What do you like about springtime most? In addition to the longer days and the end of the rainy season, I look forward to the fresh fruits and vegetables in the markets and the most amazing lamb of the year. When lamb starts showing up on restaurant menus I know that the warm weather is right around the corner. It also reminds me of one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had.
On a beautiful, warm late-spring evening many years ago, a friend threw a dinner party for our large crowd of friends. He was an avid cook with some serious skills in the kitchen so we knew the party was going to be memorable. The patio was lit with strings of lights woven through the trees and the tables were covered with beautiful linens and set for a multi-course dinner. Glassware sparkled in the light of the candles scattered down the length of the tables. A huge cut of meat was cooking and the aromas wafting from the kitchen had everyone drooling. We couldn’t wait for dinner.
Course after course came out of the kitchen and the wine flowed freely that evening. There was plenty of laughter, the clinking of glasses, and many toasts were made. When the entree was served it was quite dark and we couldn’t really see what we were eating. There were a lot of jokes about how it could have been anything and we wouldn’t know any better. One bite and I knew it was the best thing I had ever eaten, but no one could identify for sure what it was. There were lots of guesses and we finally had to ask my friend what he had prepared. When he told us it was leg of lamb, I just about fell off my chair! There was absolutely no way that this delicately flavored, tender, juicy meat could be lamb. That was the day I learned that not all lamb is created equal.
Lamb is one of those foods that people are either in love with or not and I’m on the “not” side of the fence. I don’t like the muskiness of lamb and no amount of mint jelly could drown it out when I was growing up. It was one of my mother’s favorite meals and we had to suffer through it at least once a year. Because of ignorance and habit, my mother always cooked our meats well done, which turned everything into shoe leather. When I became an adult and started learning to cook in earnest, I learned that the cut of lamb you purchase and how you cook makes all the difference.
Around the same time as the dinner party, I used to host impromptu dinner parties regularly. A bunch of folks would come over to my place after work, everyone would chip in with either food or cash and I would make a big dinner. The one main rule, that still holds true, was that whomever didn’t cook had to clean up. After working hard in the kitchen on a great meal, it is wonderful to be able to sit back and relax after eating, letting the others do the dishes!
With the memory of that amazing lamb meal in my mind, for one of these dinner parties I got ambitious and tried a new technique I had read about in a food magazine. It took much longer than I anticipated and by the time I got dinner on the table everyone was ravenous. That night I learned two things … 1- that adding mustard to pan drippings creates an amazing sauce and 2 – if you keep people waiting for dinner, smelling it as it cooks, everything tastes delectable when you finally serve them, whether you messed it up or not, LOL!
A rack of lamb, roasted with fresh herbs and presented with a succulent pan sauce is one of spring’s most luxuriant offerings. Well worth the splurge in my opinion. Lamb should always be served medium-rare, deep pink in the center, never well done or it will be tough and dry. The smaller the ribs, the younger and more tender the lamb.
Marinating lamb with fresh herbs a day ahead perfumes it with an intense freshness, helping guard against any gaminess. When paired with steamed vegetables, it is a culinary triumph worthy of any celebration. Squeezing a little lemon over the lamb adds a fresh brightness, complementing the savory flavors.
In today’s recipe once the lamb has been cooked, you set it aside, tented with foil to rest, while you make the pan sauce. Mustard, lemon juice and herbs are added directly to the pan drippings. When combined they make an absolutely delectable glaze and serving sauce. Whisk in a little butter right before drizzling over the lamb and your guests will swoon with joy.
One of the things I like most about this recipe is that it is ready in no time (after marinating) and you can get an elegant meal on the table for Easter with very little work. If you prep and your vegetables in advance, everything will come together very quickly and you can spend more time sipping wine and chatting with your guests.
Easter egg hunts with children dressed in pastels, carrying their baskets and running around the yard looking for hidden treasures, is one of my fondest childhood memories. I hope you all have a fabulous Easter and that the Easter Bunny brings you many sweet treats.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
If you are making two racks of lamb (as described in the recipe below) you can parade the very impressive presentation around the table and wow your guests. To create a “guard of honor” you stand the two racks upright and interlock the ribs like you would the fingers of your two hands with palms together. This creates an “X” with the ribs. The racks support each other and make the whole presentation more stable – but I always keep a thumb on either end just to be sure it doesn’t topple over when I am moving it.
Back in the kitchen I separate the racks and cut each one into chops to make it easier to eat. It is easy to cut between the ribs. Remove the chine bone if it was tied back on. Stand the racks upright and cut downward with your knife – if you encounter any resistance at the bottom, tilt the knife slightly to move around the obstruction as needed. You can also cut double chops which have 2 ribs each.
Be sure to use gluten-free beef broth and watch the label on your mustard. Use white wine instead of vermouth just to be safe. Though vermouth is gluten-free, some may be sensitive to some ingredients that occasionally are added depending on the manufacturer.
