Holidays, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Science, Vegetables


This summer was the warmest weather on record for DC, and New York, with 52 days over 90F in June, July, and August, and no relief at night. Those sweaty days are a distant memory now – the entire east coast, from the Carolinas to New England, is either digging out from under a couple of feet of snow or being slapped by 35 mph winds. A thick, even coating of salt spray coats my car, and the gales in Baltimore are so strong that even the interior doors are rattling.

Seasonal eating! That’s why we do it. During the hottest days in July and August, we ate nothing heavier than chilled zucchini soup and completely raw salads of peaches and corn. Melons went straight from the refrigerator to the blender with a squeeze of lime; tomatoes, sliced thickly and spread with cooling mayonnaise, dripped juice into a thick slice of sourdough. Today, though, the shiny and identically pale pink tomatoes in the supermarket are about as inviting as the rock-hard, sour peaches from the southern hemisphere. When the temperatures head south of freezing, it’s time to turn on the oven and start thinking about braised meats, turnips, cabbages, potatoes.

It is no secret that potatoes are my favorite food and I look forward to autumn every year so I can cook all the potato dishes I want and more. Tonight, on the way home from the office, my husband and I stopped at My Organic Market to pick up some vegetables. As always, I was drawn to the potatoes. This time, though, I spotted something unusual: the heart-shaped potato.

Our potato god.

I put the heart-shaped potato in the basket. “This is very exciting. I’m going to buy it,” I informed my husband.

“Excellent,” he said. “Are we going to worship it?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Yes. It will be our potato god.”

The heart-shaped potato was of particular interest to me not merely because of its deistic qualities but because the USDA maintains fairly particular standards for grading produce for sale to the public. Potatoes, for example, generally must be classified as No. 1 to be sold as whole, unprocessed raw produce at retail. Among other things, U.S. No. 1 potatoes must be “fairly well shaped,” which means such a potato has “has the normal shape for the variety,” and “is not materially pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise materially deformed.” A “seriously misshapen” potato – one which does not meet even U.S. No. 2 standards – is “seriously pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise badly deformed.”

So what of the heart-shaped potato? By no means is this the “normal shape for the variety,” Russet Burbank to be exact. At the same time, however, I have a hard time imagining a potato grader giving the heave-ho to a heart-shaped potato. Who would be so cold? I picked up two heart-shaped potatoes tonight, as a matter of fact (the other one bore a closer resemblance to the state of Michigan in 3-D and was perhaps a more marginal candidate for retention). And just to hedge my bets, I put two Yukon Golds in the basket as well.

Yukon Golds (medium starch, non-deistic)

What were my plans for these potatoes? Just before Christmas, the New York Times T magazine interviewed Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food. The culinary innovators stated in closing that they were “bringing back the potato gratin.” I actually started from my seat (and bumped into my desk, since I was reading the piece in the office), since I too am bringing back the potato gratin. Of all the great, classic potato dishes, potato gratin has the potential to involve the most work for the lowest payoff. The best gratins feature thinly sliced potatoes, layered atop each other and pressed into a soft cake of multiple layers. More often, though, the resulting dish is a series of slippery, too-distinct layers, separated by a mass of curdled protein and grease, not a thick, firm, and creamy potato cake. You go through the hassle of slicing all those potatoes, layering them in a gratin dish in precise overlapping shingles, seasoning each layer and pouring cream over all, and in the end the whole thing isn’t all that great.

I’m not sure why – maybe it’s something in the water of the mid-Atlantic – but this year, I decided to change my gratinizing technique. The time just seemed right. I knew from making various pasta gratins, for example, that the best way to prevent melted cheese from separating and clumping is to make a mornay sauce, which is basically a béchamel with grated cheese whisked in. In the classic mornay sauce, the starch from flour keeps the cheese proteins from clumping together as they melt. I wasn’t planning to bake the potatoes in mornay sauce – you don’t need or want cheese in a classic potato gratin – but the lesson is to protect the dairy proteins with starch. Sliced potatoes release quite a bit of starch, and it seemed to me that potato starches could serve the same purpose as the flour in a mornay sauce – to coat the dairy protein and prevent it from clumping together. How to get the potato starch into the milk? Cook the potatoes in the milk.

