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......

Read My Previous Post: Continuing the birthday celebration at Per Se...


Anonymous said...

holy freakin crap, I love your life!!!

Anonymous said...

Okay: 1) that turtle is freaking me out, and b) I am SO PSYCHED to finally see how this is done! I've always wanted to try something like this, and now I feel like after reading this post (and your next one) that I might have a chance in hell of making this work. Thanks for being the guinea pig and doing it first so we can now learn from you (and the rest of the team in the kitchen). So cool. You rock.

Victoria said...

I was okay - until the turtle.


Anonymous said...

I suck at brunoise -- mine is always 3" cubes and my husband (a chef) busts my chops every time. I've never broken down an animal either, so this is really cool to read. Can't wait to see the next installment.

Anonymous said...

Great post, fantastic pics, looking forward to the finished dish; I have to say that the photos do make me a bit melancholy, because I do miss being in a professional kitchen day in, day out; perhaps when the family relocates to the East Coast (probably in 2-3 years), I may revisit the culinary world, we'll just have to wait and see.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's about f-ing time you get to this recipe. Doing this will make those soft-shell crabs and the pig head look like child's play.

Anonymous said...

Read Monica Eng in the Chicago Tribune September 21, 2008. She writes about a similar experience.

Sunday Cook said...

Brava Carol!

I think the thing I love most about your blog is that you seem to be having so much fun. Thank you for being the "brave one" and showing people that these recipes are possible for the home cook.

BTW, your softshell crab post still cracks me up every time I read it.

french tart said...

dude this is great! i love the sequence of photos, especially the splitting of the lamb in half ones. you should make a photo flip book with those. love it!

Anonymous said...

That sounds like some serious fun! You have the best friends. Thanks for sharing this with us, very neato!

Hank said...

1) So, do you think breaking down a lamb would have been doable in your home kitchen? Is it definitely a two-person job, or could you have muddled through by yourself? Did you have the equipment and, maybe more importantly, the storage space?

2) Turtle: squick.

Anonymous said...

A) I wish I was there
B) I would cook and eat everything placed before me
C) You are one lucky lucky lucky girl. I wish I were you. Lucky!!


Anonymous said...

Here I sit with my morning coffee, enjoying the lovely photos of the farm and reading how you set up this whole even. Then, I let my eyes scan further down the post. While this is really totally interesting, I'll put it off until the evening. See you then.

tjarrett said...

Very cool. My butcher (now retired) in the North End of Boston used to carve up the lamb in front of the customers, by himself (the head was already off). The main necessary part was a meat hook; once he had the lamb on that, he just went to work with cleaver and saw. I once saw him cut a lamb into rack, breast and leg in about 15 minutes. It was awesome.

Thanks for posting this--it brought me back to watching Frank do his thing.

Sarah said...

I was okay with the whole lamb, okay even with the turtle, but the eyeballs on the lamb creeped me out to no end. You have one interesting life...very cool!

Anonymous said...

great work carol.

did you or the chefs address elastin, a gamy connective tissue? perhaps the animal was too young? i don't know much about it, which is why i'm curious.

Carol Blymire said...

Michael: I think the animal was too young, because I don't recall any of the gamey connective tissue you're referring to. Let me get Andy on the horn and have him weigh in on this.

Chef Andrew Little said...

Michael: We did not encounter much if any elastin during the butchery phase of the project. My understanding of connective tissue is that there are two main types; collagen(breaks down with heat) and elastin(does not break down and actually acts like a rubber band 'pulling' the muscle back in place regardless of cooking time). Collagen is white and elastin is a pale yellow. Also, because the animal was so young and younger animals are fairly juiced with collagen, there were some amazing benefits that I think Carol will discuss in part 2 of her post. I think age played a part in not finding much elastin, but I will have to ask my lamber and consult my copy of McGee.

Anonymous said...

I would hard pressed to choose between eating brains and listening to Celine. And, turtles are much cuter with their shells.

Anonymous said...

That turtle photo is *awesome*. Also awesome? Being able to get a chef "on the horn" to find out about elastin and other neat things. It's fun living vicariously through you. ^_^

Anonymous said...

I have always wanted to do something like this. It is so cool that you had a kind of one on one butchering lesson. I pick brains over Celine any day. What the hell throw in the eyes too. Anything but Celine.

Liz T. said...

Dude. Michael Ruhlman asked you a question in a comment on your blog.

Two years ago, did you even dream of that happening?!?

You rawk!

Anonymous said...

the turtle is both gross and nostalgic for me grandfather used to make turtle soup all the time. i'd venture into the basement to look at the turtle chilling out in the laundry room sink and later that night we'd have soup. i'm glad i never saw the in between.

JordanBaker said...

Ok, I'm saying this, and you know that I just dove under my desk and rocked myself gently for 20 minutes after looking at the lamb pictures, but:

Brains are the best. The. Best. I hope you ate them.

Anonymous said...

Jeepers, Carol. That lamb is nearly as large as your kitchen; I couldn't imagine you breaking that thing down in there. I can, however, picture you creeping around the corner with the bourbon, because I'd be right behind you.

