apartment, but I refused her offer.  We’d find someplace else where all three of us could eat, together.  And we did, a family hole-in-the-wall which had proven itself honorable to Amy in the pastThe special of the day was 8-Hour Lamb with Prunes, a fabled dish I’d never had a chance to order before.  True to the stout patron’s description, it was so tender I could have consumed the entire dish with a spoon.  

Now it’s your turn.

 Jody and I started out with the idea of just doing a slow-cooker version of the dish, but then we reconsidered.  Was there a more ideal opportunity to compare and contrast a traditional braise in the oven with the effectiveness of the slow-cooker?  So we made the same recipe both ways–8 hours in the oven (covered in parchment and foil), 8 hours in the crock pot on low.  Both were good, but different in a couple of pronounced ways, due mostly to the drier environment of the oven.

If you look closely at the photo of the vegetables in the roasting pan (the oven method) you’ll see a nice caramelized crust on them.  By contrast, the vegetables in the slow-cooker stewed and emerged a bit softer.  The lamb in the slow-cooker was juicier than that from the oven, but lacked the oven lamb’s exterior crispy bits (we love crispy bits).  The solution was to take the vegetables and lamb from the slow cooker and run them under the broiler to crisp things up a bit. We’d eat either version again in a heartbeat. Slow-cooker clean-up was a breeze, although there was that extra sheet pan we for the brief broiling.

This probably goes without saying, but the slow-cooker version rivaled the oven lamb because we took the time to sear the lamb and sauté the vegetables, just we did with the oven version, before adding everything to the cooker.  I like using the slow-cooker, especially when I’m out for the day and uncertain about the exact time of my return.  I know that after the cooking time ends the cooker will simply hold the meal on warm.

One final caveat.  I sometimes make the next day’s meal in a slow-cooker the night before.  By now, everyone in our house is accustomed to waking at 4 in the morning and wondering, What is that incredible smell?   Just a word to the wise.  Ken

8-Hour Lamb Shoulder with Apricots and Green Olives

Ingredients:

  • 1 bone-in shoulder of lamb, about 5 pounds, trimmed
  • 1 head garlic, peeled
  • 1 sprig rosemary,  leaves removed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium red onions, cut into quarters
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 cups white wine
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 1 pound Idaho potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch slices and soaked in cold water until needed
  • 3/4 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1 cup pitted green Sicilian olives
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
  2. Peel 2-3 cloves of garlic and cut into thin slivers.
  3. Make small shallow incisions 1 1/2 inches apart all over the lamb and insert a leaf or two of rosemary and a sliver of garlic into each incision. Season the lamb all over with salt and pepper.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy bottomed roasting pan over medium-high heat. Sear the lamb all over, this will take about 10 minutes.  Transfer the lamb to a plate. Add the onions and whole garlic cloves, to the pan and sear as well. Pour off any at in the pan.  Set the lamb on the onions, add the bay leaves and 2 1/2 cups of the wine, cover and braise 5 hours.
  5. Pour the remaining wine over the apricots while the lamb cooks.
  6. After 5 hours, drain and dry the potatoes.  Toss the potatoes in a bowl with the parsnips, and season with salt and pepper.  Remove the pan from the oven and arrange the vegetables around and under the lamb. Recover and braise 1 hour.  Add the apricots and olives and braise a final 2 hours.  By this time the lamb should be done–not quite falling off the bone, but almost, and quite tender.
  7. Turn off the oven.  Remove the lamb from the pan or dutch oven and let it repose for 30 minutes.  While the lamb is resting allow the covered vegetables to remain in the warm oven.
  8. Remove the vegetables from the oven.  Pour off the juices into a glass container and allow  the fat to settle to the top.  Spoon off and discard the fat.  Reheat.  Slice or pull the lamb apart, depending on your preference.  Serve with the vegetables, a drizzle of the cooking juices and a sprinkle of chopped rosemary.  Offer lemon wedges on the side.  Enjoy.