The result is not only a perfect gratin, but a much faster one as well. By cooking the sliced potatoes in seasoned milk before turning them into a gratin dish, you achieve four-fold benefits. The potatoes cook much more quickly than they would in the oven and are seasoned more evenly, while the released potato starch prevents the milk proteins from clumping and separating. Meanwhile, the starch thickens the milk, yielding a creamy sauce. Depending on the thickness of the potato slices, the gratin can be finished in fewer than 20 minutes.

Perfect gratin.

Potato gratin

I’ve found that medium-starch potatoes retain their shape best but release enough starch that the slices cling together in a fairly thick cake bound in a creamy sauce. Yellow potatoes like Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn tend to be medium-starch, medium-moisture. “Waxy” potatoes, which tend to have red skins, don’t release enough starch for my taste, and starchy potatoes like Russets (the heart-shaped potato god depicted above) tend to break apart during cooking.

One more thing. I’ve read some crazy things about the French expression of potato gratin, pommes dauphinoise, including those that assert that the milk really is supposed to curdle (to approximate some sort of ersatz cheeselike state). No less an authority on gluttony than Jeffrey Steingarten has made this claim, which seems to me ridiculous. Why would the French bake potatoes in milk until it curdled? That seems to me contrary to anything the French would do. Now, some recipes for pommes dauphinoise call for cream – single (light) cream, half and half, or heavy cream – rather than milk, and that seems to me plausible, if kind of heavy. So if you like, feel free to substitute cream for some of the milk. But don’t let it curdle. The gratin should be smooth, with a fine, dense texture.

2 lbs (about four to six) medium-starch potatoes, such as Yellow Finn or Yukon gold, peeled
About one quart of milk (you probably will not use it all), or substitute up to 1 c cream for every 3 c milk
Leaves from three or four thyme branches
scant 1/2 tsp salt per pound of potatoes
One or two large garlic cloves
Optional: Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Oven 400F

Heat about ½ cup of the milk to about 120F and stir in the salt and the thyme. Ensure that the salt is dissolved and add to the rest of the cold milk or milk/cream mixture.

Using a mandoline or benriner, slice the potatoes thinly (you also may use a food processor) and add them all to a pot. Pour seasoned milk over just to cover, and place over medium low heat. Bring the entire pot to a simmer. Be careful not to let the milk boil, as it may curdle and will certainly boil over. If your potatoes are sliced very thinly (as they would be if you use a benriner or a mandoline set to 1/16”), the potatoes should be just tender virtually as soon as the milk simmers. If they are not just tender, simmer for another minute or two until they are tender.

Rub a large shallow gratin dish (or several small gratin dishes) with the garlic clove. Dispense with the painful layering process – gratin is, after all, a rustic dish – and pour the potatoes into the gratin dish, with milk to cover. Sprinkle with cheese, if you’re using it. Bake until bubbling and golden brown. Cool slightly. Don’t worry if the dish appears somewhat moist – the potatoes will absorb any remaining liquid, firming up and becoming thick and creamy.


Indian, Q&A, Vegetables

American legend.

A reader asks whether fried green tomatoes are “a myth.” After I get over my incredulity about the question, find a recipe for fried green tomatoes, and another one for a green tomato curry courtesy of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, on the Fried Green Tomatoes page.

Holidays, Q&A

Holidays on the shelf.

