Tag Archives: Lamb

Fantastic Farmer Facilitates Food for Fanatics

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an event put on by our local chapter of Slow Food USA. In its 5th year, the event was called Lambstravaganza. It took place way out in Missouri farm territory, about 2 hours west of our BIG city of St. Louis, at the farm of Dave and Barb Hillebrand. Surprise: the Hillebrands raise lambs. The little one in the photo above had been born just that morning – mom and baby were clearly doing fine by the time we arrived around 3 pm. The Hillebrands also raise chickens (for eggs), a few goats and a few cows (both for their own consumption).

The business, called Prairie Grass Farms, comprises about 540 acres when you combine a number of different locations the Hillebrands are using. They have roughly 700 sheep. The family has been in the farming business for generations. Up until 9 years ago or so, they raised “row crops.” This term is the farmers’ euphemism for corn and soybeans – commodity crops which the government subsidizes. Raising row crops requires lots of inputs (aka chemicals), crops are not rotated and only the chemical companies really believe this is ok for the earth. The Hillebrands know better.

Now they only have animals and grass. It is all very symbiotic, sustainable, good for our earth. Their sheep are kept in relatively tight groups for grazing – protected by movable fencing and some wonderful and devoted working dogs. The dogs keep away the predators: mostly coyotes and fox. The sheep munch up an area of “salad”, trample what’s left as they go and leave their waste to fertilize and regenerate what they have eaten. Other than the sun, the rain and what the sheep leave behind, there are no inputs on the land. The creatures in the soil go to work on the waste and the left over roughage. It all gets mixed in with the soil naturally.

Nature takes care of the regeneration of the herd, too. Dave and Barb have a small number of rams who are able to service the girls. The rams are given full access to the ewes for 60 days a year. One ram can handle about 50 ewes (nice work). The timing of the rams’ access to the ewes is meant to enable, for the most part, the lambs to be born all around the same time of year. They are born naturally, in the field. Dave says he is trying to manage it so that when the ladies are with child and need it most, there is plenty of nutritious fresh grass around to so that they will thrive. Otherwise, during the harshest of winter months, the grass may be sparse, the rain or snow may be heavy and the ladies will be hungry. As needed, Dave brings in some hay and supplemental grain to help the ladies out. But, if most of the lambing can take place in the late spring or early summer, the diet of the pregnant mother can be of the best spring grasses. Also, the lambs will be able to grow and fatten up just on mother’s milk and the grasses. 

If a ewe does not produce, she is “retired.” (Hillebrands’ reputation for their lamb bratwurst is legend.) This is genetic management at the farm level. At first, it sounded harsh to me but then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The sheep have a job to do and in exchange for their job they are managed responsibly and with respect for them and the land. If a particular animal cannot do its job then room is made for one who can.

At Prairie Grass Farms, nothing is wasted, except the wool. And that really is not wasted either. The wool is useless to Dave and Barb. It is not fine enough to sell for anything worth the effort of getting it – they have too many other things to take up their time. So, they give it away for the shearing. The person who does the shearing takes the wool and makes use of it. A good deal for all.

Prairie Grass Farms sells its lamb and eggs at our local farmers’ markets and to many restaurants throughout the area. A number of their best restaurant clients showed up and gave their time and resources to cook for those of us who attended Lambstravaganza. It was a feast of extravagant proportions, as the name suggests, with a host of fine chefs showcasing their creativity in a kitchenless environment. We ate in a barn, open on two sides, with an old tarp covered truck behind us, looking like the perfect set piece. It was a beautiful, blustery day. I ate fabulous food, met friendly and interesting people and (my favorite thing) I learned a whole lot.

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Filed under Cooking, Education, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Lamb, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Fanatic Fiddles with Fire; Lamb roast gets torched.

My mother-in-law (Libby) loves lamb. However, she also thinks that it is only for a special occasion. Thus, she only eats lamb at a restaurant…unless I cook it for her. I, on the other hand, eat lamb when ever the mood strikes. This is good for my mother-in-law! I was raised on the stuff (steak or Chinese food was what we ate on a special occasion). As a kid we ate lamb burgers, lamb chops and roast leg of lamb. My mom’s meatloaf even had lamb in it. From the left-over leg, we had lamb sandwiches. I don’t think I ever at lamb at a restaurant until I got a little older and went through a fancy French (aka a we-sauce-it-all)  restaurant phase when Carré D’agneau came into my lexicon.
 
