I wish I had known the French cookbook author who called herself La Mazille, author of La bonne cuisine du Pérígord (1929), a celebration of her native region, land of truffles, cèpes, foie gras, and confit. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her recipes for poultry and meats cooked to delectable fork-tenderness are marvelous.
La Mazille, whose real name was Danielle Mallet-Maze, set out to preserve the simple country cooking of the Périgord, including its ingenious culinary secrets (or trucs, as the French like to call them). She was particularly devoted to the traditional art of slow cooking. For her, this method transformed ingredients into succulent, easy-to-digest dishes with rich, satisfying textures and robust, complex flavors. Like many of her fellow cooks in southwest France, she believed in the saying “One does not live by how one eats, but by how one digests.”
The following recipe is adapted from La Mazille’s Périgord-style leg of lamb with a crown of garlic. Her recipe calls for a sweet, soft, white Monbazillac wine; I use orange muscat. Either way, you end up with a thick, delicious sauce filled with garlic cloves, which somehow gives off a haunting aroma of hazelnuts. Slow-cooking a bone-in leg of lamb in a covered pot weakens the connective tissues, allowing the meat to break apart easily into rosy chunks with an incredible flavor. This is truly lamb you can eat with a spoon.
First, the choice of lamb: it should be an aged leg without the shank. To age, let it sit on a paper towel-lined rack in a dish in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking.
Second, and most important, the meat is dropped into boiling water, then simmered for exactly 15 minutes. This firms up the outside flesh, removes unpleasant odors, and destroys all surface bacteria, thus rendering the meat perfectly safe for very low-temperature cooking.
After simmering, the lamb is drained and dried, browned on all sides in a deep pot large enough to hold the entire leg, then surrounded with dozens of peeled garlic cloves, which when cooked have the appearance of golden almonds.
Please don't be tempted to raise the heat. This will only encourage liquid to escape from the meat, making it less succulent.
How to accompany such a delectable dish? La Mazille suggests pureed favas or white beans, or, as spring approaches, a salad of young dandelion leaves.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert. Copyright © 2003 by Paula Wolfert. Photographs copyright © by Christopher Hirsheimer. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.