It’s the holiday time of year again, and if you partake in gift-giving traditions, you might be wondering what to buy the cook in your life. As I posted last year, cookbooks are never wrong. Now, there’s been a lot of talk recently about mobile apps – and it’s true, you can use apps to search for recipes and create shopping lists on your iPad or iPhone while commuting on the bus, or what have you. I’ve been trying to find someone who’ll help me develop an app for my cookbook, matter of fact, so if you know someone, give me a shout. But when you’re actually in the kitchen, there’s nothing like a paper-and-binding cookbook. You can lay it flat on the counter or hold it open on one of those stands; you can run your finger down its pages when trying to recall your place in the recipe; you don’t have to squint at its tiny type, or swipe your poultry-smeared fingers across the screen of your phone. You can write your own notes, when you want to change something in the recipe to make it your own. There’s no real substitute for paper.

So I received a couple of reader requests for my top five cookbook recommendations. That’s tough, because some of them are from last year’s list. On Food and Cooking, for example, and The Flavor Bible, two selections from last year, are books I will recommend year after year. Neither is a cookbook. Both are guides to understanding food that anyone who takes a genuine interest in cooking should read. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee provides the story of the foods we eat in their scientific, historic, and cultural contexts. He’s not Alton Brown, either. Does that make it sound like school? Maybe it is, a little, but in a good way. It’s like going to college, where you get to study what you want, and what you want to study is food. The Flavor Bible is a stunning reference work on building complex flavor. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, in consultation with hundreds of professional chefs, will tell you how to put together any one ingredient with any other ingredient, and if it shouldn’t be done, you’ll know. If you read this book in conjunction with McGee’s, combinations that might have been inapparent before will seem obvious. It’s genius.

So what does this leave for my top five? It took some time, but I narrowed it down. Leaving aside those top two, here are five other books I strongly recommend. They cover the bases – classic French technique; component-building; quick guides to the basics; dim sum; and local cuisine par excellence. Only the last book is new. The others have provided years of service in my kitchen – what better recommendation do you need?

Happy holidays, everyone! And now, the list.

1. Jacques Pepin, Complete Techniques. When I was first learning to cook, this book only existed in its original two-volume format, and was long out of print. I couldn’t find both volumes, and the second volume (mostly desserts), besides being less valuable for my purposes, was outrageously expensive. When this combined volume was released in the mid-1990s, I bought it immediately.

This is a softcover book. The step-by-step illustrations, in the original black and white, are an immense help to anyone who wants to learn classic French technique. If you want to learn to make a ballotine or Paris-Brest, don’t even think of trying Julia. Consult Jacques.

2. Diane Forley, Anatomy of a Dish. Why do eggplant and tomato taste so good together? Why do we often pair onion and garlic? How do we decide how to pair certain proteins with certain accompaniments? Diane Forley, formerly of NYC’s Verbena Restaurant, took the scientific approach to constructing her plates. If you’ve ever struggled with constructing a harmonious dish out of multiple components – much less a cohesive, progresssive menu – this book provides a thoughtful method for developing sound pairings and progressions. And although this isn’t a vegetarian cookbook – in fact, the vegetables and grains often provide a platform for animal proteins – Forley emphasizes the role of botany in developing vegetable combinations. You’ll learn why quinoa and spinach pair so well together, and be pairing crucifers like a pro.

3. Filip Verheyden, Basics: The Foundations of Modern Cooking. It’s a tiny book – the height and width of one of those Moleskine journals, and not a whole lot thicker. But in it, you’ll find instructions for everything from roast chicken to braised short ribs to ham mousse, “seawater” gelée, the technique to cook vegetables sous vide, and the foams essential to modern cuisine. Who needs an app when you can carry this book in your bag?

4. Huang Su-Huei, Chinese Snacks. Dim sum is a dismal affair in most American Chinese restaurants – greasy, heavy, flat. Why put up with it? Because you could never make it at home. Well, that’s nonsense. You certainly can make dim sum at home. This is the authoritative guide for the home cook. The instructions are in both English and Chinese; the book is part of a series on various Asian cuisines by a Taiwanese processed food company that makes admirable frozen dumplings as well as a wide variety of condiments. With this book, and ingredients available in any Asian grocery (and many supermarkets), you can make everything from fried meat dumplings to glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves to those little egg tarts that finish off every visit to a dim sum restaurant. Once you’ve tried your hand at the obvious, turn your attention to the moon cakes eaten at the autumn harvest festivals.

