Monday, January 17, 2011

0 Recipe #234: Herb-Encrusted Rack of New Zealand Baby Lamb

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This recipe was created with my pal Junko (@runpdx) in mind. See, I remembered! :)

Rack of lamb makes an elegant, festive meal for holidays & special occasions. It's often served for spring holidays, but since lamb itself isn't seasonal, it can, of course, be enjoyed any time of year. Whether you make this recipe for parties or as an any-day-of-the-week indulgence, this dish is certain to be a big hit with your dinner guests. It's simple & easy to make, & yet looks very impressive and beautiful when placed on the table. :)

New Zealand baby lamb is commonly acknowledged as one of the best types of lamb on the planet. It's delicate in flavor, and so, goes quite nicely with more robust flavors like rosemary, garlic, mint, & oregano, all of which are, of course, found in this recipe. :)

On that note, it's really important to go easy on the herbs & spices for this dish: The rack of lamb tastes so good on its own that the seasoning should complement the lamb, not beat it into submission. ;) Flavor balance in general is particularly important for this recipe, as the specific cooking & preparation techniques of this dish really bring out its individual flavor elements in a very distinct fashion. Rack of lamb has clean, well-defined flavors & there's no masking mistakes or flavor imbalances; each & every flavor component is instantly detectable. However, if you follow the below directions exactly as they are written, you should be just fine in that regard. :)

One final note: I'd like to point out that this recipe calls for a dry, delicate white wine instead of a red. This choice might surprise some, since the commonly accepted practice -- one which has remain unchanged for many years, save the more recently revised thinking within some circles of the food & wine communities -- has typically been to pair white wines with fish & red wines with meat, both as an ingredient and as a beverage to serve with the meal. However, a dry, delicate white is actually a much more appropriate choice for this dish & here's why: On the whole, reds tend to be much more robust & astringent than most whites due to greater concentrations of tannins, which is going to be way too overpowering for the other elements in this dish. Also, the typical oaky finish of many reds isn't going to complement the other flavors. Other cuts of lamb will work better with reds. A clean, dry but delicate white varietal best suits the flavors & textures of this particular preparation of rack of lamb. Again, flavor balance was the main consideration behind this choice.

Herb-Encrusted Rack of New Zealand Baby Lamb

1 8-bone, 1 lb. rack of lamb, frenched, then washed, patted dry, trimmed, defatted (with only a thin layer of surface fat remaining on the top face, i.e., meat side, of the rack), & cut into 2 sets of 3 chops each & 1 set of 2 chops
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (use Greek extra virgin olive oil if available)
1/4 c. shallots, peeled & very finely minced
1 Tbsp. garlic, peeled & very finely minced (about 2 large cloves)
1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1/2 Tbsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh Tuscan Blue rosemary leaves, very finely minced
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, very finely minced
1/2 Tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, very finely minced
1 Tbsp. fresh mint, very finely minced
1 Tbsp. fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, very finely minced
1/2 Tbsp. fresh marjoram leaves, very finely minced
1/2-1 c. (or more) mild, dry white wine (Be sure to pick a delicate varietal!)
1 Tbsp. dijon mustard (liquid, not powdered form)
1/2 c. (or more) low-sodium chicken broth
a few small squeezes of lemon juice (about 1-2 tsp., or to taste) (optional)

Directions: One hour before you plan to cook the lamb, remove rack of lamb from refrigerator so that it can reach room temperature before it's cooked, which ensures even heat distribution during cooking. After the lamb has been prepped (i.e., frenched, washed, patted dry, trimmed, defatted -- with only a thin layer of surface fat remaining on the top face, i.e., meat side, of the rack, to preserve the meat's tenderness -- & cut into 2 sets of 3 chops each & 1 set of 2 chops), diagonally score the fatty side of each chop that you've just trimmed by making shallow cuts through the remaining surface fat, spacing each cut about a 1/2" apart.

Next, heat olive oil on low heat in a large (12-13"), nonstick sauté pan. Add shallots & garlic & sauté for 2-3 minutes. While shallots & garlic are cooking, lay lamb chops on a plate & season all over with salt & pepper, sprinkling from a distance for even distribution. Then roll chops around the plate to absorb any remaining salt & pepper. Next, thoroughly combine all fresh herbs in a large bowl & set aside. Turn up heat to medium & sear chops on all sides -- left, right, front, back (i.e., also called the "skin side"), & bottom faces -- for about 3-4 minutes per side (for medium rare), or until golden brown. (Cook about 2-2 1/2 minutes per side for rare.) When it comes to cooking the bottom sides of the chops, you'll most likely need to hold each set of chops upright (ie., vertically) & then tilt them in various configurations in order to cook them on the remaining sides. If you don't want to cook them in batches, which takes a lot longer, I'd recommend leaning them upright against the interior sides of the pan (for hands-free support), so you can cook the bottom sides of the chops and still have a free hand to scrape off the fond (i.e., the "brown bits" that've formed at the bottom of the pan) to keep it from burning. After all, you aren't an octopus. :)

