Easy holiday rack of lamb

Looking for something fancy to serve over the holidays? Not looking forward to spending all day on a roast? If you have a smaller party, a frenched rack of lamb looks about as impressive as it gets and is super easy to prepare. (I was also preparing multiple other things at the same time and was a total slacker about photos…sorry.)

For my Viking’s birthday this past week, I wanted to cleanse both our palates of a truly awful lamb experience at one of Boston’s nicest restaurants. This worked. Because I don’t cook lamb much, I did a weird thing for me, which was: I found a recipe and followed it exactly. (Okay. Almost exactly.)

I used Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Herbs. Originally a summer recipe from Gourmet, there’s nothing summer-specific about this. The herb coating is indeed a welcome kick of brightness in a dreary month, but the savory, meltingly tender meat is as celebratory as it gets.

Also, lamb is in season in the other hemisphere, so it’s even (sort of?) seasonal. I always prefer Australian or New Zealand lamb when I can get it: free range and grass-fed by default, it is generally more mild-flavored than American lamb (so if you don’t like “gamey” lamb this is a good bet for you), plus humanely raised.

  1. Preheat your oven (recipe says 350; I, and many of the recipe’s reviewers, used 400 instead).
  2. While it’s heating, make the herb paste.
    1. I did a double handful of curly parsley (flat tastes weird to me), four fat garlic cloves, four or five stems of fresh rosemary, about a teaspoon dried thyme, a pinch of salt, and loads of fresh pepper. I bet this would also be delightful with some fresh mint thrown in.
    2. With a good dollop of olive oil, this came together in no time in the work bowl of my food processor, but it’s not a lot to mince by hand–just be careful to get it as paste-y as possible for best cohesion to the lamb later on.
    3. Please not that my paste quantities are almost exactly the same as the recipe’s–but the recipe is supposed to coat two racks, and I only had one. To this I say, HA! More paste!
  3. Trim fat from lamb if necessary–mine was nicely butchered and there was no need–and rinse, then pat well dry.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.
  5. Preheat a heavy skillet for a couple of minutes, dry, til very hot, THEN add a bit of high-heat oil to the pan. I used a 10 inch cast iron with avocado oil.
  6. Brown the lamb well, everywhere but the short exposed ends (which you don’t want to overcook). I did about 2 minutes per side. Non-cast iron may take longer.
  7. Now the fun part. Take the paste and rub it liberally all over the meaty parts of the rack. Pressing firmly should get it to adhere pretty well. You want it to really coat the meat.
  8. The recipe says to put the rack(s) in a small roasting pan to finish cooking, but I say, if I already have a dirty pan AND it’s oven-safe, why would I bother? So I gave my skillet a quick swipe with a paper towel to remove excess fat, put the lamb right back in, and stuck it in the oven.
  9. Cook until the lamb registers about 120; as it rests, it should come up to medium-rare.
    1. This may 15-25 minutes depending on your oven (and on your lamb, I suppose).
    2. I tested at 15 and it was 102; I tested 7 minutes later and it was 129 (!!!!!) but it turned out PERFECTLY medium-rare, as you can see. I did tent with foil at the 15-minute mark, as the recipe suggests, and that may actually have been the problem. The lamb wasn’t scorching–next time I would leave uncovered.
    3. Pro tip: I got annoyed that the recipe made no mention of how to position the rack for optimal cooking. I decided it would be weird if one of the meaty sides were laying flat while the other were exposed to the air. That seemed like it would cook unevenly, plus perhaps burn that nice herb paste. So I rolled up a bit of tinfoil and used it as a prop to keep the rack from falling over as it “stood” upright.
  10. Let rest for a few minutes–ideally tented with foil, but because mine came out at too high a temp, I immediately removed it to a plate and left uncovered to help it cool quicker. Then carve into two-chop segments and enjoy.

I served ours with a wild mushroom farro risotto and a simple side of greens (arugula and sorrel, dressed lightly with toasted walnut oil and lemon). It left me thinking I ought to make more excuses to serve rack of lamb: fast, drop-dead gorgeous, and utterly delicious.

herb crusted rack of lamb

And now, pie

I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.

Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.

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The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.


My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.

Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.