5. René Redzepi, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The only new book on the list, this is a must-read if you want to understand the future of local cuisine. René Redzepi, the Danish chef who put Noma on the map with two Michelin stars and the Most Important Restaurant sobriquet, presents the essence of Scandinavia in each dish. Redzepi harnesses modern techniques and technology to make the climate and geography of Denmark – one of the world’s most culinarily forbidding places – his allies rather than his enemies.

This book isn’t for everyone. It’s not for the home cook who’s putting out family meals, and it isn’t for the cook who needs a lot of instruction. This book provides a thoughtful insider view of the limits of local cuisine, and if you’re buying for someone who seeks the ultimate local challenge, or a “locavore” who wants to explore the full implications of that word, this is the book.

Confectionery, Duck, Frenchy Things, Leftover Recycling

Holiday Food Project 2010

Remember when we were kids, and we had endless wish lists of holiday gifts? Barbie Styling Head, Easy Bake Oven, Snoopy Sno Cone Machine, that sort of thing. I probably shouldn’t say any more, because I’m starting to sound like quite the retrograde feminine traditionalist, but you get the idea. Kids love stuff, and the winter holiday is primo stuff-buying season for kids. Adults too, as it turns out. When I first met my husband, I discovered that every holiday season, he and his mother engaged in the wholly pragmatic ritual of exchanging dog-eared catalogues with the desired merchandise circled within. I scoffed at this practice, of course, tarring it as an unromantic concession to the materialism of Christmas. We’re adults, I protested, and if you’re still buying holiday gifts for other adults, you should make an effort to know their tastes and interests. Really try to understand them as people, and buy them carefully chosen, meaningful gifts, not just turtlenecks from L.L. Bean and Borders gift cards.

I’m just going to tell this story about what a total load of bullshit my whole position on gifts turned out to be. Our protagonist doesn’t read this blog, so just let me have this, ok? Here’s what happened. Ever since my “thoughtful gifts” putsch of 2001, my mother in law and I exchanged gifts without any sort of holiday wish lists as a guide, with varying degrees of success or failure. Over the years, she bought me a series of mysteries – never registering that I hate mysteries and almost never read fiction. In 2005, I bought her a first edition of The World is Flat based on my knowledge that she reads the Times assiduously and admires everyone who writes in their pages (regardless of viewpoint, apparently), but totally ignorant of the fact that she already owned two copies. It kind of went like this every year. And then it was 2006. Right around Thanksgiving that year, my husband and I were sitting in his mother’s living room in suburban Philadelphia when my eye wandered over to a pair of two-dimensional copper cats in the window. The idea with these unbearably awful cats was that you could pose them in different ways so they could be attacking each other, frolicking, or just hanging out together. It’s possible she saw me looking at them. Does this seem like a nonsequitur? It’s not.

For a few years I had become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that my mother in law was spending so much money on the holidays since, as an adult, it’s not as though I really need any of this stuff, and she was headed toward retirement. Anything I really need (a new slate roof, second floor bathroom refurbishment) or want (rotovap, chamber sealer, lyophilizer) is way out of the range of reasonable gift expectations, and nearly everything else I can buy myself. So that Christmas, when I opened the square white box and unfolded several layers of tissue paper to find a pair of two-dimensional copper cats – expensive, two-dimensional copper cats – you can imagine how excited I felt. “Oh,” I said. “Just like yours.”

