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[Not] Cooking Off the Cuff In London: Lamb-Pumpkin Hot Pot From Kew Gardens

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Jackie and I are still traveling and, thus, I'm still not cooking at home, off the cuff or otherwise. By next week, we should be back in the groove.

In the meantime, here is a dish picked up in a somewhat unlikely place: London's Royal Botanic Gardens, better known as Kew Gardens. We were lucky to be there on a warm, sunny day (which turned gray and rain-threatening soon after we boarded our bus back to central London), and it could hardly have been more pleasant and verdant. Even the coffee and breakfast pastries in the café were good.

But however warm and sunny the morning, it was still October, and the Gardens had mounted a sweet kid-friendly exhibition of pumpkins and winter squashes, many grown on the premises but some brought in from a local farm. The dozens of varieties (washed clean and rubbed to a nice sheen) were laid out in colorful arrangements -- some of them recalling particularly gaudy flower beds -- and set up on a tiered stand over a reflecting pool. And this being, in large part, an educational institution, all were labeled: a useful thing for those of us who have trouble remembering the difference between a kabocha and a buttercup.

The display included recipes from several parts of the world, one of which caught my eye as full of flavor and easy to prepare. It is a one-pot dinner from South Africa of a kind called potjiekos, from "potjie" the Dutch for "little pot": a three-legged iron pot placed directly into the fire -- a Dutch oven, in fact. It is beautifully spiced (quite Indian, indeed) and involves nothing more than putting all the ingredients into the pot, covering it and slowly cooking either in the oven or on top of the range (a slow-cooker will work).

And here are those ingredients, essentially but not entirely as given at Kew: 1-1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into roughly half-inch cubes (use more if it has bones); two medium-large onions, sliced; two good-sized cloves of garlic, finely chopped; a generous inch of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped; one small, fairly hot chili, such as a jalapeno (or a less-hot one like a poblano if you prefer -- taste before adding and use the whole thing if it isn't too hot for you); the zest of half a lemon, in strips or shreds; two whole cloves, three cardamom pods, crushed (or a generous quarter teaspoon cardamom seeds, likewise crushed); one bay leaf; a good two pounds of seeded and (optionally) peeled pumpkin or winter squash, cut into good-sized chunks -- say, an inch and a half; and 2-1/2 cups stock, preferably lamb, but veal, beef or vegetable will work; in fact, there's so much flavor here that water will do. Be sure to salt and pepper all the ingredients generously, and dot with 2 tablespoons butter before closing the lid and cooking gently (over a low fire or in a 300- or 325-degree oven) until the lamb is very tender; start checking after 45 minutes, though it is likely to take longer if the heat is as low as it should be.

A couple of variations are worth considering: You can adjust the meat-to-pumpkin ratio one way or the other; and you can wait until the meat is about half done before adding the pumpkin to make sure it doesn't fall apart. It is tempting to brown the meat before assembling the dish, but that wouldn't be faithful to its original spirit -- which is not to say it isn't worth a try.

This should serve five or six people. For accompaniment, I'd just put some bread on the table, but steamed or boiled potatoes would be nice, too.

When we get back to New York later this week, the farmers' market will be full of winter squashes, and this could be one of the first things I use them for.

Lamb-Pumpkin Hot Pot From London's Kew Gardens
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