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.

No comments:

Post a Comment