Saturday, March 16, 2013

Easter Dinner ~ Think Lamb not Ham

As Easter arrives early this year, it's time to settle on your holiday dinner.  Here in the Midwest of the United States I hear lots of people say they will make their 'traditional' ham dinner.  I'm not sure where this tradition comes from, but ham doesn't really seem much like a traditional spring meal to me.  And as we've likely just enjoyed ham during the winter holidays, why not give lamb a try.

Julian's Lamb Chops with Scalloped Potatoes and Asparagus
So why lamb in spring? Originally the "spring" lamb was meat from the English Dorsett breed that would give birth in the fall, feed its offspring on milk throughout the winter and then on the first early grass of spring, so it was ready for market by Easter or Passover.  Lamb imported from New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, which have opposite growing seasons to here in North America, are often sold as "spring" lamb.  But today most lamb is produced commercially and not on small farms, so the calendar is no longer a major factor in when you can purchase it.

Of course many of you will say "I don't like lamb."  I agree with you that a poor preparation of a bad cut of lamb can taste bad, be chewy and have inedible sinews.  So the first choice before you is the cut of meat to choose.

Leg of Lamb
This is what most of our mothers tried to prepare and then serve with mint jelly to try and kill the taste.  It was not a success.  The real problem with leg of lamb is that bone-in leg of lamb will not cook evenly, with the thin sections of meat near the shank becoming well-done while the meat closer to the bone is still raw.  Carving is also an issue usually leaving you with uneven bits and pieces for your platter, as you attempt to cut around the fat, tendons and sinew.  The only real solution is not just to select a boneless, tied leg of lamb (as this doesn't solve the myriad problems of a lamb leg) but rather going to a well-qualified butcher and ordering a butterflied leg of lamb.  At this stage you at least have a starting point that can provide success, with a bit of additional work.  If you are up to the task and have a good butcher at your service, see the recipe by Cooks Illustrated  March/April 2013 or Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything".  If I've now convinced you not to try the leg, then stick with me as we instead prepare a succulent, tender rack of lamb in no time at all.

Rack of Lamb
Once again you are faced with selecting the best product, so know what you are looking for as all lamb is not created equal.

U.S. Grain Fed     vs         Jamison Grass Fed     
Much of what you find at your local shops is four-to-eleven month-old Colorado (U.S.) grain fed lamb.  Over this I much prefer the Australian grass fed lamb.  It must by marked by law, so you should find the label on the packaging.  If not, you are looking for smaller pieces of meat with finer bones, which typically means the lamb is younger and/or smaller when processed.  Grass fed lamb simply doesn't grow as large, no matter where you grow it.  This lamb will be more tender and delicately flavored.  Both are usually available fresh (not frozen) and often vacuum packed.  If you can't find grass fed lamb racks then consider ordering it from my favorite purveyor D'Artagnan or Jamison Farms, which is an Appalachian boutique farmer that supplies top chefs with grass-fed lamb.  I can usually find Australian grass fed fresh lamb at Costco.

Frenched and Denuded
Most of the lamb racks you see will have been "Frenched" in that the bones have been cleaned of meat as shown in the top comparative (grain vs grass) photo.  However, you can also purchase racks that have been both "Frenched and Denuded" which is a further cleaning of all extra bits of meat and fat from the racks, which of course you can also do yourself at home for the most stunning presentation.  As you can see in my completed preparation photos (top and bottom), I did not go to the trouble as I would only do this if I was serving them as individual 'lollipop' appetizers.

I usually prepare the lamb simply, although I think diners often prefer my mustard crusted rack of lamb, which you may want to consider.

If you are going with the simple preparation I used in these photos, begin by preheating the oven to 450F.  Rub canola oil over the lamb and season generously with salt and pepper. Interlock two racks of lamb as shown in above photo so they stand up while roasting.  Place the lamb in a large oven-safe skillet or stove-top safe roasting pan.  Roast on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350F and continue cooking for about 10 minutes longer, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 130-135F. Transfer the meat to a carving board and let rest for about 5-8 minutes tented with foil to keep warm.

Julian's Rack of Lamb Resting
Sauce:  Pour off some of the fat that remains in the roasting vessel. Toss in some finely minced shallot and 2-3 cloves of finely minced garlic. Stir 2 minutes and add 1/2 cup of dry white wine. Add 4 tablespoons of water and about 4 tablespoons of veal demi-glace. Heat to a boil, making sure to scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Set aside.  Cut the lamb racks between the bones to form chops. Arrange the chops on plates and drizzle the sauce over the meat.

Alternatively purchase or prepare a Marsala wine or mushrooms sauce to serve over the meat.  Avoid mom's mint jelly at all cost!

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