So, when I seasoned up the last of the shoulder roasts I had in my freezer and sent it swimming in the Sous Vide Supreme, I gave Libby a call. Because of its size and somewhat tough nature, the roast was going to be in the water oven (at 57.5C/135.5F) for at least 36 hours. When it came time to take it out, if I didn’t serve it immediately, I knew I could hold it in the fridge for a couple of days after that as long as I quick chilled it down in an ice water bath before storing it. (See this if you have any questions about that.)  I stored it in the the bag I had cooked it in, with all the spicy juices infused with the garlic, herbs, and pepper I had put into the bag with the meat. There was about 1 1/2 cups of jus in the bag at the end with which I planned to make a sauce.  But I got distracted by spring. 

 

The season arrived here in the midwest like it has not done in several years and with it came plethora of articles containing recipes about cooking lamb. Springtime is, you see, the time when lambs are born, not to mention Easter, a traditional holiday for eating lamb (why not try rabbit…ok, ok, just a bad taste joke).  By the way, the spring lamb is not really ready for Easter, at least here, because our lambs are not harvested until May. Anyway I digress: I had seen one article in which people were mercilessly diss-ing that good old fashioned mint jelly (which is actually apple jelly flavored with mint) that we used to eat with lamb as kids. That stuff is really pretty disgusting. So I decided to try something suggested by one of these writers.

As instructed in the recipe, I took a whole mess of fresh mint from my garden, chopped it up with my favorite tool (the immersion blender) using the little chopper attachment. In the end, I had about a cup of chopped mint. I boiled a half of a cup of apple cider vinegar and a quarter cup of water with a half cup of brown sugar, making sure that the sugar was well dissolved. I set the liquid aside and when it was a bit cooled, I added the chopped mint. Voila! This was described by the writer of the recipe as a traditional English “mint sauce” and touted as being a much tastier accompanyment for roast lamb.

Meanwhile, back at the lamb, I heated the roast back up in the SVS about an hour before my mother-in-law was expected to arrive. This was more than enough time to get the roast heated back up to the 57.5C temp at which I had cooked it. And here is something beautiful about sous vide cooking: by heating the meat no higher than the temp at which it was first prepared, the meat does not become more well done!

Think about it. It is impossible for anything in the water bath to get heated higher than the temperature of the water it is cooked in. Even more important is the fact that heat transfer in water is far, far faster than it is in air (like in your oven). On the re-heat, by allowing the meat to spend only as much time as was needed to bring it up to temperature, the meat is not further cooked! If you re-heat something in a conventional oven, in order to get to a desirable eating temperature internally in a reasonable amount of time, it must cook more on the outside.

Just before I was ready to serve this dinner, I took the roast from the SVS, removed it from the bag and patted it dry with some paper towels. 

   

I took out my Iwatani Pro kitchen torch and worked that baby over thoroughly with the fire.

The effect of this was to put a yummy crust on the outside of the roast and also to heat up the outside just a little bit more.  Here is the roast after I torched it but before it was sliced completely. Look at that fabulous crust!

The roast was tender and moist and sliced with ease. It sliced up beautifully and looked so pretty on the platter. 

 

I served it with some lovely pasta from the farmer’s market which I sauced with a little mascarpone and butter. The pasta was flavored with pepper and lemon so it didn’t need much. I tossed together some organic greens with a very light vinagrette and let the lamb do all the talking.

Dinner is served

It was fabulously tender, juicy and so flavorful that it really did not need any sauce at all. This was a good thing because, in all honesty, I just hated that traditional mint sauce. I took one taste of that stuff – way, way, way too sweet (much sweeter than any nasty mint jelly, in fact) – and shoved it off to the side. It might have been nice to have a sauce made from the jus but actually, I was the only one to notice. Bob and Libby ate their meal with relish and my mother-in-law continued to rave about how she loves lamb.

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Filed under Cooking, kitchen tools, Lamb, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

FANATIC FINALLY FINDS A FUNCTION FOR FORMERLY FUTILE CHUNKS OF LAMB (well almost)

A friend and I bought a lamb a while back. We each received about 25 pounds of organic, all natural, pasture raised meat from the animal. Yum, I love lamb! My half included 8 pounds of ground meat, 2 pieces of rack, 12 nice thick loin chops, 2 shoulder roasts, 2 leg roasts, 2 shanks, and two breast pieces (my friend gave me hers).

