Lamb grows up: Young sheep's meat becomes an adult entrée

By Bret Thorn

Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with lamb that fits well with the meat's dual personality. Lamb is hearty and robust as well as refined and delicate. In a country where mild-tasting meats, such as beef filet, pork tenderloin and chicken breast, generally are preferred, lamb is the nonspecialty meat with the strongest flavor. However it also fetches the highest price. A sumptuous reception at which hors d'oeuvres of foie gras or caviar are served also might feature hand-held lamb chops. Michael Batt, the new executive chef at Thom in New York, takes advantage of lamb's dual characteristics of elegance and gaminess with his grilled lamb sausage with white truffle mashed potatoes and lamb jus. He mixes ground lamb with ground pork and pork fat, adding crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, cumin, salt and a little sugar to make a merguez sausage. "Lamb has that kind of strong, somewhat gamy kind of flavor to it," he says, noting that the truffles also have an earthy yet elegant quality that can stand up to the spicy meat. Chops, racks, noisettes and other cuts utilizing the tender lamb loin continue to be popular, but more unusual cuts are becoming widespread, according to chefs and lamb producers. Gwenaël Le Pape, chef at the new Django restaurant in New York City, says his $24 lamb shank — braised in a heady liquid with star anise, cinnamon, juniper and various herbs — sells as well as the $29 rack of lamb that currently is on the menu. The rack is brushed with Dijon mustard and is coated with a traditional persillade of parsley, garlic, bread crumbs and olive oil, and it is served with minted baby fennel. Le Pape says he plans to keep the shank on the menu permanently but in the winter will replace its current accompaniment of sweet pea polenta with a wild mushroom risotto. Although the food cost for the shank is much lower than that for the rack, Le Pape points out that the shank also is more complicated and time-consuming to prepare.

Complicated preparation is part of the fun for John Besh, executive chef at restaurant August in New Orleans. So is using multiple cuts of lamb, he says. Besh utilizes many parts of the lamb in one dish and prepares each one differently. "There's different cooking methods for different cuts of meat," he says, and the tough pieces with lots of collagen, sinew and elasticity also often are the tastiest parts. For a recent special dinner, Besh says, he bought lamb "hoof-weight and all" from producers near Lake Pontchartrain, from whom he usually buys goat. The lamb was skinned and "very, very fresh," when he bought it. Besh says he likes to buy lamb that way partly to educate his cooks. "I like the cooks to see that this is where our food comes from; it wasn't raised and born in a package. And it reminds us to hone our butchery skills and to utilize all parts of the animal," he says. So for the special dinner Besh braised the tough shoulder, coating it first with extra virgin olive oil mixed with cayenne pepper flakes, salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary and then stewing it with tomato, orange peel and anchovies. "A few anchovies cooked in a dish like this over a long period of time will bring out other flavors, just like adding salt," he says, noting that this is an old Mediterranean technique. The tenderloin was wrapped in strudel dough lined with a mixture of lamb trimmings and fat taken from the rack and ground into a fine paste. That paste then was flavored with smoked Spanish paprika, salt, pepper, garlic and thyme. Besh says that mixture acted as an insulator to the delicate, lean tenderloin and also was a means of basting it. Currently on Besh's menu is a tenderloin and three-bone rack served with what he calls a "cassoulet" of fresh peas and braised lamb shoulder. The peas are small, white "creamer" peas, cooked quickly with lamb jus, garlic, a little orange zest and parsley. The braised shoulder is added at the end. Troy Dupuy, executive chef at La Caravelle in New York, also uses many lamb preparations in one dish. A signature dish includes braised shoulder, roasted leg and sautéed loin. "I like to see various cuts of meat on the same plate," he says. "It is considerably more work, however, I think the awards come when the diner eats the dish." Dupuy bones the leg and seasons it with thyme, rosemary, garlic, kosher salt and cracked pepper, ties it, roasts it and slices it very thin. The shoulder is seared, and then a mirepoix is added. The pan is deglazed with white wine, which is reduced. Then lamb stock is added, and the shoulder is braised for about two and one-half hours. Then Dupuy removes the lamb, covers it with plastic film and strains the liquid through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth. He returns the shoulder to the liquid so that it retains its moisture, and he cools it overnight.

At service he removes the lamb and portions it out while reducing the liquid to a glaze. The loin is quickly sautéed in olive oil to which he adds a little butter that he allows to brown. He also adds thyme, rosemary and garlic. The loin is cooked rare — just a minute and a half to two minutes over medium heat. The lamb is presented atop buckwheat sprouts tossed in olive oil and flavored with curry. He also serves crisp grains of buckwheat that are blanched and then fried. Christian Mir, executive chef at the Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, N.Y., also sears lamb in olive oil. Mir, however, uses the standard rack, a more traditional cut. He sears the lamb in the olive oil before roasting the rack until rare. Then he brushes it with a paste made from garlic that has been cooked slowly in olive oil and then pureed "until it becomes kind of like a tahini consistency," he says. Mir coats the rack in a crust of crushed walnuts and then finishes it in the oven. He plates that with either Yukon gold or fingerling potatoes and a Provençal ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini, red and yellow peppers, herbes de Provence, olive oil and fresh herbs. He serves that with a lamb stock that is reduced to a demi-glace, which is flavored at the last minute with fresh sage. At a recent Slow Food benefit, Dean Zanella, chef at 312 Chicago in Chicago, prepared what he called a Tuscan-style, spit-roasted lamb. The lamb was gutted and aged for a few weeks and then smothered in yogurt, which Zanella says tenderizes the meat and helps keep it moist. A day later he rinsed it off, dried and marinated it for about 12 hours in a puree of olive oil, rosemary, fennel and garlic. The whole lamb was spit-roasted for two and one-half hours, periodically basted with the olive oil puree. Then the saddle was removed, and the legs were roasted another 90 minutes over a low fire to make them more tender. Zanella says using the yogurt is not a Tuscan technique, but spit roasting certainly is. He served the lamb with sweet peas and pancetta and a potato and spring garlic gratin. Zanella also added a Sicilian touch with a baby fennel agrodolce. Lamb is not a common ingredient in many East Asian cuisines, where even slightly gamy food often is shunned. Nonetheless, Toshi Kihara, owner of HamaSaku in Los Angeles, decided to put lamb on his menu, using a hearty sauce from the area around Niigata in the northern part of Japan's main island, Honshu. Lamb chops are marinated in a mixture including the juice of an orangelike citrus called mikan and redcolored akasake mirin, which is sweeter than ordinary mirin. Sake and soy sauce round out the marinade. The next day the lamb is grilled and served with a sauce made from a sesame seed paste called aratigoma, which is mixed with beef stock, honey and soy sauce.

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