Kitchen Skill: How to “French” a Rack of Lamb or Pork
Frenching means to scrape all the clinging meat, membranes, and fat off the exposed bones on a rack of ribs. Most racks of pork and lamb are sold already Frenched, but rarely are the racks cleaned as well as I like so I wind up finishing it myself. If you can’t find a Frenched rack, here are steps to do it yourself with videos to demonstrate two ways of doing it.
Remove the large slab of fat and meat from the top of the ribs, pulling it back and using a slender knife to help release it. If there is a chine bone at the bottom, cut that away too to make it much easier to carve between the bones. Once you are done Frenching, you can tie the chine bone back on. All of your scraps can be used to make a sauce for your dish, ground, or other uses.
You want about 2-inches of the bones completely clean, starting about 1-inch above the eye of meat. Make a cut straight across the whole rack. Starting at the cut line and following the curve of the ribs, slice away the excess fat and scraps. Flip the rack over and make a similar cut to release the membrane on the bottom of the ribs. Score the membrane in the center of each rib and on either side of the ribs. Cut down on either side of each rib, then across at the first cut line to remove the meat from between the bones. Using the back of your knife. scrape the edges of the exposed bones and finally use a towel to finish cleaning each rib. Once the rack is fully Frenched, I like to tie the chine bone back on to protect the eye and to give me some fun nibbling bits.
Martha Stewart invited Evan Lobel of Lobel Meats in New York City to demonstrate how he Frenches a rack. He shows a great technique (the one I prefer) and gives ideas of how to use the excess meat that is trimmed off. This also helps us understand why racks are so expensive when prepared by the butcher. For a different technique, take a look at Fine Cooking’s video. I like this description given by a culinary student after learning the technique in class. And here is a great article about using the correct vocabulary when talking to your butcher to get exactly what you want … and it addresses the chine bone removal that I talked about above.
- 2 (14 to 16 oz) racks of lamb, usually 8 ribs each, cut from the ribs not loin chops
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 to 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed (use the flat side of a Chef’s knife)
- 10 sprigs fresh rosemary; the leaves stripped off 6 sprigs (or 4 tbsp dried rosemary) and 4 sprigs left whole, for garnish
- Zest of 2 lemons (yellow portion only; use a microplane grater)
- Kosher salt
- 2 small shallots, finely chopped
- 1 cup low-sodium beef broth, gluten-free if needed
- 1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
- 2 tbsp Dijon or Creole-style mustard
- 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 tbsp cold butter, cut into small pieces
- Prepare and Marinate the Lamb: Remove the lamb from the refrigerator and set on a clean baking sheet. Trim the bones clean of any excess meat down to the main muscle (this is called Frenching) see Kitchen Skill above for a detailed description.
- In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the pepper, garlic, rosemary leaves, and lemon zest together in a small bowl. Rub the olive oil mixture liberally over all sides of the lamb and transfer to resealable plastic bags or place in a baking dish covered with plastic wrap along with any excess seasoned oil. Refrigerate at least 8 hours and up to overnight.
- With a rack in the lower third of the oven, preheat it to 425°F.
- Remove lamb from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking and scrape off any excess herbs and zest (they will burn). Discard marinade. Sprinkle each rack of lamb lightly with kosher salt.
- Cook the Lamb: Heat the 2 tbsp oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. If your skillet is too small you can use two skillets or cook this in batches. Sear the lamb, fat-side down, in the hot oil until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the racks over and place the skillet in the hot oven. When transferring to the oven, stand the racks up with the ribs interlocking in one skillet. Carefully stabilize the meat as you slide the skillet into the oven. Alternately, once browned you can move the racks to an ovenproof baking dish, still standing upright.
- Roast the lamb for 15 minutes at 425°F and then reduce the temperature to 325°F. Continue roasting until an instant read thermometer registers 130°F for medium rare, about 5 to 10 minutes longer. Do not overcook lamb or it will be tough.
- Remove from the oven and transfer lamb to a cutting board. Tent loosely with foil and set aside to rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes while you make the sauce. Keep an oven mitt draped over the handle of the hot skillet so you do not accidentally grab it and burn your hand.
- Prepare the Sauce: Set the skillet with the meat drippings over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, about 1 minute until softened. Add the broth and wine and cook, scraping up any browned bits, until reduced slightly and thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium low, stir in the mustard, lemon juice, and rosemary and cook for 1 minute more, whisking constantly. Take the pan off the heat. Add the butter, a few small pieces at a time, whisking until the butter melts it into the sauce. Repeat until you have added all the butter. Season sauce with salt to taste.
- To Serve: Carve the racks between the ribs into chops and serve 2 to 3 chops per person. Drizzle lightly with a little of the pan sauce and serve immediately with steamed fresh vegetables.
- Yield: 4 to 5 servings
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