Baby Lamb: Five Cuts Served with Provençal Vegetables, Braised Cipollini Onions, and Thyme Oil (Part 1)
I think it's safe to say -- and I hope you'll agree with me -- that in the past 20 months, I've grown by leaps and bounds as a home cook. I've learned so much (through failure as equally as success) and I've conquered some serious kitchen phobias. I've changed the way I cook on a day-to-day basis, and I've become even more fearless when it comes to trying new things. I've cut the faces off softshell crabs and lived to tell about it. I made a braised, stuffed pig's head. And more recently, I learned how to break down an animal, cook its various parts, and pull together a dish that I'm incredibly proud of. But, this time, I didn't do it alone.
If I may, I'd like to share some text from the instructions for making Baby Lamb dish -- on page 198 of The French Laundry Cookbook:
"I value this dish as a chef because it's a learning experience for my staff. It gives them an understanding of how to break down an entire four-legged animal and where the individual parts come from. These things are important for any chef to know." -- Thomas Keller
I couldn't agree more, but I'm not a chef. I'm a home cook who has had no formal or informal training, and who has never broken down an animal on her own (let alone with anyone else, and the frog in 7th-grade biology class doesn't count). So, I knew I was ill-prepared to do this dish on my own. And, for being what I think is the most complicated dish in the book for a home cook, the instructions are the most vague. Actually, vague isn't the right word because I don't mean that the instructions were unclear. They're not. They're quite clear. All the steps are there, the terminology is pretty self-explanatory, and the steps on how to prepare each part of the lamb are pretty straightforward.
I think it was more that I felt lost reading those instructions because this is such an elemental, fundamental thing any chef or cook should know how to, or at least understand, and I didn't. I had some leads on sourcing the lamb -- that wasn't the issue. And, when I was in Morocco nine years ago, I watched friends roast a whole lamb. So again, I didn't feel intimidated by having to cook an entire animal. It was in the mechanics of it all.
Bringing home a 25-pound lamb, hauling it out of the back of my car into the house, having the right tools and saws to work with, and expecting to know how to break it down, debone it, prep each section, and prepare each element of the dish in my little home kitchen was something I knew I needed help with to be able to do properly, and to be able to show the animal the respect it deserved.
So, I turned to my friend, Andy Little, at The Sheppard Mansion. Andy helms the kitchen at an historic inn not far from where I grew up, and even though our hometowns are minutes away from one another and we're close to the same age, we've gotten to know one another only over the past few months. You can read more about Andy on his blog and you can learn more about what he's cooking in the restaurant here. I asked if he wanted to help with this dish, and he so very graciously said he would. I couldn't have been more thrilled, and it made the whole thing so much less intimidating on the whole.
Andy invited me to come to Hanover, PA to work in his kitchen -- where there was lots of space, plenty of supplies and tools, and most importantly, an abundance of expertise. I immediately said, "YES!!!" and spent two days at the inn while we cooked and ate, and I got an intensive crash course on butchering and cooking like I'd never done before. The Sheppard Mansion's restaurant is only open Wednesday - Saturday, so we'd have all day Monday and Tuesday in the kitchen, then serve it for dinner to family and friends Tuesday night.
Before we get to the cooking, I want to spend a little bit of time on the lamb, because it's important to me that you know where it came from.
The baby lamb came from Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and I spent a Saturday morning at the farm not too long ago to meet owners Will Morrow and Kent Ozkum and see their operations. It's a really gorgeous property, but beyond that, it was really important for me to see how they raise their animals and learn more about what they do.
Let's do a quick tour of the farm. Here's the main house and barn:
Here are some of their chickens:
Baby bunnies (!!!):
Kent (L) and Will (R) doing a morning feeding:
And, while I went to the farm the weekend after we'd already cooked the lamb, Will said the lamb we ate was just about the same size as this little brown guy giving me the stink eye:
They have an incredibly beautiful and well-maintained farm that produces the best-tasting lamb I've ever had. Will and Kent are so devoted to what they do, and they're fun to spend time with, to boot. If you live in the DC-Baltimore-Frederick-southern PA area, please check these guys out. You won't be disappointed. I spent the whole drive home that day running numbers and timetables in my head to figure out when and if I ever might be able to do what they're doing. It's remarkable, enviable, and I want to be them when I grow up.
* * * * *
So, now that you know where the lamb came from, it's time to talk about this dish. I'm going to split it into two separate posts (this one, and one to come in a few days) because I think if I put it all in one post your eyes might bleed from the length of it and I am not a fan of bleeding eyes, so YOU'RE WELCOME.
By the way, if you have questions as I go through this, please feel free to post them in the comments. I'll answer them, or I'll ask Andy to chime in if they're more up his alley.
Okay.... here we go!
* * * * *
I was visiting my parents, and brother and sis-in-law (and their new baby) for the weekend, and made my way over to Hanover that Sunday evening so that I could get a good night's sleep and be ready to start cooking first thing in the morning. Andy, his partner Karen (who runs front of house), and their boss (Sheppard Mansion owner, Kathy Sheppard Hoar) were gracious enough to let me stay at the inn while we made this dish, and it was so great to be able to wake up and just go downstairs to work in the kitchen that morning -- a revised, slightly more upscale and hospitable version of my "At Home" mission for the blog.
Monday morning, I woke up with a healthy amount of nervous energy. After a long shower and some time watching the news, I went downstairs, ate breakfast, and said hello to Andy. He then introduced me to his sous chef, Scott Robinson (who came in on his day off), and his friend, Rich Matosky, who played hooky from work and drove in from the Philly suburbs to lend a hand. Will delivered the lamb the day before, so after the round of handshakes and nice-to-meet-you pleasantries, I downed the last of my coffee and walked into the kitchen to find this waiting for me:
I will confess that I was surprised to see its head still attached, but I didn't vomit, nor did I flinch, nor reach for vodka. There may have been a wince. I may have said, "Oh... little guy" in my head. Or out loud. I'm not sure which.
