Musing: A New Way with Lamb Chops

Grilled Lamb Chops

During these days of sheltering in place, avoiding crowds, and making the most out of what’s available at the supermarket, I’ve grown more flexible in the kitchen. This short post is one example of an old dog learning new tricks.

More often than not, when it comes to lamb chops, I opt for baby lamb chops cooked scottadito (Italian for burnt finger). Thin, lightly marinated chops are placed on hot grill pan, cooked on high for two minutes a side, and then served with a dollop of green sauce or pesto. I’ve written about them here.

Lately, however, I’ve been unable to procure these baby chops and have had to settle for thicker loin chops, which until recently weren’t turning out quite right for me. Because of their size, they were coming out either dry and over cooked or too rare and chewy.

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Tender Lamb Shoulder

Tender Lamb Shoulder

To make room in our freezer, something that’s a much valued resource these days, I took out what I thought was a 3 1/2 pound lamb shoulder roast, which wound up to be 2 individual roasts. Originally, we had intended to use the lamb for Easter, but we needed the space.

The recipe I had chosen almost a month ago, “Tender Lamb Shoulder,” is from Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients cookbook. In fact, it was watching him prepare this dish on our local PBS station that motivated me to purchase the book, which has already provided the source for several posts on Cooking from Books.

If you follow my blog, you probably know that I gravitate towards recipes that use a modicum of ingredients, require a minimal amount of prep, and deliver loads of flavor. The subject of today’s post checks all those boxes: 5 ingredients, 10 minutes prep, and a panoply of flavors.

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Braised Lamb with Red Wine and Prunes

Braised Lamb with Red Wine & Prunes

I’ve always been a fan of Mark Bittman and his minimalist approach to cooking. Not only are his dishes easy to prepare, but the typically limited number of ingredients in his recipes makes for clean, rich flavors Read more

Lamb Stew with Saffron and Tomatoes

Lamb Stew with Saffron & Tomatoes

Once again, I have to attribute the origin of yet another blog post to my better half. A couple of weekends ago, we were watching an episode of “Lidia’s Kitchen” on our local PBS channel. As she was cooking, I remarked that my only disappointment with Lidia Bastianich’s show is her neglecting to provide exact measurements for key ingredients to a dish.

While I continue to maintain she does it to promote sales of the cookbooks on which her shows are based, Andrew more forgivingly attributes it to Lidia’s being a “q.b.,” or “quanto basta,” chef, an expression found in Italian cookbooks that means “just enough” or “as much as you think you need.” However, when he recently surprised me with a copy of Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, which he “happened” to order after watching the aforementioned episode, I’m sticking to my “profit-motivated” position.

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Summertime Lamb Stew

Summertime Lamb Stew

Looking through a number of recently acquired cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a Tuscan beef stew called peposo (peppery) owing to its liberal use (up to 6 tablespoons) of black pepper. As I researched the recipe both in my books and online, my mouth started to water. But the more I read, the more it appeared that this tasty dish was better suited for winter than early summer. So, I placed peposo on the back burner and began to search for a more seasonal recipe, which eventually led me to Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s insightful collection of authentic recipes, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

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Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes

I know that braised meat dishes serve typically as cold-weather fare, but I had some lamb shanks in the freezer that were reaching their use-by date. Moreover, since I usually prepare lamb for Easter dinner, I thought that Mario Batali’s recipe for “Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes” from his book Molto Batali was a good choice.

What I found interesting about the recipe was the absence of any herbs. So many lamb recipes use at least one, most often rosemary, but this had none. Even the seasoning was minimal: just salt and pepper. In addition, I was intrigued by the addition of red grapes at the end of cooking, which I thought would serve the same role as a mint sauce or red-currant jelly does with a lamb roast. I should perhaps note that until my husband mistook a garlic clove for a grape, I hadn’t realized that I had failed to stir in the grapes at the end of cooking. Consequently, I stirred them into the sauce after serving and then placed a few on each plate.

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Lamb Chunks with Olives

Lamb Chunks with Olives

“Serve immediately. . .” When I read these words at the end of Lidia Bastianich’s recipe “Lamb Chunks with Olives” in Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, I had second thoughts about preparing this dish—especially since it was for a first-time dinner guest. I didn’t want to be cooking after our guest arrived or while cocktails were being served, and now I wasn’t sure if this stew-like dish could be prepared ahead.

Moreover, an online review claiming that, although tasty, “the lamb was not tender,” gave me additional pause. While other recipes for stewing lamb shoulder called for up to 90 minutes of cooking time after browning the meat, Lidia’s recipe appeared to require only 45 to 50 minutes in total.

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Lamb Shank Redemption

Roasted Lamb Shank

While paging through an old cookbook the other day, I came upon a printout of a recipe that I found in December 2006. Titled, “Roast Lamb for One,” it was Nigella Lawson’s recipe for roasting a single lamb shank, a perfect meal for the bachelor that I was back then and why I had tucked it away.

