Problem one presented itself immediately upon my arrival at the apartment: even though I had left the necks in the fridge to defrost for over twenty four hours they were still frozen solid. I pried apart the neck slices with a knife and then let the individual pieces sit in lukewarm water to help facilitate a speedy defrosting. While the necks were defrosting, I prepared a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika. Though the paprika was pretty and added a nice reddish hue to the dredging mix, I don't think it added much to the overall flavor so if cooking on a budget, cut the paprika out. I dredged each neck slice in the flour mixture, coating both sides, and then set them on a tray while I heated up a pot with a mixture of olive oil and canola oil.
I browned each neck slice in batches of three or four flipping each one once so that both sides had a golden crust with little specks of pink flesh peeking out. I may have rushed this step because in the recipe, it said it would take about ten minutes to properly brown a batch but it took me less than five. Perhaps if I had let them brown longer the braise would have developed a richer flavor but it looked like the necks were cooking through and I didn't want them to get too cooked before I braised them.
Once all the neck slices were browned, I set them aside and began cooking the garlic, tomatoes and onions in the same pot. After the tomatoes and onion began to soften, I added some chicken broth, bay leaves, and a bit of lemon zest that I had carefully scraped off and collected. The only pot large enough to braise the lamb necks in had plastic handles so I obviously couldn't put it in the oven. In lieu of the pot, I poured the simmering mixture simmer of broth and vegetables into a 9 x 13 baking pan and nestled the necks on top of the vegetables. It doesn't matter if the necks are completely submerged in the broth because you cover the dish before putting it in the oven. Since I was using a baking pan, I wrapped the top with tin foil and slipped it into the oven where it would cook undisturbed except for two brief interruptions when I turned the lamb necks to make sure all parts got a good soak in the juices. I first took out the pan to give the necks a turn after 45 minutes and, true to Amateur Gourmet's words, it smelled like a "very lamby version of heaven." I did add about a third of a cup of water after the second turning just to make sure the pan didn't dry out but other than that, I had about two hours to relax while the magical combination of time and heat coaxed the flavors out of all my ingredients and melded them in fantastical ways.
I busied myself while the meat was braising by pitting and slicing the olives, mincing parsley and cutting membrane and peel free segments of lemon to finish the sauce and add the "provençal" touch. I turned the heat off in the oven a few minutes before I was ready to take it out and started to cook the side dish for the night: cous-cous. Cous-cous is probably the best grain product for college students because it is easy, versatile, and cooks so fast! In fact, when I was living in the dorms at my residential high school I would cook cous-cous using nothing more than hot water from the tap! Since I was serving it as a side dish I wanted it to have a mild, unobtrusive flavor so that it could be a carrier for the rich lamb juices. I added a bit of chicken bouillon to the boiling water and then dumped in two cups of cous-cous. Three minutes later the cous-cous was finished so I took out the pan of lamb necks and poured the braising juices into a separate pot to finish the sauce by adding the olives, parsley and lemon.
Everything was ready and plated—each dish garnished with a few filaments of bright yellow lemon zest—which was fortunate because the smells emanating from the lamb were enough to make me want to forget civility and start digging in with my hands. My first bite of cous-cous doused with sauce was ecstasy; it was one of those moments when you just close your eyes in sheer gustatory delight, slump back in your chair and finally know that all your hours of work were completely worth it. The thick braising juices had some of the richness of lamb but also the sweetness of the stewed tomatoes. Every now and then a burst of lemon segment or olive slice punctuated the sauce while the occasional parsley morsel added fresh and earthy undertones. The lamb necks had a ring of tender flesh around the bone and just a small piece was enough to deliver a full dose of flavor. I ate three or four neck slices as well as a heaping pile of cous-cous and my two other dinner guests ate similar portions. Even so, we had a mound of cous-cous and a few neck slices left at the end of the night (which I ate as left-overs a few days later). Had I thought ahead, I would have saved the neck bones to use in a lamb stock, which is an essential component in the delicious and simple lamb and barley soup.
Looking back, the only changes I would make would be to add fewer lemon segments and more parsley. I felt that the lemon was at times overwhelming and crowded out some of the less aggressive flavors of the dish. Even though I used less lemon than was suggested, the original recipe was for six one pound lamb shanks whereas I only used two and a half pounds of neck so I probably could have and should have cut the lemon even more. I highly recommend braising because the meat comes out incredibly tender and it is a very low maintenance cooking technique. All in all, my foray into lesser used cuts of meat was an astounding success and I look forward to my next experience with it (hopefully I'll be able to cook some for my Dear Family next time I go home on break).
The Breakdown (for four people):
2½ pounds lamb necks @ $1.50 / pound: $4.00
1 onion: $1.00
1 can diced tomatoes: $1.50
Flour to dredge: $1.00
Olive and canola oil: $0.50
1 pound cous-cous: $2.50
2 chicken bouillon cubes: $0.50
1.5oz olives @ $15 / pound: $1.50
Salt, pepper, spices, and other minutae: $2.00
Total: $16.80 or $4.20 / person