Thursday, March 28, 2013

Silere Merino Lamb

One of the great aspects of my job is that I get to try a lot of new products, often long before they become available to other chefs. And this suits my restless, exploring nature to a T. Three weeks ago, I got a care package of a new lamb product to try. The lamb, styled Silere Alpine Origin Merino, is a premium quality product just about to make its way to the US from the mountains at the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand.

I was really looking forward to trying it; most of my experience is with our local sheep. I have worked with all manner of local Suffolks, Southdowns, Katahdins, and crosses, but never with Merino before. And the fact that Merino is known primarily as a wool sheep also piqued my professional curiosity.

If you remember your Latin (don't chefs study Latin? ;), silere is the verb "to be silent," evocative of the quiet alpine locations whence these sheep come. According to the marketing literature: "Their alpine environment and foraging lifestyle means that Merino mature more slowly and are naturally leaner than other breeds of sheep. Silere alpine origin merino can be taken through to 18-months of age, which allows for more natural development. This results in the fine grain, appealing density and clean palate that are characteristic of Silere alpine origin merino."

This all whetted my appetite to dig into the lamb and put it through the paces. My package contained very neatly trimmed spare ribs, a boneless leg, and so-called leg fillets, long boneless strips of steak from the leg. These neatly sealed packages are cute; I'm used to working with whole carcasses!

Spare Ribs, Boneless Leg, Leg Filets
The first thing that I noticed is how pink this lamb is when compared to any other lamb. Looking at the spare ribs in the lower left of the picture above, you can see how pink they are, looking more like pork than lamb.

Silere Merino (left) v. Australian (right)
And comparing two legs, the Silere Merino on the left in the picture above and an Australian leg that I purchased at Costco, several things are evident. First, the Silere leg is small compared to the Australian leg. You can certainly see the lighter shade of pink, almost pork pink, in the New Zealand leg, but you may have to click on the photo to see the grain differences in the meat. The meat of the Aussie leg is very stringy and grainy compared to the very smooth Silere leg. I would have loved to compare to a local lamb, but our lambs are just dropping now and they won't get to market weight before summer.

Oven-Ready Spare Ribs

 Balsamic-Braised Lamb Spare Ribs

The first cut we tackled was the spare ribs, because in our kitchen, we're ribs kind of guys. This recipe yields 8 appetizer portions or four dinner-sized portions.

8 pieces spare ribs
salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh sage
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup white wine

Lightly season the spareribs and place in a braising pan with the remaining ingredients. Add water as necessary to come up about a third of the way on the ribs. Cover tightly and cook in slow oven until the ribs are fork tender, but not falling apart. Two hours is generally sufficient for a small pan of ribs like this. Larger pans will naturally take significantly longer.

Balsamic-Braised, Grilled Lamb Spare Ribs on Risotto Milanese
For restaurant service, we remove the ribs from the braising liquid and chill them until they are firm, generally overnight. We strain and chill the braising liquid so that we can lift the congealed fat right off the top. Then we reduce the braising liquid to make a sauce and adjust the seasoning as necessary. The ribs that you see here have been marked up on the grill and then heated all the way through in a slow oven. We are plating them with a classic saffron risotto milanese, a spoonful of the sauce, and some fresh fava beans.

We sampled several customers on this dish and with the exception of one, they all loved it and clamored for more. The one that didn't like it complained about the fat cap on the ribs; it seems to me that she wouldn't have liked any ribs. This is a very polite way of saying what I was really thinking. ;)

Next up, we delved into the leg, seaming it out, and marinating it with a touch of olive oil, garlic, pimentón, and oregano. We lightly grilled the leg and served it over an Israeli couscous flavored with red, yellow, and orange peppers, poblano peppers, artichoke hearts, grape tomatoes, green onions, garlic, and finished in the style of risotto with grated pecorino romano and some pimentón aïoli. I know what you're thinking. You're right too! This is a damned fabulous dish!

Grilled Leg of Lamb on Israeli Couscous
The first thing that I noticed is that you have to be very careful when grilling this Silere leg meat. It is so lean that it needs to be cooked rather less than more; you need to treat it like venison or elk, the rarer the better. Just like these other super low fat proteins, the more you heat them, the more shrink you're going to get. Plan your portion sizes accordingly.

We tasted the Silere leg against the Aussie leg in the kitchen, and then sampled them in the dining room. The texture of the Silere is very fine and as a result, the meat is extremely tender. The flavor is very mild. Customers liked all the samples. Those who are not big lamb fans preferred the very mild Silere and those who love the gaminess of lamb preferred the Aussie lamb. Everyone liked the texture of the Silere lamb better.