There was very little chitchat at this point, and we got right down to business. Andy had already made a list of the exact cuts we needed, so he and Scott went to work breaking down the lamb while Rich and I watched and learned (and I took photos) as he explained each step of the process.
First, he cut off the head:
Then the legs:
Next, Andy and Scott (the one wearing the cap) began splitting the lamb down the middle:
See the clock above the sink and how it's only 9:25 a.m.? We started our morning at 9 a.m., and in less than 25 minutes, the lamb's head and legs were removed, and it had been split down the middle.
Do you know how this would've played out in my kitchen at home, had I started at 9 a.m.? By 9:25, I would have downed my second shot of bourbon as I peeked for the fourth time around the corner from my dining room into the kitchen and said, "Shit. That lamb is STILL THERE and he's dead but somehow STILL STARING AT ME and I don't know what to dooooooo" and lit my hair on fire and jumped off the roof of my house while singing the Barber of Seville.
Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating. But still.
Next, Andy removed the silverskin from the loin and tenderloin:
Andy and Scott split the rack:
Then, they got to work deboning and butterflying the legs, trimming and cleaning up the breast, and generally preparing all the rest of the lamb parts:
While Andy and Scott were working on all this, Rich and I were on carrot, leek and onion duty for the braises and brunoise, and Andy had also gotten started on browning bones and making stock (although he was MORE than happy to take a break from that to school Rich on his carrot-peeling technique and the size of his carrot cuts for the brunoise, which then became the running joke for the next two days... oh, who'm I kidding -- we're STILL busting Rich's chops about it and probably will for a long, long time.):
I was happy to be on vegetable duty, because it's easy, I got it done quickly (faster than Rich with the world's slowest peeling of the carrots) and it allowed me to more closely watch Andy and Scott break down the lamb, clean and trim all the parts, and talk about what they were doing as they went along.... while still feeling like I was doing something to contribute to the process.
There were so many moving parts -- many of which needed to take place simultaneously -- and it was fun to be in a kitchen with people who knew their stuff, had a sense of humor about it, and could teach while also taking the piss out of one another. My kind of kitchen, indeed.
By this point, it was about 11:30 a.m. The lamb had been butchered into its respective parts, bones were browned and stock begun, sauces on the stove, brunoise done. Now it was time to figure out what had to happen next so that we could take a quick lunch break and come back and finish out the afternoon. The kitchen full of MEN decided they should work on the BREAST (shocker, I know... 12) before we took a break.
The French Laundry Cookbook instructs that the lamb breast is to be cooked like the veal breast in the Braised Breast of Veal with Yellow Corn Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables, and Sweet Garlic.
Easy-peasy. That I can handle. So, I seasoned both pieces of lamb breast with salt and pepper, seared it on both sides, removed the meat, and drained the fat from the pan. Then, I added leeks, carrots, onions, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and parsley to the pots (the breast was in two pieces, so we did all this times two but at the same time [yay for multiple burners!]), caramelized them, returned the meat to the pan, added chicken and veal stock, covered with a parchment lid, brought the liquid to a simmer, then put them both in the oven for what ended up being a little over three hours.
While I worked on that, Andy decided he'd TRY and one-up my pig's head prowess by sawing the lamb's head in half to get the brain and eyes out -- he had some sort of cockamamie plan to get me to eat the brains in a ravioli or a doughnut or something, and he seriously thought maybe someone would want to eat the eyeballs. Fortunately, he ruptured one and abandoned that idea pretty quickly.
But here he is, sawing that lamb's head in half -- which, by the way, took him FOREVER to do. I mean, really. It shouldn't have been that hard, and if I can do a pig's head, why was he struggling with that lamb's head for so long?
Feel free to sing the Jeopardy theme song....
And now, key change into Verse Two of the Jeopardy theme song...
Look at the sweat on his brow. Psshttt. Amateur.
Andy, put down the saw. Seriously, dude. I was kidding.
He put the brain in milk to soak overnight, because he really thought I was going to eat it, despite the fact that I told him to put down the crack pipe. He kept insisting that it tasted "just like oatmeal, only more like, oh I dunno, a meat-flavored oatmeal" at which point I just said, "FINE. If it will shut you up, I'll eat the damned brain tomorrow night at dinner!" (knowing full well I would hide it in my napkin and then dump it in one of the potted plants in the lobby, duh)
Dude. I would rather listen to the same Celine Dion song for 24 hours than eat that. Except for that song from Titanic. Now that's where the lamb brains just might have a fighting chance.
With the two pots of braising lamb breast in the oven, we put all the other meat into the cooler, cleaned up the kitchen, and headed out to "The Trop" for lunch. Short for Tropical Treat, The Trop is a local burger and shake shack we all love and went to as kids, so we headed on over there to sit outside in the shade, down some burgers, fries, and shakes, and swap stories. It wasn't until I actually sat down at the picnic table that I realized how badly I needed to sit. I wasn't necessarily tired.... just ready to not be standing for a little while.
Besides, I knew when we got back, not only were we going to work on the lamb for a few more hours, I also needed the strength to steel myself against the inevitable torture that would arise from Andy butchering and cleaning the turtles he'd caught that weekend:
I like turtle soup as much as the next guy, but ew. Thanks for the dry heaves, Andy. Thanks a lot.
And, it's at this point that I'm going to take a break. I'll be back later this week with the rest of the story. Stay tuned.
To be continued......
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