Alexandra Grablewski
Whole baby lamb shoulder with spring vegetables. Colin Alevras, The Tasting Room, New York City
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Shouldering Lamb

Jim Poris - April 2008

Four chefs sort through a grab bag of ingredients to find which suit a dish built around lamb shoulder.

There must be an echo in here, because with each go-round of Mystery Basket, chefs wonder aloud, "How did you come up with these ingredients?" Could say something about names in a hat, but that's not true. And as anyone who's participated in or read Mystery Basket knows, the ingredients are not meant to be seasonal (or local, considering the territory between chefs' locales). Best to think of the shopping bag in the assignment e-mail as a bundle of fun, with some ingredients included to direct the chefs to think in a traditional--and perhaps more obvious--way about their dish, and others thrown in to provoke. Point is, this exercise demands a palate backed by thought and kitchen experience.

Once again the chefs came through, proving yet again that to be a pro in this business you'd better know food upside down and backwards. Take a bow Ken Oringer (Clio, Uni, Toro, La Verdad, and KO Prime, Boston), Colin Alevras (The Tasting Room, New York City), and the husband/wife duo of Joseph Truex and Mihoko Obunai (Repast, Atlanta). In addition to a whole lamb shoulder, this is what else they had to consider, with a mandatory use of at least 19 ingredients:

Salt and pepper, garlic, shallots, soy sauce, white wine, tamarind paste, anchovies, carrots with tops on, oranges, fennel bulbs, Comté, peas in the pods, olive oil, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, long-grain rice, honey, piquillo peppers, kefir, and hot Italian-style sausages.

Bay leaves, mint, marjoram, cilantro, saffron, rosemary, thyme, lavender, parsley, basil, hot or sweet paprika, coriander seeds, cloves, nutmeg, and savory.

Colin Alevras
The Tasting Room
New York City
"Normally, using the amount of ingredients required for my Mystery Basket dish would constitute a four course meal for me. Before I proceeded, I first considered the lamb shoulder. What kind of lamb does it come from? Baby lamb, mutton, hair breed, or wool breed? Is the shoulder on the ribs? Can I age it? How much fat is on it? At the The Tasting Room we've been using two to three year old Clun Forest, Dorset, and Suffolk rams that we dry-age whole, with the carcasses weighing between 140 to 170 pounds. Sometimes they have an inch or two of fat covering the whole beast. Although sheep can breed any time of the year, we're talking about April here, so perhaps we should think about baby lamb, which are so tender when they're in that 12 to 15 pound range. That milk-fed state is pretty exquisite after a winter of mutton and root vegetables. So a two pound shoulder or 28-pounder? I think I'll focus on the little guy, the shoulder of a 15-pound milk-fed Icelandic lamb whose mother has been feeding on new pasture.

"Next I turned to the rest of the ingredients. How do they come up with these lists? I never think about menus without very specific ingredients in mind. For me all those little choices and details make all the difference. For instance, I like gray sea salt for brining, but for cooking it has got to be Maldon, which has a clean bright flavor. You can crush it between the fingers when you need to, and the larger crystals aren't painful to chew through. It doesn't dissolve too fast on roasts and makes for a great finish on just about everything. I prefer to season most things after they're cooked. Pepper is a whole other story. I've been shying away from black pepper (but I do love it) these days and don't really care for traditional white. Guinea and Penja peppercorns are pretty high on my list right now--Guinea for its deep complex flavors and Penja for its slow burn pungency, more like a chile pepper. We shop at New York City's greenmarkets six days a week [not much going on Thursdays], and I try to plan dishes based on what might have a reasonable chance of being around. Hold on here, enough of this. I've got to start thinking about what I'm actually going to make with what Food Arts put in front of me."

Whole baby lamb shoulder with spring vegetables (for a slow afternoon with friends). "Roast the whole bone-in baby lamb shoulder in a medium oven in a pan with olive oil, crushed garlic, shallots, and thyme, basting from time to time. Cook until almost medium. Young beasts with paler flesh are often too tender to be able to chew easily when cooked lightly. Rare baby lamb feels slimy and mushy. Perhaps the muscles of older animals express the collected heat of their existence and the young ones need the heat they haven't yet produced themselves, which is why they need to be cooked more. I'm just making this up and I have no scientific data, just my intuition, to say this with authority. But I do believe it.

"Blend kefir, piquillo peppers, sweet and hot paprika with a little olive oil, and salt. Char finely minced shallots and garlic in a screaming hot sauté pan, toasting them dry, no oil or salt, till they start to char a little; dump into a bowl; add mashed anchovies, orange zest and juice, olive oil, some crushed coriander seeds, and pepper, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and a little white wine; mix, correcting seasoning. Make a mint oil from mint leaves and olive oil. Shell peas; blanch their pods; puree in blender with a little water; strain; season; reserve. Steam peas in a combi-oven until tender; mix in pea pod puree and mint oil. Taste the carrot tops; if they're good blanch them; don't peel the carrots but clean them instead with an abrasive cleaning pad like Scotch Brite; vacuum in a plastic bag with carrot juice, orange juice, coriander, and pepper; simmer in water for two hours. Remove carrots from bag; reduce the juice; mount with olive oil. Vacuum fennel and slit Italian sausages in a plastic bag; simmer in water until the fennel is very soft, almost melted. Slit the skins of the eggplant; simmer in a mixture of soy sauce, water, tamarind, and honey until almost cooked through; remove eggplant; reduce cooking liquid until syrupy; roast eggplant at 300 degrees, basting with reduction, until soft and well glazed. To plate, drag a schmear of the piquillo/kefir mixture across the plate; carve the lamb shoulder; place atop the kefir; top with a spoonful of anchovy sauce; place the vegetables--including the blanched carrot tops if used--in little piles around the plate. Me, I'd eat the Comté by itself. But there's another way to use it: combine with the cherry tomatoes and rice for family meal? Also serve the sausages used to cook the fennel, which were in the bag only for their fat and seasonings. I'd also want to drink a Peay Roussanne/Marsanne 2003. Or some really old white Hermitage. With the lamb, not the family meal."