During the searing process, the shallots & garlic will begin to brown. As soon as this happens, deglaze the chops with dry white wine, adding 1/4 c. at a time (waiting until each portion of liquid cooks down before adding the next), & continue searing until all sides of the chops have been done. (Add as much wine as necessary to keep the liquid in the pan from drying up & the fond from burning. The pan should never become dry during cooking.) Remove chops from pan & place onto a different heat-proof plate. (This step is VERY important as you don't want to cross-contaminate the cooked meat with the raw juices left on the previous plate.) Then, with a wide, heat-proof pastry brush, hold each set of chops with heat-proof tongs & generously coat them with Dijon mustard. It's important to do this step while the chops are still hot, so that the mustard melts & is thus absorbed into the lamb. Next, gently press each set of chops into the bowl of fresh herbs, making sure to coat the chops on all sides. As you finish coating each set of chops, lay them skin (& bones) side down (i.e., "meat side up"), one at a time, onto the same sauté pan you just used for searing, pour in 1/4 c. chicken broth, & roast in the center of an oven preheated to 400°F for 7-11 minutes, or until a meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the meat, registers an internal temperature of at least 145-150°F for medium rare. Please note: If you don't own an instant-read thermometer, you will need to insert it into the meat before you place the rack of lamb into the oven. (For rare, a 1 lb. rack of lamb should be cooked for about 5-7 minutes, or until a meat themometer registers an internal temperature of at least 140°F. Please note that cooking meat at anything below this temperature will not kill off harmful bacteria like salmonella & listeria.) Half way through the cooking time (i.e., at about the 4-5 minute mark), add the remaining 1/4 c. chicken broth.

When ready, remove from oven, set pan on an unused/cool burner, & let rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing. (The temperature of the meat will climb an additional 10 degrees as it rests, which is just perfect for the final resting temperature for medium rare.) Then, transfer to a non-porous cutting board & cut the lamb into individual chops by slicing between the bones, so that each chop falls away from the rack.

While the lamb is resting, return the original sauté pan with the remaining liquids back to an available stove top burner. Cook over high heat until boiling, then reduce to a simmer & continue to cook until the liquids in the pan have been reduced by half. (Sauce should have thickened substantially by this point.) Be sure to scrape off the fond from the bottom of the pan. Then remove pan from heat & let cool for 10 minutes. Reserve the fond & juices, & set aside. Before serving, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over both sides of each lamp chop, if desired.

To serve, transfer four chops to each plate & drizzle with jus. You can either display the finished dish by layering each chop like toppled dominoes or, for an enhanced artistic presentation, place 3 or 4 lamb chops in the center of each plate, placing the ends upright, and tie them together with very thin culinary twine. For extra visual impact, surround the lamb with steamed or sautéed vegetables in a decorative fashion, and serve either atop polenta or with a side of roastedmashed or baked potatoes.

Yield: 2 servings, or 4 baby lamb chops (i.e., half a 1 1lb. rack) per person.

Important Food Safety Advisories: Rack of lamb is meant to be served medium rare (or even rare, if you dare!). I personally prefer medium rare, which has a tender, warm pink center. Unless you know what you're doing, rare meat can often end up tasting overly chewy & fleshy, & can also pose a potential health hazard if certain precautions aren't taken with regard to the handling of the meat in the kitchen (& also during the meat production process itself). For safety reasons, the USDA recommends that rack of lamb should reach a minimal internal temperature of 145°F for medium rare. If you're going to cook meat rare, please know that the minimal temperature required to kill off harmful bacteria like salmonella & listeria is 140°F; anything below this temperature & you're really taking unnecessary risks. So, be sure to use a meat thermometer! (Rack of lamb is too delicious & too much of an "investment" to risk overcooking it!) See this link for more details on preparing & cooking lamb. For general food safety tips, including best practices for meat handling, please read this document (also from the USDA). ESE Direct has also provided an informative article on this subject as well.

Please note: Total cooking time will ultimately depend upon the thickness & weight of the chops, cooking temperature, & how done you'd like them to be. The cooking times in the above set of directions are specifically for 1 lb. of 1"-thick chops cooked at 400°F until medium rare.

Also, be sure to use a quality nonstick sauté pan that's not made with PFOA/PTFE & can safely withstand oven temperatures of 400°F or more.

Chef's Notes: If you're looking for a good rack of lamb, both Whole Foods & Trader Joe's are good places to shop. I bought an excellent-tasting 1 lb. organic rack of baby New Zealand lamb at Whole Foods for a little under $20, which doesn't really cost much more than other types, in terms of comparable cuts. (Buying organic ensures that your meat hasn't been pumped full of hormones and chemicals.) If you're trying to figure out how much lamb to buy, figure that a 1 lb. rack of lamb feeds 2 people. It's worth paying for a high-quality cut of meat. The meat is so tender, juicy, & flavorful, it'll knock your socks off. This is not the type of dish where you want to cut corners, so whatever you do, don't skimp. Lay down the buckage & you'll be glad that you did. It's really important to get quality cuts for this dish.

Also make sure you get a small rack of lamb, which typically means a younger lamb & thus more tender meat; don't be fooled into thinking that larger cuts mean more flavor or taste. The price is calculated by weight, so you'll also save yourself some extra money by not going overboard. You'll be surprised how filling a small rack of lamb can be, especially if you serve it with a baked potato or some other vegetable side, which I'd recommend that you do for a more balanced meal.

Typically, you'll buy a rack of lamb that's already frenched, i.e., cut so that the rib bones are exposed. If you can't find this cut for some reason, ask your butcher to french them for you. It's probably a good idea to call your local supermarket ahead of time so you won't be waiting at the butcher's counter for too long. Even for experienced butchers, frenching a rack of lamb does take a bit of time; also you don't want them to rush, because the outcome will be much better. :) Most butchers will keep lamb stocked in their back room refrigerator.

If you're feeling adventurous, you can also try frenching your own racks of lamb. For directions on how to do this, I'd suggest watching the video, "How to French a Rack of Lamb." Personally, I'd rather just save myself the trouble & let the butcher do it. After all, butchers do this sort of thing all the time, so of course they are experts at it too.

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