I since have conceded to my husband that the wish list method is superior to my idealized conception of gift-giving. Sometimes coups-d’états end with the restoration of the establishment, after all. As a matter of fact, I have adopted the wish list with the zealotry of the convert, making Amazon wishlists, evangelizing to my husband about their use, and publicly humiliating myself (as now) by repeating the story of my conversion at every available holiday opportunity. Actually, it doesn’t come up all that often. The moral of the story, though, is that you should make lists and exchange them to avoid being given unaesthetic “works of art” for the holidays, which you may have to trot out on future family visits to avoid uncomfortable questioning. But when list-exchanging would be awkward or socially inappropriate, the gift of food is never wrong.

Most people love either sugar or fat (admit it or not). Things have become more complicated over the years, as meat eatership is down, and so is sugar consumption. But your odds of making one or the other of these items work as a gift are pretty good. And to know which one to give your intended target, or whether to go back to the drawing board, you really have to make an effort to know their tastes and interests. See? You really can have it all. Happy holidays.

Figs with brandied ganache

Full disclosure: I did not conceptualize these figs in the first instance. Nat and I were killing time at a farmer’s market in Swarthmore (where my mother in law lives) when we encountered a vendor selling figs stuffed with ganache in boxes from Williams-Sonoma. We bought a small wooden box holding six figs and they were gone almost immediately. I thought, how hard could these be to make at home? Not hard. I mean, I’m not a pastry chef or confiseur by any means, and I worked it out on my first try.

The most difficult part of this exercise is dipping in the chocolate coating If you don’t already know, chocolate must be tempered to achieve that glossy snap at room temperature. This means that, once you melt the chocolate, you need to bring the temperature back down to 88F/31C and keep it there while you use it to coat your bonbons or whatever. There exist a couple of methods to temper chocolate, but in my opinion, the easiest is to melt chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches roughly 110F/43C, and then stir in cold chocolate (couverture chocolate works best because it has been pre-tempered) until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine) and work as quickly as you can. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it won’t lose heat immediately.

You can substitute another liquor for the brandy, but I chose a Spanish brandy (a Torres Jaime I solera) because it was a great pairing with the figs and the Spanish chocolate. Bourbon and some types of scotch whisky (particularly those aged in solera casks) would make excellent choices. Rum is a little cloying with the figs, in my opinion, unless you use something like Gosling’s Old or Santa Teresa 1792.

One thing: if choosing the second (injection) method below to fill the figs, you will need a syringe to fill the figs with ganache. This is not as deviant as it sounds. You can order an appropriately large syringe from L’Epicerie for about $4 or you can try to hit up your friendly neighborhood pharmacy. When I had my wisdom teeth out, years ago, I was told to keep my mouth clean with a syringe of warm water (there’s no needle). If you go the pharmacy route, the only difference is that you’ll have to refill the syringe more often, as it doesn’t hold as much.

One to two dozen dried figs, depending on size (I believe I used calimyrna, but see what you can find)
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart 80%), chopped
8 ounces (1 cup) heavy cream
1 tbsp corn syrup
2 tbsp brandy

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart dark), divided

Make the ganache:

Bring the cream to a boil. Allow to cool to about 120F; bring to a second boil and cool again. Bring to a third boil and add the corn syrup. Immediately pour through a fine sieve over the chopped chocolate. Stir well with a silicone spatula; do not overwork or beat in air. When cool (at room temperature), stir in the brandy and incorporate completely. You must wait to room temperature or the addition of cool liquid to warm chocolate may cause the mixture to seize.

Lay a sheet of wax paper in a sheet pan. Fill the figs. Full disclosure: I only ever have used the second method to fill the figs; the first one is a guess but I know it will work.

First method: place plastic wrap on the surface of the ganache to prevent a skin from forming, and allow the ganache to solidify somewhat. Slice the bottom off each fig and, using a small spoon, hollow out some of the flesh. Fill with ganache (using a spoon or butter knife) and place, bottom side down, on the wax paper to solidify further.

Second method: Fit an iSi ProfiWhip canister with an injector needle. Charge with nitrous. Blow out each fig with just a puff (not too hard!) until each one just puffs up. This pushes the fig flesh toward the walls and makes it easier to fill each one with ganache while leaving the fig intact. See before/after shots below.



