Baby Lamb: Five Cuts Served with Provençal Vegetables, Braised Cipollini Onions, and Thyme Oil (Part 2)
If you're just joining us, you may want to read my last post to get caught up.
To quickly recap, over three and a half hours on a Monday morning, we went from this:
.... to this:
.... and we broke for lunch.
After our lunch of burgers, fries, and shakes, we piled back into my car, drove back to Sheppard Mansion, headed back into the kitchen, donned our aprons (and jackets for the men) and got to work. At the same time, a small construction crew showed up just outside the kitchen window to dig out and lay the concrete foundation for a new wheelchair ramp into the inn. One of the guys on the crew -- the guy who was driving the cement truck, actually -- had a beard that made him look like the long-lost member of ZZ Top, so that meant the entire afternoon was all about trying to out-do one another with ZZ Top song poisoning, which then led to discussions about other bands from our high school days, and we fixated on Kix -- a local band that made it big for about fourteen seconds in the 1980s, and I ended up song poisoning myself with "Cool Kids." Aaaaaand, now that I just found that clip to link to, I've re-song-poisoned myself. Somebody stop me.
Back to the food.
Andy checked on the lamb breast braising in the oven, and it still had some time to go. So, in the meantime, we prepped the legs. Scott had already deboned and butterflied them, so we slathered them with a mixture of minced garlic, extra virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, chopped thyme, and grey salt. After rubbing them with that lovely mixture, we tied them up nice and tight (I tied the one already on the tray below -- Andy's tying the second one:
In the background of that photo, you can see Scott working with the tenderloin. That part is coming soon. He also frenched the bones for the rack, tied them, and seasoned them. I don't have photos of him doing that because I was trying to spend as much hands-on time as I could with the lamb, and not too much behind the lens.
Overall (and Michael Ruhlman raised this in the comments section of the previous post), this was not a difficult animal to work with in terms of trimming and cleaning it up. In an older animal, there's more connective tissue, called elastin. When it cooks, it seizes up and makes the meat tougher. Younger animals haven't developed the elastin, and instead have more collagen, which when they're cooked, allows the collagen to melt (I think that's an apt way to describe it -- you experts out there, please feel free to correct my terminology if need be), and allows for a much more tender, almost creamy texture to the meat. I'll talk more about that when we get to the end because it definitely had an impact on how this tasted.
Next, we made a farce, or stuffing, with the lamb trimmings. This may have been one of my favorite parts of the process because I love watching chunks of meat get shoved into a meat grinder and swlurge and blop out the other end:
We mixed in some salt, pepper, mustard, brunoise, thyme, minced kalamata olives, and parsley to complete the stuffing:
Andy spread the farce onto the sirloin, placed the tenderloin on top of it (which made me think of the song Tenderoni), then wrapped it three times in caul fat to keep its shape:
Andy did the first one, then made Rich do the second one and heckled him the entire time. I swear, at one point I was ready to just whip out a ruler. First the heckling over the carrots for the brunoise, and now this.
Rich did a great job (even when I needlessly added to the heckling, because sometimes, yes, I am a joiner). Both were awesome. See?
By now, the lamb breast was done braising in the oven. Andy pulled the bones out of one breast, and I handled the other:
We went back to the book at this point to make sure we were still on track -- and I had to take a picture of how well worn Andy's copy of TFLC is:
Now, that's a book that's gotten some serious use in the kitchen.
I don't have photos of this next part -- probably because I was the one doing it and therefore couldn't also simultaneously take photos -- but we prepared the breast meat just like I did with the veal breast when I made it last year -- pressed and weighted them between two baking sheets and put it in the cooler to refrigerate it overnight before cutting it into two-inch rounds.... which you'll see in a later photo.
I deboned and rough-chopped the meat from the neck, shanks and shoulders (which also had been braising right alongside the breast meat, and which I did not take photos of, because I was the one doing it and I'm kind of a picky, annoying control freak about other people using my camera), and Andy tossed the meat with butter, olive oil, brunoise, and some salt and pepper. We also had reduced some of the lamb braising liquid to a glaze, and added that, as well.
Now comes my favorite part. We rolled that hodgepodge (lodge!) into a log. Andy did his:
Then, Rich did one (and was ONCE AGAIN heckled because we are, clearly, in sixth grade), and I did the third one (and was not heckled because I think they are secretly very, very afraid of me, and I was sort of pretending to heckle myself anyway, just to be a good sport about it). You'll see all three in a photo to come. Sort of a meat roll call, if you will.
