Some food, some drink.
RecipeBeta: Manhattan-Braised Lamb Shoulder Chops
Beta recipes are my own experiments that I've only tried once. Usually palatable, they often could be better with a little tweaking - So please do, and let me know what works!
Red meat and a stiff drink. For the carnivores in the crowd who like to imbibe, dinner doesn't get much better; that is unless you're pouring another round for the food as well. In one of those rare moments of clarity, it occurred to me that maybe my main course was as thirsty as I was, so I decided to base a braise on the Manhattan I was drinking. The fruity, herbal, spicy, and astringent overtones of sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters are combined with rye whiskey to create a braising sauce for lamb shoulder chops that begs to be cleaned from the plate with a second slice of bread.
I guess I should start be coming clean here: Where lamb is concerned, I'm a total novice. We didn't grow up eating lamb, so really just about every lamb recipe I cook is beta testing for me. I will say however, that the learning curve grows a little less steep with each new cut of critter that I sample. Take for instance, the lamb shoulder chop. It's a lamb chop, right? Well, yeah technically yes, but where the lamb chop that most people think of has but a single rib bone for the eater to contend with, a lamb shoulder chop is a bit more complicated, and not near as consistent. Look no further than comparative anatomy to understand what I'm trying to say here. On a beef, this area is the chuck; a cut that's either ground or done up for pot roast. Likewise, on a swine we're talking about that prime BBQ real estate known as the Boston Butt. This is an area of critter that does a lot of work, and there is plenty of bone in there to interrupt any notion of pristine muscle structure. Bottom line is, this is a tough cut of meat with plenty of fat interspersed, which makes it ideal for low and slow cooking.
I think there are two camps of cooking where lamb is concerned: The one where rare isn't rare enough, and the other that attempt to remove any hint of gamy flavor by cooking the buhjeezus out of the little woolly bugger. To tell you the truth, I still don't get it, as I've read recipe for lamb shoulder chops that are as much about the broil as they are the braise. The last time I did lamb shoulder chops, it was on the grill. I dosed 'em with a spice rub that had plenty of garlic and garam masala; and while the flavor was good, it was a friggin' chore to dismantle. I don't care how tender a cut of meat is; fat and connective tissue are still going to dictate as to whether or not your eatin's gonna be a lotta work. At the end of the day, the only way you're gonna break that mess of lipid and collagen down is to apply slow wet heat. We're talking about braising here.
The mild yet distinctive flavor of lamb can take a heavy dose of outside flavor. As I was sipping a Manhattan one night, it occurred to me that the combined nuances from each liquor that make a Manhattan Cocktail so damn tasty might just play well with lamb in a braise. Add an onion and a tub of mushrooms I had on reserve in the fridge, and it was time to cook dinner.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
For the Braise
To Finish the Sauce
Coat chops in salt and pepper blend on both sides and put on a rack in the fridge for 3-5 hours.
Preheat oven to 300F. In a 10 inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat (425-450F), warm up a couple of teaspoons of olive oil. When the oil just starts to smoke, add the chops and sear each side for 2 minutes. Temporarily pull the chops from the pan, kill the heat, and add the rye, vermouth, bitters, cherries, onion, mushrooms, and bay. Put the chops back in and nestle them in with the rest of the mess. Lid it up (or cover tightly with foil if you don't have a lid) and braise in the oven for 90 minutes.
At the end of the time, pull the skillet from the oven, pull the chops from the skillet , toss the bay leaf (mind the hot handles!), and keep the chops covered in a spot where they'll stay warm. Put the skillet back over medium heat (seriously, mind those hot handles), and after the sauce reaches a gentle boil, continue to reduce for another 5 minutes, or until desired thickness is reached. To finish the sauce, kill the heat and whisk in that tablespoon of butter and the remaining teaspoon of bitters. Salt the sauce to taste (I didn't have to), and spoon it up liberally over those chops to serve.
- As of this writing, lamb really ain't all that cheap right now. Most cuts are going for in upwards of $15/lb at the supermarket. One thing you can do to offset this cost is to buy a lot, and buy local. I got a spring lamb from a friendly and reliable ranching family that lives not an hour from me and had it processed locally. It cut my cost per pound in half, and I'm supporting local agriculture (win/win).
- Smoked salt? I bet you're thinking where am I gonna get that stuff? Well if you weren't on my Christmas list, you can still make your own; or you could just pony up the scratch to procure someone else's. Totally optional; but if you've got it, buy all means use it.
- All the ingredients are there for the Manhattan but the proportions are different. In the cocktail proper, you want the frame the whiskey with the up-front tastes in the bitters and the vermouth. For a lamb entree, I think it oughtta be the other way around. Lamb can take some big flavors; don't let your meat down (twss).
- Now's as good a time as any to start your cast iron collection. If you gotta pick just one piece for this, the five quart dutch oven is the way to go, because you get a nice heavy lid that works to promote a mini-pressure cook sort of situation. If you're rocking the 10 inch skillet and don't have a lid, try covering the skillet with a sheet of foil and a heavy oven-safe plate or the like.
- Depending on how well your lamb chops are trimmed, and the grain of the meat in general, you may decide that it's a good idea to skim off a little of that fat after the braise comes out of the oven. If you do, just make sure you don't skim it all away; there's flavor and body in that there fat, and it'd be a shame to lose it all.
- It's important to wait on adding the butter and that last shot of bitters upon the end of the sauce's thickening. Flavors get muddied and murky in stews and braises, and a little fresh dairy and some infused booze should perk things right up.
If you look at that cook time, then you know that this is a recipe for the weekend (look here if you 're looking for something more weeknight speed). This is a braise, and it's gonna take a little time, but compared to the extra work it takes to tuck into a shoulder chop off the grill, I'd say it's worth the wait. I know there are folks that just don't cook much with alcohol, and there are also folks that don't eat much lamb; and I'd like to think that this might be a recipe that changes a tune in both camps. If I had to sum up the whole entree in a sentence, I'd say that were talking about a dish that's perfectly seasoned, satiating without being heavy, and spot-on tender.