Ken Oringer
Clio, Uni, Toro, La Verdad, KO Prime
"When traveling abroad I always seem to get inspired by a dish or an idea for one of my restaurants. For my Mystery Basket dish, I drew upon the big flavors found on the streets of Southeast Asia and India to come up with a funky street version of American barbecue with an elegant presentation. The combination of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors creates a delicious, prominent umami effect and experience. In particular, the Comté has a lot of natural umami, which is enhanced by the slow cooking of the lamb shoulder. Lamb shoulder can adapt to so many different flavors, and that clearly works to my advantage here. This dish packs a wallop of flavor and really sneaks up on your taste buds in a pleasant way!"

Tamarind barbecued lamb shoulder with kefir emulsion, spiced mint chutney, eggplant & honey/Comté consommé. "Rub the lamb shoulder with salt and pepper, a chopped garlic clove, and olive oil; roast four hours at 275 degrees. Meanwhile, make a barbecue sauce by cooking three garlic cloves, three shallots, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, one-quarter cup white wine, four cups tamarind paste, three anchovies, juice from three oranges, one-half cup piquillo peppers, one teaspoon ground coriander, and one-quarter cup olive oil in a nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat for one hour; puree in a blender; baste the lamb with this sauce during its last hour of roasting. When the lamb is done, carefully remove the bones, since the meat will be extremely soft, like a confit; form the meat into two-inch squares. Cook three peeled and diced eggplants, three garlic cloves, one diced fennel bulb, 12 peeled and seeded cherry tomatoes, one-quarter cup olive oil, one-half cup honey, one bunch chopped cilantro leaves, and two cloves over low heat for two hours or so to achieve something similar to a ragoût. Make a chutney by whirring two bunches mint, a half bunch cilantro, two tablespoons honey, and salt and pepper in a blender. For the consommé, simmer five pounds chopped Comté cheese, one-quarter cup honey, and salt and pepper in one-and-three-quarters quarts water for 45 minutes, infuse off the heat for two hours, then strain; keep warm. Hand blend one cup kefir, one tablespoon chopped mint, and one teaspoon ground coriander. Finally, cook two bunches small carrots, peeled and trimmed to leave a bit of green on top, in water, honey, salt, and pepper. To serve, ladle the consommé into a bowl; add a spoonful of the eggplant ragoût; top with the kefir emulsion and then a warmed square of lamb shoulder; top with the mint chutney; place some carrots alongside. The best wine to drink with this would be any type of Syrah."

Joseph Truex and Mihoko Obunai
"We think a dish should have a home, a geographic identity as it were. It's the ingredients that serve as the map to that place or culture. That's our goal at Repast. When we considered the list of Mystery Basket ingredients we wanted to find a ‘home' for the dish we would make from them. Looking at these ingredients, we couldn't help but get a South Asian/Indonesian kind of feeling, mainly from the soy, garlic, tamarind, eggplant, kefir, and anchovies. The lamb shoulder itself conjured up rustic home-style cooking. We love to bone, stuff, and roll shoulders of all kinds of meat, leading us to think of an Asian version of a Sicilian classic, braccialoni. The Italian sausage, rice, and peas make an excellent stuffing; the soy, garlic, wine, tamarind, and anchovies serve as the base of a braising liquid that becomes a refined sauce; and the fennel, carrots, and eggplant work as accompaniments."

Asian-style lamb braccialoni, with roasted eggplant, glazed carrots & fennel. "Bone the lamb shoulder, removing excess fat and sinew. Butterfly and then pound the shoulder until it's of an even thickness, about one-half inch; season with salt and pepper. Cook the rice in a steamer and cool it. Make a stuffing using the cooked rice, Italian sausage meat removed from its casing, and shelled peas; season with chopped parsley, cilantro, and basil; distribute the stuffing evenly over the shoulder; roll; tie with twine. Heat olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven; sear the lamb shoulder; deglaze with white wine and soy sauce; add roughly chopped garlic, tamarind paste, honey, anchovies, and bay leaves; braise in a 300 degree oven until tender; remove from oven; set the lamb shoulder aside loosely covered with foil; strain the braising liquid; reduce the liquid to sauce consistency.

"Halve eggplants lengthwise; score the flesh; season with salt and pepper; coat generously with olive oil; roast cut side down in a hot oven until soft; when cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh from the skins; chop the eggplant with sautéed shallots; place in a bowl; add olive oil, chopped parsley, and oven-dried cherry tomatoes; season with salt and pepper. Sauté sliced fennel, fennel fronds, and peeled baby carrots with some of the top left on, halved lengthwise in olive oil; glaze with freshly squeezed orange juice and a bit of honey; cook until reduced; season with salt and pepper. To serve, cut the braccialoni into one-inch thick slices; place one slice on each plate; surround with sauce; place some eggplant and glazed vegetables alongside; garnish with slices of fried shallots. No doubt about it, the Turners Crossing Shiraz Bendigo Australia 2004 has the bacon fatty flavors to stand up to this whole deal."