Friday Fave: Ballet

Like many small girls at the age of four or five, I went through a phase of wanting to be a ballerina when I grew up. This was preceded by having wanted to be one of those people who bags groceries and then a football player, so I’m sure my mother was relieved by this. Me being me, however, I was always determined to do it myself, without the need for actually learning what was involved in the art from someone who knew what he or she was doing. This resulted in a dislike of the ballet class I was duly enrolled in, and permanent damage to the big toes on both of my feet because I was certain that I could master pointe work if I just learned to balance. I retained a desire to possess one of those pink-and-white ballet boxes and a fondness for wearing leather-soled ballet slippers around the house, but soon after this I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Robin Hood, and moved on to even less practical daydreams of being an adult in times other than the one in which I lived.

I didn’t pay much attention to ballet again until I was sixteen and happened to see a brief Vladimir Malakhov performance on television one Sunday, back when the A&E channel in the US actually showed Arts and Entertainment programming. I waited patiently for a repeat, or other performances; the only thing that I could find were recordings and screenings of the Nutcracker. Finding these interesting but not especially inspiring, I gave up and returned again to my books and music.

The Christmas before last I saw an ad that PBS was airing the film of Matthew Bourne’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I noticed the costumes more than anything else–all sparkly and lace-trimmed goth aesthetic–and set it to record. I had other things on my mind at that time and didn’t bother to watch it for a couple of months, but when I did, I was hooked. I did like the costumes and the twist on the classic story, introducing vampires and other new elements to an old fairy tale, but I loved watching the dancing. It isn’t classical ballet by any means–lots of dancing barefoot, and I don’t remember any pointe work–but this was my gateway drug. It was like discovering a new genre in fiction I’d never paid attention to before, learning the terminology, the different periods of dance, watching enough to distinguish between the styles of specific choreographers and dancers.

I have learned enough to have preferences, but I’m still an amateur, not a proper fangirl yet. I haven’t found anything that bores me in the field–every production I’ve seen yields something interesting in terms of the techniques of the dancers, the way the movements tell a story, the costumes. I have acquired five different performances of Swan Lake, without meaning to specialize in a particular piece; the thing about relying on the handful of fairy-tale-inspired ballets that keep drawing audiences back generation after generation is the consequent need to reinvent and reinterpret the stories to keep them alive. There are classic versions with sumptuous sets and costumes, and there are stripped-down versions with modern choreography and, Matthew Bourne’s production, most of the genders of the roles switched.

I recently read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels (2011), in order to learn something of the history of the art. I do recommend it as a thorough introduction to the origins and different regional styles of the art through the centuries, but I disagree strongly with her assertion that the art is dying if not already dead. Choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor are hammering out new ways to tell stories through dance, and dancers are again becoming prominent pop culture figures, drawing new audiences and more importantly inspiring new generations of dancers–Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, Steven McRae, Carlos Acosta, and most of all Misty Copeland, are known to audiences beyond dedicated ballet aficionados, and are bringing ballet back to international prominence. There are companies such as the BalletBoyz, who created a dance to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to create a new version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with the singers shadowed by dancers who illustrate the opera as it is sung.

There are so many amazing dancers that it would take too long to go into even a handful here–aside from those mentioned above, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Lauren Cuthbertson are always well worth watching. Vladimir Malakhov is still a prominent figure, more as a director and advisor these days than a performer, although his Caravaggio (2009) is as vital and enthralling a performance as anything done by younger dancers. My current favourite, though, is Edward Watson. There’s something shallow in a lot of the emotion portrayed in a lot of the stories told in ballet, generally a necessary side effect when the aim of the art is making such strenuous and difficult movement look effortless. Watson has a particular gift for making the emotions his characters are possessed by feel real, especially the darker ones–grief, fear, desperation, and madness. His performance in Mayerling, as the hedonistic and unbalanced crown prince of Austria who is obsessed with his mother, abuses his wife, and eventually kills his teenage mistress before killing himself, is as compelling as it is disturbing; he is even more magnetic as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s adaptation of The Metamorphosis.

Alongside the old standards of fairy tales, there are new works appearing every year based on literature, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. There are also works that follow Balanchine rather than MacMillan or Ashton in dispensing with a storyline altogether in favour of pure expression and form. Next time you’re looking for something to watch online, give a ballet a try–it isn’t all tutus and sugarplum fairies and Tchaikovsky. Now there are sets decorated by Swarovski, costumes by prominent fashion designers, music by Jack White. I’m entirely convinced there’s something for everyone, if only everyone would give it enough of a chance.