No longer single, however, I decided to double the recipe and make roast lamb for two. The only ingredient that I didn’t have was a red currant jelly for the finishing sauce, so I decided to check out the recipe online to see if any readers had suggested an alternative. That’s when I discovered that the recipe had received a considerable number of negative reviews that shared a common problem; in the words of one reviewer: “. . . just a burnt mess on the bottom of the pan and no juices left at all to make a gravy. The meat was nowhere near tender. . .”

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Musing: Lamb

Braised Lamb Shank

Inspired by a recent post on Diane Darrow’s blog, Another Year in Recipes, last night I prepared its featured recipe, Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary. Because I had by accident left my rosemary at the market, I substituted fresh chopped thyme, supplemented by some herbes-de-Provence infused sea salt. Nevertheless, the dish turned out splendidly. The lamb was the proverbial fall-off-the bone tender and was smothered in silky, buttery onions. The deeply flavored braising juices were deliciously soaked up by some whole-wheat couscous.

Owing to time constraints, we didn’t take any photos until after the lamb was cooked. However, the photos we took come close to conveying exactly how good this braise was.

Just out of the oven

At the end of her post, Darrow wondered why lamb has become so unpopular in the US. Indeed, since the early 60s, when per-person lamb consumption was about 4.5 pounds per year, today it hovers around 1 pound. In the comments section, readers suggested several reasons ranging from lamb’s gamey flavors to its high price and even to its limited availability.

Like Darrow, I too am puzzled about lamb’s decline in popularity here. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, at home I was served more lamb than beef. A roast leg of lamb was often the main course of a Sunday supper; broiled lamb chops with lemon wedges were a frequent weeknight meal; and one of my favorites was my aunt’s lamb breast stuffed with eggs, cheese, and herbs.

Maybe with the arrival of the more affordable New Zealand lamb in our supermarkets we may see an increase in consumption. In any event, I’ll be posting plenty of lamb dishes here.

Abruzzese Lamb Stew

Abruzzese Lamb Stew

Having now lived in San Diego for just over a year, I’ve come to accept as a given that we really don’t have the typical four seasons here. Sure there are some changes as the year goes by, but the variations in weather are never as dramatic as in New York. Recently, when our local weather reporter announced that fall had arrived, she claimed there was a “chill in the air.” “Chill!” I shouted back at the television, “It’s 69 degrees and sunny.”

Despite Mother Nature’s lack of cooperation here, I’m determined to keep seasonality in my kitchen throughout the year by cooking the same seasonal dishes here that I did in New York.

Such was the case last night, when I chose to prepare an Abruzzese lamb stew from a recipe I found in the “Fall” section of Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. (The book is now available in a Kindle version on Amazon.)

Like many authentic Italian recipes, it uses only a few ingredients and requires minimal preparation. In fact, the only work I had to do was to slice some onion, chop some parsley, and toss it into a heavy-bottomed casserole together with a little olive oil, a few sage leaves, and a couple of pinches of salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir everything together, cover, and set over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. That was it.

I must admit, however, that the recipe caused me some concern. I read it several times. Where. I thought, was the cooking liquid? No wine? No stock? Not even water? No browning of the meat? The authors did say it was “close to effortless,” so I took them at their word. I decided that if things didn’t look right after the first 30 minutes of cooking, I’d add some wine to the pot.

But after the first half hour of cooking, I was happy to find that the lamb had started to exude what looked like an adequate amount of its juices and the thinly sliced onions had softened. To maintain a moist cooking environment, I limited my stirring to every 30 minutes. Each time I uncovered the pot, everything looked right; the meat was browner, the juices a little darker and more concentrated, and the aroma. . . ah . .We couldn’t wait to sit down to dinner.

I followed the recipe pretty closely; however, because I was unable to get bone-in stew meat or a peperoncino rosso, I settled for boneless lamb chunks and substituted crushed red pepper flakes. Moreover, since I was cooking only for two, I reduced the amount of meat from 3 pounds to 2; also given the size of my casserole, I added an extra tablespoon of oil. I also thought that the dish could use a little more salt than the recipe called for, but that’s always a matter of individual taste. Finally, I opted for polenta to capture the dish’s sauce rather than toasted bread.

Ultimately, this had to be one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever made. With so few ingredients, the flavors of the lamb were robust and were nicely complemented by the sweetness of the onion and the heat of the red pepper. The rich sauce was deeply flavored and went perfectly with a simple polenta.

Abruzzese Lamb Stew (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.)

Ingredients

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds boneless lamb stew meat (do not dry the meat; the stew needs its moisture.)
1 cup thinly sliced onion
4 large fresh sage leaves
3 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt

Place all the ingredients in a heavy bottomed casserole. Stir to coat the meat and the onions with the oil and evenly distribute the ingredients.

The stirred ingredients

Set over low heat and cook for 2 hours, stirring about every 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes
After 1 hour
After 90 minutes
After 2 hours

When the lamb is tender, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on warmed plates or a platter. Optionally, skim off any excess fat from the sauce and pour it over the lamb. Serve with polenta or toasted country bread.

Wine Pairing: Sangiovese, or if like me you prefer well done lamb with a dry white, opt for an Abruzzese Pecorino or a Sauvignon Blanc.