Thursday, January 24, 2008

Choosing the best Flavour

Today we look at lamb, and strictly speaking a sheep is a lamb up to one year old, a hogget up to two years, and mutton after that. There have always been disagreements over the best cuts. In Victorian times the front half of the sheep was regarded more highly that the back, and - although more difficult to carve, and with less meat, the shoulder was preferred to the leg. The cheapest breast having the most flavour of all.

Thankfully, there are fewer cuts to describe than beef, and even pork, the underside of the lamb being mainly called the breast. Beginning at the head end and working across the back we start with:
The neck, more commonly called scrag end. This has a rich flavour, and is sold whole or sliced known as neck rounds, or neck pieces. Needs slow, moist cooking to make tender.
Directly behind the neck is the middle neck, which is good for braising and sometimes sold as small chops. Then comes best end of neck , sold whole, or divided into cutlets which can be fried, grilled or baked. This is the part sometimes sold as rack of lamb. we often see pictures of this as two racks interlaced (like our palms held flat together, fingers kept straight and interlaced) - this is called a Guard of Honour. When the two racks are joined in a circle, it is called a Crown Roast.

The middle of the back is the loin, usually cut into chops, again for grilling or frying. Two chops joined together in the centre is called a butterfly, or sometimes a Barnsley chop. A whole loin is called a short saddle of lamb. The chump end is often divided into chops but can be bought whole to be roasted or braised.
The back leg is the most popular for roasting and often divided into the fillet end of leg, and the shank.
Gigot chops are sliced from the top end of the fillet.

The breast takes up the major part of the belly. Economical but fatty, it has excellent flavour and can be roasted whole or boned and braised. Can also be left on the bone and cut between the ribs into 'spare ribs' and roasted/glazed to serve in the Chinese way. Good for barbies and to nibble at.

The shoulder, under the neck and forming much of the forepart of the lamb, can be sold whole or divided into blade side, or knuckle end, the latter being the part attached to the top of the foreleg. This meat is firmer, but more gelatinous than the rear legs, and is still fairly tender. Best bought boned for easier cooking and carving. It can be grilled, poached, roasted or braised. Do remember, that when buying from a butcher, he will always do the boning for you.

Cooking temperatures and methods:
Like beef, lamb can be well cooked or left slightly pink - which makes it more tender. So allow 10 minutes per 1 lb (500g) if you like it pink, and 12 - 15 minutes for medium. Give it 20 minutes if you like it well done. Allow the meat to rest for 15 minutes to give it a chance to relax and absorb back the juices.

Poaching the lamb depends upon the cut. The coarser the meat, the longer it will take to cook, and this can take up to 2 hours.

A little known fact, but one well worth knowing, is that when lamb has previously been cooked by dry heat (as in roasting), reheating it can toughen it. So thick pieces of cooked lamb need to simmer in a stock or gravy for up to one and a half hours to become tender again. Minced roast lamb will take less time, but allow at least 45 minutes. Lamb that has been poached or braised will come to no harm during a second cooking.

If you really want good flavour, then buy mutton, which is often cheaper than lamb, so well worth considering. To suit an epicure, the sheep should be between three and five years old before being sold as mutton. It has a wonderful rich flavour and is more usually stewed or casseroled rather than roasted. Or pressure cooked, cubed, minced and used in curries.

As regards the tracklements: the traditional accompaniment with lamb is mint sauce and redcurrant jelly. Capers with mutton or boiled lamb, also onions. Garlic and rosemary are also used to flavour a roast, and a lesser known method is to rub ground ginger into the joint before roasting it.

Now for some recipes:
Lamb Salad with Mushrooms: serves 4
1 Little Gem lettuce
12 oz (350g) roast lamb, cut into strips
4 oz (100g) mushrooms, sliced
1 yellow or red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 spring onions, trimmed and sliced diagonally
mint dressing
Tear the outer leaves off the lettuce and use to line a serving dish. Finely chop the inner leaves. Put the prepared lamb, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, spring onions and shredded lettuce into a bowl, toss together and arrange on top of the lettuce leaves. When ready to serve, either drizzle over the dressing or serve separately.
mint dressing:
2 tblsp fresh mint leaves
2 tblsp white wine vinegar
1 egg
1 tblsp lemon juice
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tsp Dijon mustard
good pinch each salt and pepper
dash each Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce
2 fl oz (50ml) olive oil
Put everything but the oil into a blender or food processor and set it running, then slowly add the oil.

Stuffed Breast of Lamb or Mutton:
1 breast of lamb or mutton (boned)
1 - 2 tsp lemon juice
1 dessp fresh thyme leaves
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
8 oz sausagemeat
salt and pepper
dripping or oil
Mix the sausagemeat with the herbs and lemon juice. Lay the breast skin side down and season with salt and pepper. Cover with the forcemeat (sausage mixture), fold over and tie with string. Melt some dripping (or use oil) in a heatproof dish and brown the meat on all sides. Pour off any excess fat and then add enough stock to about 2" in depth. Scatter the prepared vegetables around the meat (and under the stock), cover and cook for 2 hours at 160C, 325F, gas 3. Remove the joint and make gravy from the pan liquids. Serve the meat with redcurrant jelly and vegetables of your choice.

A further recipe which makes excellent use of breast of lamb can be find in a much earlier posting, maybe the late end of 2006. Look up my Poitrine d'Agneau au Chou (breast of lamb with cabbage). It is an absolute winner, full of flavour and my most favourite way of cooking breast.

Caribbean Lamb: serves 4
1 tblsp oil
2 oz (50g) butter
2 onions, finely sliced
1 lb (500g) minced lamb
1 tblsp curry powder
half tsp turmeric
pinch each ground ginger and cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
half a can of chopped tomatoes
juice of 1 small lemon
half a pint (300ml) stock or water
Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan and saute the onion until softened. Add the lamb and stir until browned. Add the remaining ingredients using just enough stock to cover the meat. Cover and simmer gently for 40 minutes or until the meat is cooked and the sauce reduced. Serve with boiled rice, sliced bananas and a selection of chutneys.

Turkish Kebabs: serves 4
1 1/2 lb (675g) minced lamb
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper
pinch cayenne
2 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
Mince or process the lamb, onion and garlic. If mincing, do this three times as the aim is to make the mixture as smooth as possible. Stir in the spices and seasonings. Add the parsley and mix everything together thoroughly. Using floured or oiled hands, form into sausage shapes and leave to chill for several hours.
To cook: thread the kebabs onto oiled metal skewers, and spray or brush with oil. Cook under a moderate grill for abour 15 minutes or so (depending upon thickness) turning round while cooking so that all sides are grilled. Serve with cooked rice and salads.