This dish brings me back to my Paris days, when I took a couple of years off from the law to teach English. Hearty but easy on the pocketbook, it was just the ticket for a temporary bohemian. These days my pocket are a bit deeper, but I still enjoy it from time to time, when in the mood for something filling and savory.
You fry some lamb chops (one per person) in olive oil in a skillet until golden brown on each side, and season well with salt and pepper. Remove the chops from the skillet and place in a gratin dish which you will have rubbed well with a garlic clove.
In the same skillet, sauté some finely chopped or thinly sliced onion until translucent, then add peeled and thinly sliced waxy potatoes (one or two per chop should do, depending on the size and your appetite). When the potato slices are just beginning to brown, add to the gratin dish and arrange the slices around and over the lamb chops.
Deglaze the skillet with a bit of white wine and pour over the lamb and potatoes. Add enough broth or water to come up, say, halfway up the potatoes. Nestle a sprig or two of fresh thyme and a couple of bay leaves among the lamb and potatoes. Bring the broth to a simmer on top of the stove (if your gratin dish is flameproof) and then place in a hot oven (200C, 400F) and bake for about 45 minutes or so, until the broth has nearly evaporated and the potatoes are tender and have nicely browned on top.
NOTES: For this dish, I like to use shoulder lamb chops, which are very economical and stand up well to the long cooking. For the potatoes, you want firm, waxy, yellow-fleshed ones like Yukon gold, not too large or too small. And for the broth, the light taste of chicken is best but a light beef broth would do as well.
The cooking times varies considerably among recipes. Some call for a much longer cooking period (an hour to an hour and a half) at a somewhat lower temperature (180C, 350F), most of which tell you to cover the dish with aluminum foil to avoid the broth evaporating too quickly and the potatoes from over-browning. For these recipes, I’d add a bit more broth as well. These recipes generally have you add the potatoes raw into the gratin dish, as the extra cooking time is more than sufficient to cook them without the initial browning.
But I like to save time, which you can accomplish by two ‘tricks’ mentioned in the above recipe: sautéing the potatoes before adding them to the gratin pan and bringing the broth in the gratin dish to a simmer on top of the stove before putting it in the oven. Just make sure you have a gratin dish that will not crack when exposed to heat in this way—like the ones made of enameled cast iron, stainless steel or copper.
The dish makes a lovely piatto unico. Last night we followed it with a green salad, a delicious creamy cheese named Chaource and nice ripe pear. All washed down, of course, with a few glasses of red wine.
According to the Larousse Gastronomique, this classic dish dates from the reign of Louis XIV. It was supposedly invented by one of his mistresses, who supplanted the Maquise de Maintenon for a time in his affections by indulging the gluttony of the king. But why the name? Perhaps this dish was named after the archbishop of Paris during Louis XIV’s time, François de Harlay de Champvallon? It seems like the most logical explanation but, if so, it is rather ironic, since the good prelate witnessed Louis’ secret marriage to the marquise. Or did the mistress herself carry the name? Not impossible—it is said that the archbishop’s life was filled with scandal. Champvallon is also the name of a town (pop. under 500) in the region of Bourgogne, but why this tiny town should have given its name to this way of making lamb chops, I have no idea. Perhaps some gentle reader could enlighten us…