Amanda Thomas is one of those women who just gets stuff done. She’s a farmer, business owner, agronomist, mum and WICKED camp oven cook. She’s also a really kind, thoughtful and clever lady – let it be known that I am a big fan.
I recently travelled to her home town of Warren, in western NSW, to do an interview and photo shoot with Amanda and her family (husband Ben and kids Charlie 13 and Archie, 10 – daughter Airlie, 15 was away at school on the day) for the National Farmers Federation. And brought my own fam along for the ride. So of course she swung into action and organised a picnic by their beloved Macquarie River with a bunch of friends. We fished, we swapped stories, we ate the best lamb shanks ever (recipe below) and I l learnt so much. I learnt about how cotton farmers like Amanda and Ben are managing their river health. As she says, ‘Good cotton farmers care deeply about our rivers, they are the lifeblood of our communities and everything we do revolves around keeping them healthy”.
Here’s my story on the Thomas family over on the Australian Farmers website. And here below is Amanda’s recipe for camp oven lamb shanks and a few more photos of our afternoon together.
Camp Oven Lamb Shanks – The easy way
Words by Amanda Thomas
Lamb shanks are great option for camp oven cooking when you have a crew to feed. Here’s how we do ours, and a few tips on getting organised in advance so you don’t have too much to do ‘on site’…
Feeds; 15 adults and a fair few kids
Cooking time; Light the fire 2 hours prior to cooking, then cooking time varies from 2-4 hours depending on how attentive your fire captain is.
12 lamb shanks
1 1/2 cups plain flour, to coat
1/2 cup oil
2 brown onions, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
2 x 400g tins crushed tomatoes (depending on how saucy you like it – it’s a vibe thing)
1 litre of chicken stock (organic is nice but not essential)
2 tbs tomato paste
2 sprigs rosemary, roughly chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
3 tbs of crushed garlic
1 cup red wine – what ever is in the cabinet above the fridge or whatever your drinking on the day
1 tbs gravy powder – I like the Maggi as a good old thickening agent at end so don’t put it in until last
Corn Flour – just in case you need it to thicken things up at the very end
Crusty bread, mashed potatoes or pearl couscous, to serve.
Method – before you head off
Before you leave the house – get the hard work out of the way.
Make sure you always oil the inside your camp oven after each use and before you put it away (olive or vegetable oil is best).
If I’m getting the shanks from the butcher and feeding quite a few I always ask him or her to cut them in half, but it really just depends on how you’re looking to serve them.
Given camp ovens are not that big and it can sometimes be hard on the complexion and the back, to stand over one for any length of time, I tend to lightly flour (put in a bag and dance around vigorously to shake a nice even coat over the shanks) and brown my shanks at home on the fry pan before I go. You can even brown off your onion and garlic at this point while your fry pan is all dirty and full of flavoursome bits. Once cooled down pop all those into a big Tupperware container and go about your business getting the important things sorted for your camp oven cook out. I tend to prep the vegies at home as well, but all can be done camp-side as long as you have a nice red or beer in hand.
Method – at the campsite
Have a ‘designated fire captain’ in the group and ask him or her to get the fire going at least 2 or 3 hours before you need to start cooking, so you can select the finest quality coals to come on the culinary journey with you.
Dig out a hole about twice as wide and a little deeper than your camp oven.
For the amount of shanks in this recipe I use two camp ovens to make sure they each have the space they need to reach their full, delicious potential.
Make sure the location of hole is in a good spot more than a few steps away from the main fire and not near any pot holes or sticks that will try and jump up and grab you later when its dark and you’re walking with a shovel of hot coals (trust me it’s a thing).
Get all your non liquid ingredients into two even piles, and if you haven’t already cheated and done this step at home – get the fire captain to crank up the heat and lay the camp ovens on top of the coals. Let them warm and then pour in a good few glugs of oil and brown those vegies. Cook them, stirring as you go, for about 10 minutes, or until softened.
Now divvy up shanks and put into the ovens. Add the wine and cook for a few minutes, stirring so it reduces down. Now might be a good time to pour yourself a glass too!
The remaining wet ingredients are added bit by bit, on ‘as needs’ basis. Start off with a can of tomatoes and half the stock, you want to cover everything but not drown it – so save a bit to add in later based on how its looking. We are going with a “less is more” approach here. Add plenty of salt and peps and put the lid on those babies and relax for at least an hour or two.
Check on them every half an hour or so, giving them a gentle stir with a big slotted spoon and add some tomatoes and more stock depending on the liquid levels. Put the lid back on and chill out for another little while.
Prod the fire captain to replenish the coals every hour or two, telling them all the time that the fate of the feast depends on their attentiveness.
There is no science with this and you cant really overcook them its just a game of managing the liquid levels.
Towards the end, add in the gravy powder and give a good stir. You might need some more stock or water here if it’s looking too thick.
If you think you’ve over-done it with the liquid and it’s all looking a bit runny, pull out the corn flour and make a paste using cold water in a cup, then stir in and cook for another 20 minutes or so.
Serve with a crusty bread rolls spread with butter and serve! I love using big old enamel plates here – plastic ones just feel wrong.
Your friends will probably remember this meal as the best thing they’ve eaten fire-side, especially after a few drinks! The kids love this too – especially with the buttered rolls.
Rise out your containers and save any left overs to fry up for breaky the next morning. Good luck go fourth and feed the masses.