Archives for April 2007

Suckling Spring Lamb on a Spit

Spit-Roasted Suckling Lamb with Salsa Verde, Spinach-Ricotta Gnudi and Artichoke Salad 

“I’ll have your lamb shipped to you by the end of next week. Right now he’s still suckling on his mama.”


Those were the words of Sarah Hoffmann at Green Dirt Farm. Hearing them brought on a head rush of mixed emotions. There’s nothing like thinking of yourself as a heartless killer of a cute baby farm animal while at the same time greedily salivating at the thought of its pale, tender flesh.

A healthy sheep at Green Dirt Farm

It started innocently enough. I had only intended to grill a simple leg of lamb for dinner, but what I got instead was a whole lamb carcass sitting in a cooler by my back door.

I was planning a menu for our supper club – four couples who meet four times a year for seasonal dinner parties. I had spring this year. Perfect. I put together an Italian-themed meal that would center on some classic harbingers of spring: fresh chives, artichokes and lamb.

After setting out on an Internet search for some fresh local meat, I landed on a page from Green Dirt, located just outside Kansas City, Missouri. They produce grass-fed lamb and sheep dairy products. And they offer a limited supply of baby spring lamb – animals raised exclusively on their own mother’s milk.

Right away I remembered a story I’d read ten years ago in Saveur magazine about the Roman Easter tradition dating back to ancient times, of serving tiny, milk-fed lamb, called abbacchio. I found the idea so very appealing; something about the sheer pagan ritual combined with photos of piles of juicy, pink roasted meat. It made my mouth water. I wanted to eat one.

Trouble is, finding one of these milk-fed babies in the United States is nearly impossible. Over the years I’ve made attempts to track down a baby lamb. It’s not something your local butcher stocks, needless to say. Usually what’s available is not strictly suckling lamb, but young lamb, which can be anywhere between 5 – 12 months old – too mature to be considered a sacrificial lamb. Typically, true abbacchio is slaughtered at 1 to 2 months of age and weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.

Sarah told me my little lamb was in the 18-pound range, and she would ship it to me fresh, right after slaughter (or, um, processing if that sounds better). I could see the lamb turning over a spit on my backyard barbecue, and I recited my credit card number. It was a huge splurge, considering this main course was going to cost somewhere close to two hundred dollars.

The night before, after marveling a little at the image of a whole gutted animal laid out on my counter, I rubbed the baby down with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and lots of salt and pepper. I threw some halved and squeezed lemons into his tummy cavity and sewed him up.

Being the sort of fly by the seat of my low-rise jeans cook that I am, I didn’t actually plot out how I was going to get the little bugger onto my Weber rotisserie attachment when it came time to fire up the grill. I guess I was sort of passively hoping that it would all work out, or that T would get in touch with his inner Roman shepherd and wire that thing onto the spit for me.

We ended up using the method I’m most comfortable with – improvisation. In order to get the lamb on the relatively short shaft of the rotisserie rod, we had to scrunch him up a bit and lash him with wire. It seemed a perfect fit for the 21-inch wide kettle, until we turned on the motor and saw that the lamb’s neck protruded in such a way as to prevent a full revolution. That’s when we had to get out the hacksaw and saw it off, and that’s also the moment that A chose to come outside to see what we were up to (I’d felt the need to shield her from the sight of the lamb until this point, for some reason) It felt like a scene from Fargo, minus the wood chipper and a crazed Swede.

After about 30 minutes of roasting, the lamb starting to brown a bit too fast, and my olive oil marinade was causing flare-ups. I had a brief image of my guests coming over for the much-touted lamb only to find a charred piece of sinew. So I did what any sensible lamb spit-
roaster would do. I took it off the spit, transferred it to a large roasting pan, lightly covered it with foil and put it into a 350-degree oven for two and a half more hours.
T pulled the meat off the bones, and we served it up on a giant platter.

Was this the most delicious lamb I’ve ever eaten? I have to tell you, yes, it absolutely was. I’d heard that the meat of suckling lamb was mild, almost to the point of being bland. But this guy had delicate flavor, and tender, juicy meat.

And, just in case I’ve come off as a cruel carnivore, I was reminded over and over of the importance in knowing where our food comes from. It seems a little shocking to behold and prepare a meal out of something that still looks remarkably like what it is, a dead animal, when we’re so used to seeing neatly wrapped cuts in the meat case.