Friday Fave: Last of the Mohicans (1992)


Whenever you see a film made from a book, the standard response is “the book was better.” This is usually true, to be fair; the problem is that it’s such an automatic response these days I often wonder if the person telling me that has actually read the book. (These are usually strangers who are unaware that reading novels is about as vital as eating to me.) However, it isn’t invariably true. There are some perfectly good films that have remarkably little to do with the book that supposedly inspired them (Easy A, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless) and some excellent films that alter the story they are based on in minor or sometimes drastic ways but turn out to be so good that I can’t bring myself to care (The English Patient, The Princess Bride). And then there are films that are so, so much better than the book, such as Body of Lies (2008), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and most of all Last of the Mohicans (1992).

I’ve never understood why James Fenimore Cooper is still taught in schools–a book having been a bestseller during a certain period is not the same thing as it actually being a great novel. (Imagine Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer being taught in high schools.) (Actually, don’t. If that ever comes to pass, please don’t tell me.) Cooper apparently felt no burning need to write or create stories, nor demonstrated any particular talent for it at an early age; he was reading a novel one day and decided it was no great challenge, so he sat down to write his own. His lack of any inherent genius for the form shows in the inconsistency of his characterizations and many other flaws. I tried to read The Last of the Mohicans when I was fourteen, found the female characters unbearable, and gave up. Later, the year I studied American Lit in high school, on the one day my English teacher devoted to Cooper and the other early American writers we would not cover (we read Hawthorne and several poets from the time instead), he explained that Cooper’s novels contained a number of lovely descriptions of the long-vanished New England wilderness, but not much else worthwhile, and referred us to Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” (Very much worth reading, if you haven’t already.)

I can’t think of any other instance where so poor a novel has been made into so compelling a film. I have a feeling that the film of The Last of the Mohicans is variously dismissed by critics and adored by some fans solely as a visually stunning romantic adventure (emphasis on the romance), due mostly if not entirely to the famous scene of Daniel Day-Lewis shouting at Madeline Stowe “No matter how long it takes, no matter how far–I will find you!” I’ve always found this to be decidedly unfair; there’s a lot more to the film than Hawkeye and Cora’s undying love, dramatic and gorgeous as it is. It is about the reasons that the American colonies rebelled against Britain, without being about the revolution itself; it also offers a wealth of detail about people lived in the 18th century, and particularly attitudes towards women during that time, again without being preachy or even intentionally feminist. I have no idea whether Cooper had any intention of earnestly mourning the loss of the indigenous American cultures that European settlers wiped out, but those who made the 1992 film evidently did. Alongside the love stories and the conflict between settlers and the military, the film dramatizes some of the more subtle methods used eradicating native cultures and populations. Most people know about the smallpox blankets, the Trail of Tears, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, but the damage done by alcoholism, the exploitation of native populations as servants and cat’s-paws, the co-opting and whitewashing of indigenous traditions aren’t common knowledge in the same way. The titular Last of the Mohicans at the end of the story is a man mourning his only son, and the end of his tribe with him, but the grief is simply personal; it is the loss of a culture. It feels wrong to me to say I like this, but in the same way I treasure Dark Hour of Noon and the film Wit, I find it valuable–it is beautifully done and important to revisit, even when it is hard to do so.

There are a thousand other things to like about the film. The sharp little glints of sarcasm in the dialogue, particularly those between Hawkeye and Cora; Jodhi May’s excellent turn as Alice, making what could have been an insipid and useless character compelling and heartbreaking; Eric Schweig, just because; the soundtrack; the locations where the filming took place. Seriously, you could watch solely for the views of the Blue Ridge mountains and you wouldn’t be wasting your time.

One of the more unusual, though certainly not unique, problems afflicting fans of the film is that when it was released on dvd, for some reason it was decided to release a different cut of the film. Then, when the blu-ray came out, a definitive director’s cut was released (because apparently Michael Mann hadn’t made up his mind when he did the first director’s cut…). There are at least three (possibly four) versions of the film; the second, the first dvd version, cuts some of the best lines. (They did the same thing with the new Ghostbusters. It’s quite maddening.) The differences between three of the versions are discussed in detail here, if anyone is interested; if you can get the original theatrical release, I recommend that one, at least to watch first. After that, the Definitive Director’s Cut restores some of the missing lines, if not all. The first Director’s Cut is still the film, still plenty to see and enjoy, but definitely the worst of the three.