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
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.
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
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.