Fill the syringe with ganache while still warm. It helps to use the smallest possible spoon. Working quickly (because once you push the plunger, the ganache will come out quickly), fill each fig from the center of the flat, plump bottom. Inject from the blowout point and push until the fig is full. Set injection-side down on the wax paper.

Injecting with ganache.

Prepare the dipping chocolate:

Melt 5 ounces of the dark chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches 110F/43C, and then turn off the heat. Remove the top pot from the boiler but do not take the water off the stove. Stir in cold chocolate small piece by small piece until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Set the double boiler back on top of the water and keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine). Working as quickly as you can, dip the bottom of each fig into the couverture. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it will not lose heat immediately. If it begins to set up, return to the double boiler and bring back to 88F. Place the dipped figs on the wax paper after dipping. Leave about an inch between figs.

Figs, brandied ganache.

Duck rillettes

Looking for something for the meat glutton in your life? Duck rillettes ought to do it.

Here’s the thing. Rillettes are the easiest of the pâté-like meat preparations to make, and yet anyone who receives a little jar of duck rillettes from you will act as though you flew to the Loire River valley and picked it up specially. They should – as easy as rillettes are to make, they taste like a million bucks. Traditionally, in the Loire départements, the rillettes were made from pork belly and shoulder. You can and should do that as well, but all I had handy was duck confit, so that’s what you’re getting this time. I do have a nine pound belly in the reach in, though, and if I get around to it this weekend, I’ll make some pork rillettes.

Pack your product in these lidded jars, complete with rubber gaskets. Not only do they look incredible, but they really keep the air out (in combination with the layer of fat on the rillettes). If you’re really motivated, you even can make labels. Once packed, they will keep, unopened, for a couple of months in the refrigerator, longer in the freezer. Once opened, consume within ten days. Best with toast points, excellent with pickled onions and cornichons.

One recipe (six legs) duck confit, from this recipe, fat and all, chilled solid
½ cup Dijon mustard (I like to use a green peppercorn Dijon by Maille or Edmund Fallot but you don’t have to do that)
About 1 tsp freshly ground black peppercorn

Lift the duck from the fat and measure out about 1 ½ c fat. Keep cold. Remove the duck meat from the bones and skin. In a bowl, combine all the duck meat, 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about ¼ c cold duck fat. Stir using a fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c duck fat. Continue stirring. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither lean-meaty nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c duck fat (or more) and 2 tbsp mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper.

Allow the remaining duck fat to melt until just liquid.

Pack into sterilized lidded jars and top with ¼ inch liquid duck fat. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve.

All packed up.

Italian, Lamb., Offal, Pasta, Random Thoughts, Science

The story of the lamb, as told by the belly.

We didn’t eat lamb in my house when I was growing up. It wasn’t a taste my family enjoyed. As I understood it, this anti-lamb sentiment had its origins in my father’s graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin. Back in the Sixties, he shared a house on Johnson Street with a couple of guys – also foreign students – who enjoyed cooking lamb at every opportunity. More accurately, in my dad’s recounting, they enjoyed cooking cheap cuts of lamb day and night with the kitchen windows closed, filling the house with the pungent, fatty odor, putting him off lamb for good.

On account of that experience, my mother never cooked lamb, and the only time I remember trying it as a kid was during Thanksgiving weekend 1978. We went up to Wausau, up in north central Wisconsin, where my dad’s friends and fellow political science colleagues Joe and Angie Burger lived in an old farmhouse. Maybe it’s because Joe is Czech, or something, but instead of turkey, we had mutton for the holiday. Unless you have an inside source, mutton is pretty hard to come by these days in the United States, for good reason. It’s a really tough, strongly-flavored meat. It’s basically adult sheep – lamb past its eating prime – and even back then I don’t think our dinner was retail mutton, if you get my drift. I wasn’t expecting Thanksgiving mutton, and I don’t think my dad was, either. Like any polite adult, he sliced it up, put it in his mouth piece by piece, and chewed, staring straight ahead and chasing it with wine. I don’t know if I ate it or just moved it around my plate under my Brussels sprouts. My three year-old brother was a real glutton for turkey and I think he might have cried when confronted with the mutton. All I remember for sure about that holiday was that my brother split his chin open getting out of the tub, and driving around the woods of northern Wisconsin, going deer hunting with the professors. Kind of a bloody weekend, in retrospect.