Why is it that going out of my way to find local farmers who produce my food in a sustainable, humane manner feels like a big privilege? I wish it were the norm. As much time and expense as my baby lamb cost, it was totally worth it, and I can’t wait to repeat it. Something I read in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma really struck me, and I can’t seem to forget it. Pollan writes that:

No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent…we would no longer continue to raise, kill and eat animals the way we do….we might eat less, but maybe when we did eat animals we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

For more interesting words about abbacchio, check out Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie.

Steven Raichlen, once again, is the Man. His book How to Grill has complete step-by-step illustrations on spit-roasting a whole lamb.

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Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food

Lamb Burgers and Oven-Roasted French Fries

A meal for two hands

Burgers are on the same page as pasta in my book of perfect, comforting meals. They both inspire endless possibilities for one-dish meals and can be sauced and spiced in any number of ways. But, and I hate to admit this, I might have to give burgers the edge on simplicity because I can eat them with my hands – a meal between two pieces of bread. What could be better than that?

I have a penchant for creating and eating burgers – for the past couple of years I’ve been entering the Build a Better Burger contest, which is held every October on the front lawn of Sutter Home Winery in Napa. I have high hopes of someday winning some cash and wearing my Queen of all Burgers sash. I’m already gearing up for another season of burger mania, so keep it tuned as I get grilling.

Sarah over at Avenue Food inspired the sauce for these lamb burgers – I’ve been finding all kinds of uses for it from saucing grilled chicken to topping my burgers.

Lamb Burgers with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Quick Pickled Onions

makes 6 servings

2 pounds ground lamb
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 split, toasted hamburger buns

To make the burgers, combine all ingredients in a large bowl – try not to manhandle the mixture too much. You’re aiming for patties that are tender and juicy, not compacted hockey pucks. Eyeball the mixture into six portions. I do this by dividing it in half, then making three equal portions out of each half. Some fanatics use scales and measuring cups to achieve perfect portions. I leave that up to you.

Grill the patties on a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Serve on toasted buns with the following condiments, or your own favorites.

Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 jar roasted red peppers, drained
4 ounces soft goat cheese
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
alt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the garlic in the olive oil over medium-low heat for a few minutes. This removes the heat of the raw garlic. Place in a food processor and puree with remaining ingredients until smooth.

Quick Pickled Onions

1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Put the onion in a medium bowl and toss with the sugar and vinegar. Marinate 15-30 minutes.

Oven-Roasted French Fries

2 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise, then into 6 planks from each half. Toss on a rimmed baking sheet with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast about 25 minutes, or until tender and golden brown.

Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food

Popcorn, Plain and Fancy

Rosemary Parmesan Popcorn

A few months ago, I bought some organic bulk popcorn and popped a batch the way it was done in ancient times; in a saucepan on the stove top. I shared the bowl with the kids while we watched a movie, and A noticed right away that there was something different – like – hey, crunch – this is really good!

It was good, a revelation, even. I think I’d become so used to mediocre, oversalted popcorn that I forgot how good it can be. I started making popcorn to serve with cocktails, with some chopped fresh rosemary, sea salt and Parmesan cheese grated over the top. It’s even better with some cold champagne. Yum.

Now I can’t go back to the packaged microwave popcorn habit – it just doesn’t compare in flavor, plus I can skip the extra fat, sodium and artificial ingredients.

The only hard thing is that when the kids have been trained to get their popcorn exactly three and a half minutes after they ask for it, waiting for the stovetop stuff can be excruciating.

I was happy to find a brown bag microwave method in Whole Grains by Lorna Sass. Now the kids and the grown-ups share the popcorn love.

Rosemary Parmesan Popcorn
makes 12 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat oil in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add popcorn kernels and cover pan. Cook, shaking pan back and forth occasionally, until popping stops; about 5 minutes. Transfer popcorn to a large serving bowl.

Add the butter, rosemary, pepper and salt to the popcorn and toss gently. Top with cheese and toss once more to blend.

Perfect wine pairing with a crisp, herbal Pinot Gris from Oregon or Argentina; or a chilled sparkling wine like Prosecco.

Microwave Brown Bag Popcorn
thanks to Janelle at Brown Bag Blues for the inspiration

1/4 cup popcorn kernels, organic if possible
2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
Kosher salt, to taste

Toss the kernels with the oil in a small bowl. Pour into a plain brown paper bag and place on a paper towel on the microwave turntable. Cook on high for exactly 1 1/2 minutes. Or, depending on your microwave, listen carefully and stop the microwave as soon as the popping slows; not more than 2 minutes total.

Carefully open the bag and sprinkle with salt.

Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food