But making these meat logs -- which would set overnight and the next day be sliced into rillettes and sautéed -- was our final step of Day One. WOOOO-HOOOOO!!!!!!!
We cleaned up the kitchen, got out of there around 4:30, and I took a little 30-minute disco nap before showering and heading over to dinner at Andy and Karen's house, just a few blocks from the inn.
Rich and Scott joined us for dinner, and all five of us sat outside and watched the sun set over the trees as we enjoyed the bounty of summer -- grilled steak, bread, corn, salad, fresh tomatoes, a bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia along with some other amazing wines, fresh fruit with freshly whipped cream for dessert, and had a really lovely evening. The weather was beautiful, the company outstanding, the music perfect, my hosts most welcoming, and it was the perfect way to wind down what had been an exhausting and totally exhilarating day.
* * * * *
With lots of wine at dinner comes the inevitable throb of a headache the next morning, but some strong coffee and a few Pop Tarts took care of that right away. Andy and the guys ran errands all morning for the restaurant, and as much as I wanted to join them going farm to farm and producer to producer, I very reluctantly had to spend a few hours doing some client work. We agreed to reconvene in the kitchen just after lunchtime so we could finish all the prep and be ready to serve dinner at 6. My parents and some of their friends were coming over to enjoy this dinner, and I was looking forward to getting back in the kitchen and getting everything done.
Andy took the lamb breast out of the cooler where it had been pressed between two baking sheets, cut out 2" rounds, and we did a meat roll call to make sure everything was ready to go:
All lamb parts, present and accounted for, SIR!
The lamb brain had been soaking overnight in milk, but when Andy took it out of the milk to add it to the tray of lamb delight, he noticed there was some dark discoloration and a strange balance of blood still in there, so he decided not to cook it for me because he didn't think it looked right.
Whew. Crisis averted.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing little odds and ends, but eventually, I got kicked out of the kitchen because Andy wanted to prepare a few surprises for me and our dinner guests. I was really worried one of those surprises was going to be a tripe-cilantro casserole with fermented lamb brain croutons, but I was later relieved to find out I was wrong.
I was able to sneak in a few shots of the lamb breast all mustarded and pankoed, and the leg was just beginning to cook before my butt was given das boot:
At 6 o'clock, I met my parents and their friends in the dining room; Andy's partner Karen (she runs front of house) joined us, poured some wine, and we started in on Andy's famous soft pretzel rolls (hey, you can't be from Pennsylvania and not know how to make and/or appreciate soft pretzels in every incarnation -- I even make soft pretzel bread pudding, which will knock your socks off) and corn fritters made from fresh corn using an old family recipe (again, I don't know anyone from my neck of the woods who doesn't drool over a hot, fresh corn fritter). Next, he sent out demitasse cups of Creamy Maine Lobster Broth, which he followed with a Rettland Farms milk-fed poularde served over butter-braised cabbage, fingerling potatoes and corn jus. All of it delicious and quite unexpected. I love surprise feasts, don't you?
Then, I was "allowed" to come back in the kitchen and help finish and plate the lamb. As I turned the corner into the kitchen, I was ka-powed with the most amazing smells.
I stopped for just a moment to watch the guys at work as they pulled hot pans off the stove, working in synchronicity with one another and getting the lamb rested and prepared for plating. Karen joined me in the kitchen, and we all worked on the plating together -- exactly as it should be:
So, let's talk about each element of this dish one-by-one, then talk about it as a whole.
Lamb stock reduced to a glaze, with thyme oil Andy made the day before, and on top of that -- each piece of the lamb: leg, breast, saddle/loin, rack, rillettes (shank, shoulder, neck). Oh, and also the kidney. Almost forgot about that.
Let's start with the sauce. Wow. Working with a really young animal, again, means there's more collagen than elastin in the muscle tissue, so not only does that help make the meat so incredibly tender and almost butter-like in its texture when it cooks, it makes the stock and then the reduced sauce more viscous and velvety smooth. The thyme oil and thyme leaves were perfect, too. I never understood why people like lamb with rosemary -- I think thyme is so much more complementary to lamb.
