Then we had a little lamb…a tender little baby lamb
I grew up here, so moving back home was a familiar return. The reasons I love it are both dense and infinite, blurred by the intensity of my childhood memories smacking up against the present. So when pressed with that question I just pick something, one detail. Lately I might say something like, “It’s great. I have a big chest freezer full of local farm-raised chickens and I just picked up a whole baby lamb. Packaged, I mean, split into roasts and chops. It weighed just fifty pounds at processing!”
Silence. I’m sure they think I’ve gone a little loopy. I was the girl who, two years ago, was gushing about scoring marked-down boots at the sample sale, and now all I can talk about is a rare adolescent sheep.
A new chest freezer has eaten up all my available shoe money. It looms large and signifies a lot of things. For starters, it allows me to select the meat I want to eat all winter. Chickens? Pork? A quarter beef? Venison and Lamb? (Each fall I pick my protein cocktail for the winter; when you’re dealing with whole animals, an assortment wouldn’t fit.)
Secondly, keeping everything frozen requires some planning, especially because I like to defrost meat slowly in the refrigerator or in a bath of ice cold water. But even this feels right, like working here in the kitchen should involve planning and slow processes. Maybe until now I’ve been craving the time for my intentions to unfurl, for food projects to stretch out and find their necessary shapes; for old ideas to come to fruition.
Like the baby lamb. This year I knew I wanted some lamb in the freezer, but I didn’t want a mature one; I needed to find a baby, sixty pounds or less.
Back in New York I worked in a restaurant where we cooked an entire baby lamb every night for dinner service. It was a true milkfed baby and weighed just thirty-five pounds dressed. It was fork-tender, pale and tasted so unlike the ruddy full-grown Colorado chops I knew that I would have sworn if was veal if not for the quarter-sized lamb chops.
Other cultures—the Greeks, for instance—like their lamb young, too. I think that at a certain age, lamb begins to take on the muskiness of mutton. Some people like the flavor but I usually find that lambs processed at a weight of 125 taste too strong for me. The fifty-pounder still tastes like lamb—but calmer, sweeter and more delicate.
I called my cousins. They have a butcher shop in Pierz, MN, and they’re accustomed to my picky requests (and my mother’s picky requests, and my grandmother’s picky requests … .)
They called the next day with good news: the farmer said he’d bring in a 50-pounder. A few days later I drove down to pick up my lamb and ever since I’ve been defrosting a package a week, progressing slowly through the bounty, and making sure to save one leg for Easter.
I made a very exciting batch of golden yellow lamb curry last week, but this recipe suits the fine meat a little better, shows off its youth and tenderness.
This traditional recipe—a boiled dinner of lamb and cabbage—has simple spicing but no garlic. It relies of the spiciness of the peppercorns and onion, and the earthiness of the lamb. Lamb neck works well here, but so does lamb shoulder.
Serve with boiled potatoes (mashed a bit on the plate to soak up the juices) and green beans.
3 pounds lamb shoulder or neck, cut into 3-inch cubes, preferably on the bone (ask your butcher to saw for you)
1 Tablespoon canola oil
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided, plus to taste
1 sweet onion
2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
2 large sprigs rosemary
10 allspice berries
1/4 head green cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares
1 medium rutabaga
9 cups water
Heat a heavy soup pot over high heat and add the canola oil. Season the bones and neck with 1/2 teaspoon salt and brown the meat on all sides; remove.
Peel the onion carefully, keeping the root end intact. Cut in half lengthwise and add to the hot oil in the pot. Brown deeply, and remove. Pour out the oil, and add the meat and onion back to the pot. Cover with the 9 cups of water.
Make a sachet out of a square of wet and wrung-out cheesecloth: put the peppercorns, rosemary and allspice in the center and tie up the corners into a tight package. Add the sachet to the pot and bring to a simmer. Skim off any foam and excess fat and cover the contents of the stew with an offset lid.
Bring the liquid in the pot to a soft, inaudible simmer and cook for 3 hours, or until the lamb tests almost fully tender when poked with a thin fork. Skim off excess fat from time to time.
Season the broth with the remaining salt to taste.
Add the rutabega and cabbage and simmer very slowly for one more hour, or until the vegetables are fully tender.
Serve the stew with boiled, buttered potatoes.