So my family’s shared food narrative, at least through the early 2000s, was that we did not eat lamb. My dad hated it, my brother hated it, I hated it, and whatever my mother really may have thought of lamb, I never saw it pass her lips. Then around 2003, in London, my dad ordered the lamb at dinner one night. “I thought you hated lamb,” I said, completely shocked. “Oh, sure,” he shrugged. “But that was before I had British lamb. British lamb is delicious. So tender and mild.” What was going on here? Had the British government kidnapped my father and replaced him with a surrogate? My now-husband looked down at his plate, smirking. He loves lamb and is always going on about how it’s so full of “lamby goodness.” I was outnumbered, Lisa Simpson in a land of lamb-eaters.

I like lamb now. There’s still something about the taste – I can’t eat too much of it. If you’re like me, and find the taste of lamb a little funky, maybe it’s the lamb, not you. According to culinary scientist par excellence Harold McGee, the distinctive taste of lamb may be down in part to the presence of skatole, a compound that comes from grazing on clover and alfalfa, and contributes a “barnyardy” element to pork as well, at least in the fattier cuts of heritage breeds. And it’s true – that flavor hasn’t been sanitized out of lamb in the way of today’s “other white meat”-style pork loin. Other reputable sources report that alkyl- and thiophenols are responsible for the characteristic “lambiness” of lamb, as is thymol – one of the phenolic compounds responsible for thyme’s distinctive quality. That seems plausible, because you definitely can get too much skatole. Present in both the meat and fat, skatole can push lamb past the smell of goats and sheep out in the pasture, beyond hay, toward manure and worse, and is responsible for the rich, mulchy, faintly rotting smell of jasmine and orange blossom as well. In other words, “barnyardy” is a polite term for something more pungent, since skatole shares the same origins as the word “scatological.” You get where I’m going with this, so if you have an uncomfortable relationship with lamb, that could be why. Strangely, as much as the pungency of skatole can put me off, the dish that brought me over to the lamb side was a frugal sauté of potato scraps in lamb fat.

No part of the animal tastes more of the lamb than its belly. Also known as the breast, the belly is the tough cut from the outside of the ribcage along the chest of the lamb. If the loin chops represent the loin eye inside the rib bones as they curve down from the spine, the belly represents the the muscle and fat layer outside the rib cage as it closes along the sternum. Lamb is by definition young, tender, and relatively lean, and the lamb belly is neither as thick nor as fatty as the corresponding portion of the pig, nor is it as tough. Even so, it can be prepared in the same way – braised, cooked sous vide at low temperatures, cured like bacon. And, unlike pork belly, it has not become ridiculously expensive. If you can find it – and in this case, a willingness to work with bigger cuts of meat and an unhealthy interest in wielding large knives is useful – you can have lamb breast for next to nothing. Use the butchered bone cut for Scotch broth or Irish stew.

Thirty six hour lamb belly, orzo gratin

This may seem an esoteric preparation using an esoteric cut of meat. Not so! As I said above, lamb breast is cheap, almost a throwaway cut. The low, slow, sous vide/low temperature cooking method involves some equipment investment, but it is simple. If you don’t have the equipment, you can braise. Use the same method as pork belly braising – instructions are included. It won’t take quite as long.

The use of Activa transglutaminase permits you to glue together the relatively thin cuts of lamb belly into thicker cuts about the size of pork belly. Its use is optional and definitely esoteric. The lamb depicted below is a doubled cut bonded with Activa RM and cooked sous vide at 140F/60C.