Yiouvetsi Mise en Place
At home on a Sunday, my day off, I decided to do a classic Greek braise on some of the leg fillets (also called leg tenders), arni yiouvetsi, named after the clay pot in which the dish is traditionally cooked. As you can see below, my clay pot is nothing but a roasting pan.

Over the years, I have arrived at a very simple yiouvetsi that really appeals to me. I cube and sear lamb and remove it from the pan. Then I add onions and brown them just a bit. Back into the pan goes the lamb along with tomatoes and their juice, oregano, lemon juice, and everything gets covered with water and brought to a boil. After the lamb braises to tenderness, I add orzo and put it back in the oven until the orzo is plumped. Then I like to strew some feta about the top and lightly brown it.

Arni Yiouvetsi, Hot out of the Oven
The feta is my own touch and I do it because it pleases me: most lamb yiouvetsi is served with a hard grating cheese that is sprinkled on the dish at the table. Sometimes I sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on the meat before browning it: I did this time; sometimes I add (a lot of) garlic: I did not this time. I deglazed the pan with a little white wine this time too, not something I always do. To me, this is not a dish to be cooked with red wine, though many do, but it is clearly a dish to be served with a big red wine.

Delicious Comfort Food!
I generally prefer to make yiouvetsi with shoulder because the shoulder has more fat than does the leg and yields a more tender result. When using leg like this, keep the cooking time to a minimum: bring the liquid to a boil and add the orzo and bake just until the orzo is done.

After doing these three dishes with the Silere lamb, I can say that it is a much, much leaner product than I am used to and it has to be cooked more like game than traditional lamb. The grain and texture of the meat is very fine and almost silky, something that everyone who tasted it loves. The flavor is much less gamy than traditional lamb and is a hit especially with those people who are not big lamb fans. As a chef, I found that the Silere lamb lends itself to more subtle preparations because the lamb flavor does not dominate. I can treat it as pork or veal and customers love it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Northern Italian Tasting

We're generally not in the habit of having customers dictate the direction of our tasting menus, preferring instead to take the best ingredients we have on hand at the time and shape them into a menu based on our own whims. But our customer for this dinner was insistent that we do a tasting of the foods from the provinces of Northern Italy. OK. I would have gone to a Northern Italian restaurant for this, but never mind, we can cook pretty much anything.

The hardest part of this whole exercise was deciding the order of the courses; for example, would the Piemontese course be primo, a secondo, a dolce? Once we got the ordering of the courses, progressing from first courses to seafood to meat to sweets, then it was easy enough to draw inspiration from each region to fill in the details.

Chicken Liver "Crostino"
Toscana: Chicken Liver Crostino. Chicken liver crostini are some of the best known appetizers in Tuscany and since we had chicken livers on hand, we decided to do a take on this well known primo, but reinvent the form. We cooked the livers in the traditional manner with onions, sage, rosemary, capers, anchovies, and Cognac. Then we formed the liver mousse into truffles and rolled them finely powdered crostini, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. The bitter cocoa and espresso worked with the liver very nicely.

Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese
Alto Adige: Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese. We went back and forth on a soup course, but the weather by turning cold and nasty made the decision easy for us. I have always loved the bread dumpling soups of Bavaria, Austria, and the Südtirol and wanted to reprise them for this menu, to show the Germanic influences in the cuisine of Alpine Italy. I made a classic brown stock from both pork and chicken necks and then poached quenelles of knödel batter in it. The batter is white bread soaked in milk, garlic chives, sage, minced speck, and eggs.

Gambero al Prosecco
Veneto: Gambero al Prosecco. I wouldn't argue if you wanted to call this Shrimp and Grits because that is basically what it is. This is our take on the classic Venetian dish of Schie con Polenta, tiny head-on shrimp in a garlic butter sauce over creamy polenta. Making the sauce with Prosecco is a nod to the famous sparking wine of the Veneto.

Trofie al Pesto
Liguria: Trofie al Pesto. You just can't think of Liguria and Genoa without thinking of basil and that most famous of sauces, pesto. What snaps immediately into my mind is a big plate of the local pasta, trofie, in pesto sauce. Plates of pasta just don't look all that pretty on tastings, so we mixed the trofie and pesto with some ricotta and eggs and baked them in little molds so serve as a base for mussels steamed with pesto.

Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo
Val d’Aosta: Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo. Moving right up next to France and Switzerland, the next course took its cues from regional products. This dish has no basis in classic Italian cooking: it is one of my own invention, but I daresay that it would feel at home in a modern restaurant in the Val d'Aosta. We grilled trout and then served it with a sauce made from caramelized fennel, shallots, and peeled chestnuts, splashed at the last second with a touch of anisette and bound with a splash of cream. On top is a very thin sliver of house-cured lardo. This dish is a keeper and I look forward to reprising it at some future time in the main dining room.

Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel
Friuli/Venezia Giulia: Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel. As a student of culinary history, I am always amazed at how cuisine pays no heed to political boundaries. For example, strudel, ignoring modern country borders, can be found all over the former Austro-Hungarian empire, including the far northeast corner of Italy. We made our strudel of radicchio, wild mushrooms, and a house-made sage sausage. Although it is very tasty, radicchio goes nearly black when cooked and does not necessarily make the prettiest strudel filling.

"Osso Buco" Milanese
Lombardia: "Osso Buco" Milanese. What is more representative of the cooking of Lombardia than osso buco milanese, succulent veal shank over saffron risotto? Nothing. How do you serve it for a nine-course tasting? We like the arrancino form.

Rabbit Bolognese
Emilia Romagna: Rabbit Bolognese. Emilia Romagna, among others, has two very famous exports: prosciutto di Parma and salsa bolognese from Bologna. We decided to marry a classic salsa bolognese made of rabbit with prosciutto, by wrapping the salsa in prosciutto, to give the salsa form on the plate. It is plated with saffron aïoli and a touch of sun-dried tomato pesto.

Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta
Piemonte: Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta. Panna cotta is a classic dish that I associate most closely with the Piemonte. This is a two-layer panna cotta of jellified Nebbiolo wine and a chestnut cream. I have gently reheated the panna cotta so that the red wine layer has just about melted, forming a sauce à la crème caramel. Topped with candied pine nuts.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Chef's Tasting

Here's a quick synopsis of a menu that we had fun with.

Three Citrus Shrimp Seviche with Chipotle-Lime Cancha
Three Citrus Shrimp Seviche with Chipotle-Lime Cancha. With this dish, we are trying to will spring here. Unfortunately, it's still cold and not quite seviche weather, but a guy can dream, right? Shrimp, three colors of sweet peppers, celery, red onions, green onions, and cilantro, spiced with chipotle, garlic, and cumin, along with the zest and juice of Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and limes. The blood oranges and Meyer lemons don't have enough acidity to make me happy, so we ended up with about three times as much lime juice to get the acidity where it needs to be. The cancha is a toasted dried corn from Peru tossed in a chipotle-lime zest butter; it supplies great texture to the seviche.

Bánh Mì, Our Favorite Sandwich
Bánh Mì. I'm not kidding when I say we love these sandwiches. Thank you Vietnam for one of our most favorite chef snacks of all time! We most often make bánh mì when I have lots of meat scraps from butchering and I get in the mood to make some sausage. This sausage I made from pork belly, pork rack trimmings and cap, rabbit hearts, and rabbit livers. The seasonings are kaffir lime, fish sauce, black pepper, lots of garlic, and red chile flakes. Garnishes are a tangy slaw, nước chắm, slabs of pickling cucumber, carrot threads, and cilantro.

Allspice-Smoked Pork Terrine; "Pickle and Mustard"
Allspice-Smoked Pork Terrine; "Pickle and Mustard". Let me just say up front that I don't like this presentation at all, but we had 60 seconds to get it on the plate, photographed, and on its way to the dining room. There are two cubes of pork terrine that we skewered and smoked over allspice berries, just to see what the hell would happen. We knew the terrine would really take the smoke because it is high in pork liver content and the fat in the liver really binds the smoke. The flavor of the smoke starts a bit herbaceous (infer from that what you will) and finishes a touch floral. There was definitely a hint of je n'sais quoi. The "pickle and mustard" is a bit of a pun in that we almost always serve charcuterie with whole grain mustard and cornichons, but this time, with a pickled mustard plant.

Balsamic-Braised Merino Lamb Spareribs; Risotto Milanese; Fave
Balsamic-Braised Merino Lamb Spareribs; Risotto Milanese; Fave. We're playing with a new high altitude (above the cloud line) Merino lamb from New Zealand and putting it through the paces to see what it is best suited for. Here the spareribs are braised with balsamic vinegar, chilled, and grilled and plated atop a risotto milanese and topped with fresh fava beans. This new lamb is very silky in texture, very fine grained, and very mild.

Carrot-Ginger-Polenta Tatin with Sambuca Crème Anglaise
Carrot-Ginger-Polenta Tatin with Sambuca Crème Anglaise. Dessert is not something that a bunch of line cooks really thinks about, gives a damn about, or even, really wants to eat. So, we end up with more savory desserts without a whole lot of sugar. Somehow, Tarte Tatin popped up during menu discussions only to be followed by "we don't have any fruit" and my reminding the guys that there are lots of vegetables we can treat as fruits for this purpose. Carrots popped up, and then ginger to bring a freshness to the cake, then polenta to give it some mouthfeel, and finally Sambuca as a complementary flavor. The result: customers and cooks alike loved it.