The leg of lamb, which had been slathered in a mustard sauce, pan-seared, then roasted was hearty, yet not heavy. Flawless. The breast meat, which had been braised, then cut into disks, pankoed then sauteed was so creamy, I had to really remind myself I was eating lamb. The loin with the kalamata olive stuffing? Fer the love of Larry Dallas, I think it was (maybe) my favorite of all of them. It was so flavorful and rich, I wanted more. The rack, straightforward and roasted on the bone was exactly as I hoped it would be, and was so fresh and delicious. I'd never tasted lamb like this before, and my dad (who really doesn't like lamb -- actually, he kind of hates it, but came to dinner anyway) was blown away. This was unlike any lamb any of us had ever had, and we were over the moon. The rillettes were really, really good and I was happy to have had some of them leftover to chop up with potatoes the next morning and make a breakfast hash that I still think about.
Every singular element of this dish was phenomenal on its own. It's when I started taking little bites of the breast meat along with some of the tenderloin together... and then the rillette with the rack, that it sent me over the edge. It seemed as though the combinations were limitless, and every single one of them was as good as the next.
The lamb was so good that I could barely focus on the braised cipollini onions, although they were quite good as well, and little bits of those added to the lamb were a treat, for sure.
You know, when I was thinking back to other lamb dishes I've had to try and compare and contrast, I couldn't. Young baby lamb is like nothing else. Prior to eating this, I expected it to taste like lamb (which I already loved), but better. It was a completely different taste altogether. It reminded me of when I made the pig's head, because prior to eating that I figured, "oh, it'll just taste pork-ish." And it was so different (and better) than my expectations. That's how this lamb played on my palate. It was unlike any other lamb I'd had before, and raised the bar, for sure. It was soft and creamy, but not wimpy or lame in any way. It had some heft to it, but it wasn't lamb-y. Cooked lamb has a distinct smell. This did not have that smell. It was much more fragrant and not as meat-y smelling as lamb often is. It was f-ing fantastic.
In fact, I really think I'll have a hard time ordering lamb in a restaurant, knowing how good it can be when you make it yourself with people who crack you up, and then eat it with people who think you're slightly nutty for doing it, but love you just the same. My parents and their friends had a great time, and I think we all felt a little bit spoiled by the experience. This was a great plate of food.
We ended the night with some fresh fruit and freshly whipped cream for dessert, and my parents and their friends headed back home. It was great to have them experience this dish, because it was something I'd never done before, and I think they thoroughly enjoyed the whole night. They don't live close enough to be able to taste all these dishes, so after spending all this time reading this blog from afar, it was nice for me to have them actually there to eat something that was such a big learning moment for me... and that tasted so freakin' good. I think I would have been written out of the will, had I had them drive two hours to my house to eat tripe, pig's feet, or lobster jelly.
I stayed behind to help with clean up, and once the kitchen was shiny and put back together and the few leftovers we had all packed up, I said my goodbyes, dragged my ass to the car, and drove two hours home, giddy and exhausted, but with the greastest sense of accomplishment that I've felt in a really long time.
So, would I ever do this dish again? Hell yes.
But probably not on my own, because I honestly think it's just too much for one person to do (in a short period of time, to ensure the meat stays fresh), unless they've got the experience, tools, and space to do it. That said, if I were ever thrown into a situation where I was forced to break down and cook a whole baby lamb all by myself with a good saw, a good knife, but no help from no one, no how? Let's just say that now, having done this, there's far less risk of failure... or at least I could fail with dignity.
So, thank you, again, to Andy, Scott, Rich, Karen, and Kathy for opening the Sheppard Mansion's kitchen and allowing me to make it my home for a few days.
One last thing: if you ever get a chance to do this -- visit a farm, see a lamb, buy a lamb, connect with a chef, work with and learn from that chef, understand and work with an entire animal, and be able to feast upon your labors when all is said and done, you will be one of the luckiest people on earth.
Lamb from Whitmore Farm
All produce from Hanover, PA-area farms and gardens
Music to Cook By: It was an iTunes-free kitchen, but in the spirit of our banter and heckling, go ahead and download yourselves some ZZ Top and Kix and feel the south central PA love.
Up Next: Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon Stick Ice Cream
Read My Previous Post: Baby Lamb: Five Cuts Served with Provençal Vegetables, Braised Cipollini Onions, and Thyme Oil (Part 1)