Cooking a leg of lamb slowly over an open fire in a potjie gives the most amazing results: tender meat, infused with a hint of smoke and surrounded by vegetables that have soaked up all the rich juices. A meal fit for a king. If you haven’t yet heard of a potjie I’ll explain what it is before getting on to the recipe.
What Is Potjie?
The South African potjie (pronounced poy-ki) is a cast iron pot, usually on three legs. Used over the centuries to cook everything from stews to porridge over open fires, it now has a firm place in the hearts of South Africans, who extend their passion for the braai (like a barbecue but better!) to include potjiekos (any food cooked in a potjie).
Potjiekos competitions are often held as fun events and fundraisers, and families pass on secret recipes and ingredients. down the generations The pot is carefully seasoned for its first use and then kept rust free with a light coating of oil and brought out regularly year summer and winter to cook up a storm.
Cooking In A Potjie
Cooking in a potjie requires a few basic techniques but is not complicated once you master them. Then you get a delicious one-pot meal produced with very little effort, other than sitting around the fire chatting with friends and family while it cooks and breathing in the tantalising aromas.
The fire – you will need a steady supply of glowing coals to keep the potjie simmering gently over the course of 3-4 hours. So make sure you have space for two fires. One to cook over, the other to produce back-up coals, whenever needed.
The pot – this needs to have been seasoned before its first use and thereafter carefully kept rust-free. it should be wiped out rather than washed, and re-oiled regularly.
The cooking – traditionally potjie ingredients are added in layers. The onions first, then the meat and sauce, then the slowest cooking vegetables building up in layers to the quickest cooking ones. A potjie should not be stirred, after the initial browning of onions and meat, but left in its layers until serving.
There should not be too much liquid in the potjie, think thick stew rather than soup. With the lid on the pot most of the juices are retained so you should just need a few dashes of wine along with the tomatoes to get a thick sauce. However do check for liquid during cooking – too hot a fire can evaporate it more quickly and burn the bottom layer, so you may need to add a few more dashes of wine than you thought – this won’t hurt the flavour though, so don’t worry!.
Recipe for a Leg of Lamb Potjie
- 2 onions roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic sliced
- 2 sticks celery, chopped
- 1 leg of lamb (about 2kg)
- 2 tins chopped tomatoes
- 5 potatoes, peeled and diced
- 5 carrots, peeled and sliced
- Seasonal vegetables – anything from green beans, mushrooms, peppers, courgettes to sweet potatoes and squash.
- Dried fruit – such as apricots and raisins
- 4-6 tablespoons Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Dash of wine
- Heat the olive oil in the pot over the fire, then fry the onions, garlic and celery for two minutes until lightly browned.
- Place the leg of lamb in the pot and brown it on all sides. If it is burning rather than browning add a dash of wine to adjust the heat and raise the pot slightly.
- Once browned season the lamb with salt and pepper, then add the tomatoes and another dash of wine.
- Cover the potjie with its lid and leave the meat to simmer for an hour without peeking. You can hear if it is simmering or not. Keep an eye on the fire. You don’t need a lot of heat to keep the pot simmering but the fire shouldn’t die out completely.
- After an hour, open the pot and pack the potatoes and carrots around the meat. Then layer the rest of the firmer vegetables on top. Sweet potato and pumpkin first followed by any other longer cooking veg such as green beans. Put the dried fruit on top, season again with salt and pepper, check for liquid and add wine if there is none left. Replace the lid and continue cooking for another hour or so.
- Half an hour before you want to eat, add the softer vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms and courgettes. Replace the lid and cook gently until tender.
- Remove the potjie from the fire, take the meat out onto a board and slice it. Serve the meat and vegetables with rice or bread. Enjoy!
The Bottom Line
Don’t forget it’s National Braai Day on 24th September, so get your potjies dusted off and oiled ready for the big braai cook-fest!