Posted on Jan 26, 12:28 PM
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The soup you eat with your hands
When searching for a recipe that would pair well with a gifted wine, an initial recommendation came to try roasted lamb. The deep, smoky notes of the thick, red wine would blast in and wash the mouth with components and depth that the lamb alone couldn’t provide. But lamb? Isn’t that hard? This post is less about a recipe, and more about making lamb something you might cook more frequently because, by all accounts, lamb is a difficult meat to do right.
Lamb is a straightforward beast but a tricky set of meats. The roasts, ribs, legs and shoulders all vary in cooking times, treatments and smells. On first appearance, the bright red meat of a lamb shoulder fools the bystander into thinking they’ll get a nose full of the same smell red beef might have. It’s different – the lamb is a professional greaser. That hint of lanolin that protects a lambs wool can pierce through to processed meat. It’s not “bad,” in so many words, but it is different.
The smell of lamb shoulder shouldn’t be confused with the smell of “gamey” meat. Game carries high iron contents and that tinny, high-pitched flavor and smell is commonly described as gamey. The lamb shoulder carries with it a fatty, almost savory scent that differs, once again, from the most familiar of yummy, fatty meats, cuts of pork, which then earn their high rankings thanks to curing treatments. Off the cuff, no treatment comes to mind where lamb is concerned – it’s just ready for a food party once processed.
Some of the best things to do at a party is rub shoulders with interesting folks who can impart a little wit, a little smarts and spark a conversation – lamb’s inherent flavor can do this to savory vegetables. We’ll switch the word now to aromatics. Aromatics are vegetables that do their best work after sweating a little by sautéeing. Celery, rhubarb, carrots, fennel, leeks, onions and garlic all appreciate a lite workout in the heat before meeting strangers. A little butter in the frying pan on medium heat is all it takes to then sweat these aromatics by nose. As the scents increase, but before they reach a high pitch, pull them! You’re done. We’re not cooking them; we’re just breaking them down a little.
Where all referenced cookbooks promised that we'd be rolling up a shoulder to twine closed, the real shoulder resembled a tattered arrow head with no clear edges to roll against. The savories pan friend well anyway and alerted noses that something good was coming.
Tragically, lamb’s natural complexities come with a long rap sheet of caveats. There are French cuts, bone-in and boned considerations, American cuts and make-or-break variations depending on the final application (stew vs. roast). In short, if you’re roasting a rolled shoulder of lamb, get the fatty side UP. Ours had no distinct fatty side. Also, with the bone removed, all the cookbooks say the resulting rectangle will fill easily with the sweated aromatics; ours was no more a rectangle than New Jersey’s state borders are. This is perhaps why LAMB isn’t always what’s for dinner. Our test did yield some winning points to keep a lamb dinner more casual and less of a freak-out session…
Rubbing the entire cut with a sliced clove of garlic was the right thing to do. Filling our roast to capacity with aromatic savories focusing on celery was the right thing to do. Preheating the oven to 500-degrees was the right thing to do. Lightly salting and peppering the meat while sweating the savories was good. Laying down a bed of rinsed, uncooked Parsley upon the seasoned meat scored more points. Keeping the garlic cuts LARGE was rewarding. Using half the biggest, whitest onion available was definitely the right thing to do.
Adding rinsed, uncooked Mint was a mistake – when we make a green, leafy bed on the meat before adding the savories. The Mint, even in small doses, takes over like a Napoleon and directs the flavor profile away from the aromatics. Adding too little pepper was a minor mistake – among aromatics are vegetables included in the Pepper family like fennel and celery believe it or not. More pepper with a celery-centric roast would have popped this roast into dizzyingly good territory.
Every book agreed on some of the following techniques for Roast Leg of Lamb, for which all also agreed Lamb Shoulder could instead stand in: A 500-degree oven for the first 10 to 15 minutes will properly sear the roast without burning anything. At that point, the temperature should be lowered on the dial to 350-degrees. At 350-degrees, Lamb done medium-rare requires 11 to 15 minutes a pound (to include the 10 to 15 minutes at 500-degrees). Lamb should not be cooked beyond a hard Medium. Lamb can only benefit from about 15 minutes of resting once out of the oven.
What no cookbook bothered to mention was the obvious – as a rolled shoulder, there’s a different doneness for everyone! Every single vegetable was A+ fantastic and that’s why we’re saying to load it to the max! This shoulder of lamb wrapped Celery, Onion, Garlic, Parsley, Salt and Pepper; it was a delightfully basic set of ingredients that became the treasures on the fork and paired smoothly with favored doneness of lamb.
After some moments of this way, that way rolling, a few of the savories found their way to freedom, were replaced and the whole shoulder securely twined closed, the oven had reached the high temperatures needed to seal the deal.
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