Slow-Cooker Instructions

8-hour lamb is tailor-made for a slow-cooker, with only a few changes from the recipe above.  Follow the instructions through step 4, but instead of setting the lamb atop the seared onions and garlic in the Dutch oven or roasting pan first transfer the onions and garlic to the slow-cooker, followed by the lamb.  Set the cooking level on low and the time for 8 hours.  Add the potatoes, parsnips, apricots and olives as you would in the traditional recipe.

After 8 hours remove the lamb (check to make sure it’s done), strain the juices and spoon off the fat.  Break the lamb into large pieces, spread them on a baking sheet and run them under the broiler for a minute or two to crisp the exterior.  Do the same with the vegetables.  Serve as above.

Jody Notes:

I just heard on NPR that there’s concern about a lamb shortage in the US.   We’ve come a long way.  When I first started cooking in restaurants and I wanted to serve lamb as an entree to a big party, someone would always say, “but not everybody likes lamb.”  Well I guess now they do.

In my childhood lamb most often came in the form of a leg.  I have memories of walking into my grandmother’s house in Philadelphia, after a 7-hour car ride through the horrors of New Jersey smells, to the rich yummy aroma of roasting lamb.  It was always cooked through, but yummy none the less with the amazing potatoes and onions she caramelized in the rendered lamb fat.  My mother continued the tradition, but added to it by turning left over lamb into a curry.  I’ve always loved lamb.

Ken and I wanted to do an inexpensive set-it-and-forget it kind of recipe for lamb in a crockpot.  We settled on shoulder because we’d be able to cook it on the bone,  whereas a leg of lamb, on the bone, would be too large.  With its complicated muscle and fat structure shoulder is ideal for braising and it is less expensive that leg.  In the end, we decided to try it both the traditional way in the oven and in a crock pot.  As Ken pointed out, both methods serve up delicious results.  Because it cooks so slowly, the lamb becomes  extremely tender, remains moist and actually keeps a bit of pink color.  The garlic and rosemary melt into the meat, infusing it with flavor.  Although I preferred the vegetables from the oven, they weren’t a deal-breaker.  Ken must be wooing me over to the gadget side of the fence.

This is a rich dish, so it does go quite a long way and feeds 6 to 8 people.  A last-minute squeeze of lemon over the lamb makes a refreshing addition. 

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18 thoughts

    • I really liked the Parisian lamb, but the every little bit of sweetness adds to the sense of how rich things are (throw in some French mashed potatoes and you might as well reserve an ambulance). That’s why we used apricots AND green olives. You still get some of the fruit, but there’s also a bit of counterbalancing savory flavor. By the way, I checked out your blog and the pork tourtière looks and sounds AMAZING. As a descendent of French Canadians I feel culturally obligated to give it a try! Ken

      • Hi Ken:
        finally got to this recipe and it is delicious! I had to use a small leg instead of the shoulder (that’s what they had at Whole Foods, and it was locally raised). I also went for the prunes, along with the olives. Did it in the oven in my Le Creuset pot, which only took six hours for the meat to be practically melting. Not as pretty as yours, but very tasty.

      • Sounds like you did exactly what you were supposed to do – looked at the recipe and figured out how to make it work for you! Bet it was good with leg – and prunes! A good variation for the future. Ken

  1. I think it is amazing how you two get together and enjoy cooking and eating together. It delights me and brings me hope that maybe someday I will enjoy in the same company. Maybe not but I can live vicariously through you….

    • Grab a friend and start cooking! For the record, I have to occasionally remind Jody that our home kitchen is not an extension of her restaurants–at least not from the point of management. Reluctantly, she agrees. Ken

  2. I always enjoy your blog but I must admit I’m here for the photos because I don’t really cook. I wanted to tell you that even though I haven’t eaten red meat for say, 30 years, your photos of the lamb made my mouth water. Well done!