One of the not-so-good things about getting a big ol mess of meat like this is that you end up with parts you would never buy, let alone have any idea of how to cook. In the case of our little lamb, I got two pieces of breast. I looked at this meat like a blocked writer looks at a keyboard. For so long as it has been in my freezer, I’ve been looking at the strange, frozen hunks of protein and skipping right along to the burgers or the chops. I don’t have a dog anymore or I would have boiled it up for her. When I took out cookbooks looking for help, there was none. And, when I did what I do best, i.e., comb the internet, I found total lamb breast (aka belly) nothingness.

I have to be honest and tell you my bad attitude is tainted by having watched an experienced chef-who-shall-remain-nameless fail miserably at several different tries with this stuff. He could not tame this sinewy, only moderately meaty lump of lamb. He worked with the boned out version. He rolled and roasted it, he braised it, he cooked it slow and low in the oven. It was still a disaster. In fact, it was so bad the guests he fed it to were embarrassed for him.

In contrast to the breast pieces, I was anxious to cook up the lamb shanks, especially now that I finally had the Sous Vide Supreme. So what did I have to lose by throwing those breast pieces in there along with them?

I seasoned everything with some kosher salt, and then to the breast pieces added garlic powder, fresh rosemary and a whole mess of cumin. In envisioned a very middle-eastern sort of flavor. I used garlic, dried oregano, fresh rosemary and thyme for the shanks. I bagged up the two chunks of lamb breast and the two shanks, individually and placed all four pieces in the SVS at 60 degrees C. This would be a real adventure – we will see what tomorrow will bring. I planned to leave the shanks in for 24 hours and, having absolutely nothing to lose, I decided to go for 48 with the breast pieces. In that amount of time I hoped that the collagen would be all broken down and everybody would be nice and tender.

I was able to get a really good seal around the lamb pieces even though they are shaped so irregularly. The pros put down the Foodsaver because it does not get as strong a vacuum as you might like. But most of us at home have neither funds nor space for a chamber-type vacuum sealer. The plebian version will just have to suffice. You can get a good enough seal out of the Foodsaver by using plenty of plastic and manipulating it to hug the contents as the vacuuming is taking place. The breast is curved so I held the plastic tight along the curve so it would keep good contact with it.

It was the shank of the evening (I was dying to say that) 24 hours later when I reached into the water bath with my bear fingers and pulled out these puppies. I was I little nervous. I have braised (osso buco style) many a lamb shank slow and low in my oven and it was always a challenge to keep the meat on the bone. But when I took these sous vide, slow cooked shanks out of the plastic, nothing fell apart. To tell the truth, I really did not expect it to fall apart but it is still an amazing thing when you first experience this.

The meat was soft, extremely flavorful and a beautiful medium rare. There was very little juice in the bag but definitely more than with the chicken. I poured this juice (from both bags) into the sauce I was preparing for this fantastic meat. The sauce, made from a base of veal stock, had San Marzano tomato paste, mirepoix (sweated first with butter and then deglazed with red wine) and a little salt, had been simmering for about and hour. It was rich and aromatic but when I added the juice from the meat, it came together beautifully. 

I was getting very excited about this experiment – I could tell it was going to be good. I pulled most of the meat from the bones with my fingers and the rest had to be tamed with the knife.   

Then I strained the sauce through a chinois, put it back in a clean pot, reheated it with the meat.

I was very careful to only briefly reheat the meat, not wanting to do anything to ruin the wonderful texture and flavor it had right out of the SVS. I made up a pot of creamy polenta (thank you muse Lydia for suggesting I add bay leaves to the pot when making polenta) to serve the meat on top of. I was going for a kind of Mediterranean comfort food.

Here is the finished product. It was was fabulous food – a meal we would have happily eaten at our favorite bistro:

 

Ok, so I’m not going to tell you what happened with the breast, quite yet. It was good! Come back soon!

Next up: Formerly Futile but now Finger Food – Breast of Lamb Panini…Really

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Filed under sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Lamb Shanks, Sous Vide Supreme, Uncategorized