Friday, September 26, 2008

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.

I swear.

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)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

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:

And turkeys:

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:

Hello, kidneys:

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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