  3. Just so you know, I’m here for the photos too. Also the food. Also the writing. You brighten my Fridays. Now I’m kind of sad that I got rid of my ‘slow-cooker’ (glorified crock pot from Target. Used it when we renovated our kitchen, but with no oven to crisp things and one very slow burner to brown things (if you wanted to add about 45 minutes), no wonder everything came out soggy and not very exciting to eat. Sigh. In my rash moments I tend to edit my stuff, so I gave it away. This sounds like it will be worth making in the oven, though the crock pot is surely more energy efficient. I like the idea of the olives to counterbalance the sweetness of the tart apricots. Nice one.

  4. Hi
    Lovely blog great photos. This recipe was delicious but I could not find lamb shoulder roast at any vaguely reasonable price . I made it instead with lamb stew meat and some lamb shoulder steaks which I think was not quite a rich enough mix . I love fruits and olives together. I am local, and really like Rilato. Where would you suggest getting lamb shoulder at less than $15/lb.
    I am thinking of trying the Halal butcher near Inman Square, any thoughts?
    I am a big fan of parsnips and I love the way they held their flavor even through all the cooking. This was the first recipe I have tried from your blog I will be back for more.
    Thanks for all the work

    • Hi, Carol. Jody and I used bone-in lamb shoulder from Whole Foods Market in Brighton – it was $7.99/pound, which I thought was pretty reasonable, especially given the cost of beef or, God help us, lamb chops. There are several local halal butchers and I think it’s a no-brainer that they sell lamb (I was looking for goat at the time), but I don’t specifically know about bone-in lamb shoulder. I just found several by Googling “halal butcher Boston.” If all else fails, ask the butcher where you shop for bones, or for stew meat with bones attached–the bones contribute mightily to the depth of flavor. thanks for the comments and good luck. I’d be interested in learning how you make out. Ken

  5. As a longtime reader, first-time commenter, I want to say that I really appreciate the experiment, as I am probably the only cook I know who doesn’t own a slow cooker (and, shhh, doesn’t really want one). The oven is a friend of mine; however, last week’s heat wave in these parts certainly made me think otherwise for a bit. The dish looks delicious and, until I give in, I think I’ll be eating it from my oven.

    • People should cook with whatever makes them the most comfortable. Slow cookers are convenient – for people who value that. Other people prefer the oven. The dish is good either way. Thanks for stopping. Ken

  6. Hello,

    I was wondering if you think this might work well for Goat Shoulder Chops? We got some with a CSA subscription and I am desperately trying to figure out what on earth to do with them.

    • Hi, Emily–Wow! Goat shoulder chops–I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen them. Adult goat or kid? Cut thin or thick. Are they fatty or lean? I’m a little hesitant to answer because I don’t know what the fat content is like. I’ve seen some goat shoulder steaks that have actually been trimmed quite lean, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of marbling suggesting intramuscular fat. We regularly grill lamb shoulder chops during the summer. They’re ridiculously tasty for little effort, and I suspect your shoulder chops are the same. Here’s what I’d do–go down to the bottom of the page and look for the white search box. Enter “lamb” and look at the alternatives that pop up. Some are easier than others. With the grilling or pan-frying recipes, don’t assume you have to make the sauce–a squeeze of lemon or some garlic yogurt on the side are fast and easy accompaniments. If you want to get fancier, or don’t have access to a grill, then consider one of the slower cooking methods. I wouldn’t pressure cook them, just because goat is so unusual (at least for me) that I’d want to do everything I could to make sure it came out tender, which either means braising it in some liquid or using the slow cooker–for example, check out this recipe for Moroccan Short Ribs of Beef (http://thegarumfactory.net/2014/03/21/layla-and-mohammeds-moroccan-short-ribs-of-beef-with-prunes-and-ras-el-hanout/). You could easily substitute lamb (or maybe goat). Good luck. Let us know how things turned out. Ken

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