I've never had "real" turtle soup and now I'm anxious to try it.

Unknown said...

Brain... Celine. Brain... Celine.

I'd go with the brain. At least your friends won't look at you with pity when you confess it later.

Alice Q. Foodie said...

Eek! A turtle, wow. I definitely think you made the right call on getting some assistance with this -it requires a lot of specialized experience, not to mention equipment, to butcher a whole animal like that!

Anonymous said...

OK, after those turtle photos I'm going to have to go vegetarian for a few days until the willies subside. DANG, I can't eat anything that scary looking! (and I don't - did monkfish once, needed a shot of vodka, never again)

Tastecraft said...

OH.MY.GOD. Can I tell you how much I wish I had your life? We're going to the Sheppard for dinner on Sat. night-I am counting the minutes. Anything on the menu I shouldn't miss? Or just eat everything in sight? YUM-I may start fasting now! Can't wait for the next post!

Carol Blymire said...

Amy: Call them and see if you can do a tasting menu. If not, anything and everything on the menu is really great -- you'll get a really strong sense of the "food of my people" and you'll have a great time. Enjoy! Email me if you have any questions beforehand.

Anonymous said...

That was too much. I may have to go back to being a vegetarian. *shudder*

MadFud said...

"Do you know how this would've played out in my kitchen at home, had I started at 9 a.m..."

I read this and could not contain my laugher - SO FUNNY!!

Excited for Part Deux, you are my hero!

Anonymous said...

Carol, I think I might love you. Up until the turtle part, that is. See, the lamb didn't phase me at all. We've had whole capretto in our freezer before, and I come from a family where kids go to petting zoos and report back to their chef father about the state of the produce, and the meals they'd like to see from the various baby animals.

The turtle, though? Loud, unstoppable (inner, as I'm at work) screams. I'd take Celine.

Antonio Tahhan said...

wow, I just found your blog and cannot wait to see how this post ends!! I think it's awesome that you're working through the entire French Laundry book; that's probably one I should add to my collection.
Oh, and I completely relate with you on the topic of brain... that was the ONE thing I just couldn't get myself to eat while I visited the Middle East last winter. Had my cousins only kept it a secret that the "meat" I was about to eat was brain I may have eaten it, just maybe... but once I found out what it was, I physically couldn't :)

Karen said...

I have to say I'm as impressed with your readers as I am with you...when I saw that first photo of the hoof-less skinned lamb laid out on the table, I wondered how many outraged vegetarians you were gonna get. And I'm pretty sure the answer is less than one! That's a real tribute to the dedicated foodiness of your readers.

I do have a question, though--what are those two bluish-green dots on the lower back of the lamb?

I'm sorry that little brown lamb gave you the stink-eye. Do you think he knew what you'd been up to?

Anonymous said...

What an amazing experience. I can't wait to read part two. You certainly have stretched the bounds of "home cook" to the max. Awesome.

How have you found your vendors? I don't think I'll ever need to find a whole lamb, but if I did need one, I wouldn't have a clue about how to find one.

For kicks, I went back and read post #1 Gaspacho with Balsamic Glaze. Wow....gazpacho to a whole lamb. What a journey.

LittleRedAmes said...

Wow! Wasn't expecting the lamb head with one eye to visit me in my dreams last night! *shudders* I had to put a chocolate chip in each cranny of my waffle this morning just to feel better. Thanks for taking on this task for us, Carol! Can't wait for Part 2!!

Anonymous said...

Oh, great. Another blog I have to read (I arrived here via Ruhlman). Thanks a lot! ;-)

If I were a better person than I am, I'd do this stuff too. But I can't. Meat-eater/animal-lover - I embrace and acknowledge my hypocrisy, though I don't hold it up as a badge of honor. Kudos for facing the beast (figuratively and literally).

My hardscrabble Missouri grandfather used to delight in breakfasts of squirrels' brains and eggs. Not in the FL cookbook, but hey - at least it doesn't require a hacksaw - just an escargot fork (probably more information than you wanted, but there it is).

Looking forward to part deux.

---Kate in the NW

Anonymous said...

Hi! I just recently discovered your blog. Now I'm in love with you <3~

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was all good until the backside of the turtle was shown. Note to self: don't eat yogurt with cherries and read this blog at the same time.

I happen to like lamb brains, I'll eat them!!!

Anonymous said...

uhh... wow.

John said...

intense. i love it. and im buying the book.

elvi said...

Wow. Carol, I've been reading all along, and can't wait to see what will happen next in this fairy tale! Meanwhile, you might want to check out for some bacon candy action.

Carol Blymire said...

Karen: They're the inspection stamps.

Unknown said...

Good job. My hope is that your clear descriptions and great pictures will encourage more people to take on a whole lamb. I married a Greek girl 20 years ago and we cook a whole lamb every year at Easter. BTW, the brain is fantastic eaten like pate or stuffed in ravioli and eyeballs are considered a delicacy!

amber said...

i'm actually surprised i'm not skeeved out at all these pictures. instead, i think it's all really cool! so awesome you got some help with this one -- they sound like a fun group :)