Two lamb breasts, on the bone (sizes will vary; you will need to weigh)
kosher salt, 1% by weight or roughly 1 tsp per pound
sugar, .5% by weight, or roughly 1/2 tsp per pound
garlic confit, one per tsp of salt
thyme branches
optional: Activa transglutaminase (RM or GS), 0.75% by weight

Cut each belly from the bone in a flat piece. Weigh and calculate the required amount of salt and sugar. Combine the salt, sugar, and garlic confit; rub on both sides of each belly. Lay atop thyme branches and place thyme on the top side as well. Cover and weight. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, up to 72.

If using Activa to make double-thick portions of belly, scrape off any garlic paste and sprinkle Activa RM powder or spray Activa GS slurry on the meat side of each belly. Press together and tie. Seal with a few thyme leaves in vacuum bags and weight. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, up to 24. If not using Activa, simply seal with the vacuum bags and proceed.



Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C. The meat will be cooked just to medium.

Alternatively, if not cooking sous vide/low temp, place a pot large enough to hold the belly over medium heat. Bring just enough chicken stock to cover the bellies to a simmer with bay leaf, thyme branches, and garlic confit. Add the bellies, and then place in a 220F oven for three hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid. The meat will not be pink as pictured below because of the increased heat.

Remove from the circulator (or oven) and unpack. (If not preparing immediately, follow appropriate chilling and storage procedures.) Cut into squares. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Place the lamb belly squares, meat side-down, for about 30 seconds; turn over to skin side-down and brown for another minute.

Serve with orzo gratin and Brussels sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, drained on towels, and sautéed in hot duck fat.

36 hour belly.

Orzo gratin

It’s basically just macaroni and cheese. Sheep’s milk cheese complements the lamb belly nicely; black truffle is a classic winter pairing. If you don’t want to deal with the lamb belly, at least make the gratin.

Why do I toss the orzo with oil when it is common knowledge that you should not oil your pasta any more than you should rinse it in cold water before saucing? Because baked pastas tend to absorb large quantities of liquid, and if you don’t coat your orzo with the merest bit of oil before baking, it will emerge from the oven pasty, oily, and mushy, not coated with a creamy, cheesy sauce. The oil protects the orzo, which is so small and has so much surface area that it cannot withstand much contact with sauce before soaking it all up.

8 oz orzo
1 tsp grapeseed or other neutral oil (or clarified butter)
3 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
3 tbsp Wondra
one small onion, peeled and small dice 1/4″
2 c whole milk
5 oz Sottocenere al tartufo, coarsely shredded
3 oz Robiola (inside only) or another mixed sheep’s milk cheese
one black truffle, thinly sliced
salt (truffle salt would be a great choice)
1/2 c fresh breadcrumbs
thyme leaves

Oven 400F/205C.

Cook the orzo in salted, boiling water until just al dente and drain. Do not rinse. Toss in colander to break up lumps. When cool, stir with 1 tsp neutral-flavored oil or clarified butter. Set aside.

Place a saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Add the onion and sweat until tender. Do not brown. Add the rest of the butter and, when melted, add the Wondra. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to cook out the floury taste. Add the milk, slowly, stirring. Bring to a simmer and cook out to a bubbling and somewhat thickened texture, about ten minutes. Strain through a chinois into vitaprep (or blender) and add the cheeses. Purée.

Season with salt. Combine with orzo and thinly shaved truffle slices. Pour into a gratin dish. Top with breadcrumbs mixed with thyme. Bake until bubbling and browned.

Orzo gratin

Orzo gratin, sottocenere al tartufo, sliced burgundy truffle.

Q&A, Random Thoughts, Science

Going nuts.

A reader asks whether the rumors about the superiority of coconut and walnut oil are true. A magic carpet ride back to the land of organic chemistry, what “rancidification” and “smoke point” mean, and the implications for coconut oil on the Nuts page.