This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
April 29, 2021
I’m not exactly breaking news to point out the weather hasn’t been able to make its mind up recently. One minute we’re pondering the idea of shorter trousers, the next we’re knee-deep in a snowdrift.
It’s times like this when it’s impossible to be confident in your dinner plans. You don’t want to buy the ingredients for a salad and then find yourself soaked through with freezing rain, but you also don’t want to put a hearty casserole in the oven, only for the weather to hit 100 degrees and climbing.
I have the answer for you, thanks to the good people of Lancashire in northern England. These are the culinary geniuses who invented the hotpot.
Now, before you say anything, I know there’s another type of hotpot that was first enjoyed by the Mongolians hundreds of years ago, but this one involves potato and thus is wholly different.
A Lancashire hotpot is a casserole-style dish that contains layers of meat and root vegetables. What makes it special is the top layer of thinly sliced potatoes that turn crispy during the cooking process.
Nobody can agree where its name came from. Some say it’s a shortened version of “hodge podge” and refers to the idea of mixing lots of ingredients in layers. Some say it refers to the tall, earthenware dish it was cooked in, while others claim it’s just called that because it’s served in a pot, and the pot is hot.
Whatever the reason for its name, the Lancashire hotpot was first mentioned in a letter written by the conveniently named “A Lancashire Man” in the 1795 edition of “Annals of Agriculture.” It was described as being a poor man’s pie, which makes sense because it was at its most popular during the Industrial Revolution, when Lancashire became the heart of the textile industry.
Those who were employed by the industry worked hard and were paid relatively little, so they needed a filling dish made with easily sourced ingredients that could be left to cook while they were out earning a living. Root vegetables were simple to grow in the nearby soil and the mutton was the most easily purchased meat of the time.
When put together, these modest ingredients transform into something quite special. Rich flavors, strong aromas and wonderful textures that are fit for the table of a king, let alone the poor man of old. Even better, you don’t have to be terribly exact with the ingredients, as long as there’s enough to fill everyone’s belly. Take this ingredient list, therefore, with a pinch of salt (as well as the pinch of salt you’ve already added to it.)
To begin, preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat a small amount of butter or drippings in a large, shallow casserole dish. Brown about two pounds of stewing lamb or mutton in batches, seasoned well, removing them onto a plate once done. Do the same with three lamb kidneys (although these can be left out of the recipe if you’re not a fan.)
Add a little more butter or drippings and fry two chopped brown onions and four peeled and chopped carrots. You can also add chopped celery and/or half a rutabaga if you prefer. Sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the top, allow this to cook for a minute or two and then add two teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce.
Pour two cups of lamb or chicken broth over the top, then bring to the boil. Stir in the meat, add two sprigs of thyme and remove from the heat.
Peel and slice two pounds of potatoes and arrange them in a layer over the meat, overlapping like scales. If you would like some soft potatoes as well as the crispy ones, you can also use a taller, narrower casserole dish and alternate the meat and potatoes to create four layers.
Cover the pot, then place in the oven for around 90 minutes until the potatoes are cooked. Remove the lid, brush the potatoes with butter or dripping, then turn the oven up and place the pot back in without its cover for about an hour to brown the top. You can finish it more quickly under the broiler, but the meat may not be quite as tender.
Lancashire hotpot is often served with pickled cabbage, which you can make by shredding 18 oz of red cabbage, sprinkling with salt and leaving it for three hours in a colander over the sink; pat dry. Add two cups of cider vinegar, ¾ cup of red wine, 14 oz sugar, two teaspoons of black peppercorns and six bay leaves to a large saucepan.
Simmer until the liquid reduces by half, then leave to stand for ten minutes. Discard the peppercorns and bay leaves. Place the cabbage in a large bowl along with two tablespoons of yellow mustard seed, pour the liquid over the top, transfer to jars and seal – it will last for a month in the fridge.
Should you be feeling adventurous, other parts of England have added their own spins to the hotpot over the years. You could, for example, choose to make a Bolton hotpot, which is exactly the same as the one you’ll get in Lancashire but for an extra, surprising layer.
It’s surprising because Bolton is 40 miles from the coast, so nobody knows why it once housed one of England’s biggest fish markets. No doubt to make use of all that quickly rotting seafood, which had to make its ponderous journey from the sea via cart, the Bolton Hotpot contains a layer of oysters.
Alternatively, try the Chiddingly Hotpot, which replaces the lamb with cubed beef and adds celery and olives to the mix. Tatie Pot is another version that tries for shock value, with a surprise layer of black pudding halfway down.
The Essex Hotpot appears to have been born from the idea that each of the above variations have some merit and therefore should all be eaten at the same time. It contains a mixture of meats – anything you have in the freezer appears to be just fine – and also kidney and oysters. The only real similarity with the Lancashire original is the crispy potatoes on top.
There you have it: the perfect spring meal, warming enough for snow, but not too dense when the sun comes out. It’s just the kind of versatility we need in Wyoming to beat Mother Nature at her own game.