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

Rotisserie Chicken: The Best and Worst of America

Things are awful, people are awful, the world is a terrible place and I want to cry: these are my general reactions to my daily doses of the news. The United States, like a complicated new baking recipe, is a fabulous idea but in the early stages of its development, a hot mess. Which brings me to rotisserie chicken.

Look. I know the food systems in our country are a tangled web of special interests, subsidies gone wrong, the degradation of most of our arable land, and animal cruelty on an unspeakable scale. I don’t eat a ton of meat and I try to find sustainably (or at least humanely) raised meat when I do buy it.

Yet there are days–long hours of hard work at the barn, or hours spent trying to write with nothing to show–when I realize I should probably feed myself, and that my husband would appreciate me including him in the effort so I shouldn’t just eat popcorn, and it’s really irresponsible and expensive to order out, and I’m exhausted, and I want something that tastes like Real Food but I absolutely do not want to cook it, that I remember rotisserie chickens exist.

What a soothing product. What a shining beacon of American-ness. Sometimes they just make everything right with the world: they are available everywhere, they are consistently good and sometimes delicious, and they are appallingly cheap (often 30, and as much as 50, percent less than the cost of a similarly sized raw chicken where both are sold).

America! How did we invent this miraculous product? Of course, the food item itself is probably one of the oldest known to humanity, but why and how has this become a ubiquitous quick dinner solution across our nation?

(I should note that the quintessentially American rotisserie chicken does, as do most of the best food traditions in the western world, owe a debt to France. Apparently, the notoriously food-fickle Napoleon was kind of an addict. For instance: “When he rode out of Cairo on Christmas Eve to survey the Suez isthmus, the only provisions he took were three roasted chickens wrapped in paper.”)

But I digress. ‘Murica! The Washington Post wrote a piece a couple years back claiming that our national trend began with with the expansion of the Boston Market food chain in the 1980s. A grocery store economics site says the store chickens are so cheap because many markets are just getting rid of food that wouldn’t otherwise sell (i.e., reaching sell-by dates). Some stores do have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs in order to churn out as many as possible. I assume stores discovered that folks would come in for that one low- or no-margin product and leave with many other more profitable ones. I know that’s what happens to me whenever I cave and stop in at Costco or Whole Foods on the way home.

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The 1980s timeline makes sense to me. The ’80s were when women–overwhelmingly the ones doing the food shopping and cooking–entered the work force full time in droves. There was suddenly demand for fast food that tasted like you might imagine home-cooked food would taste if you’d never had it. Plus, that’s when a lot of chains were making the jump from regional to national.

So this is a foodstuff that grew in popularity as America became steadily more connected coast to coast and as our food systems deepened into the painfully contorted knots first tied by ag policies dating to the Great Depression. Rotisserie chickens simultaneously reflect one of the great goods of America (affordable abundance) and one of the great evils (refusal to address the true environmental and health costs of underpriced goods).

After the initial still-hot dinner meal, I have my leftover guilty pleasure chicken on top of salads or grains, mixed into pasta, or nibbled cold out of the container because I’m a monster. I knew a woman who bought a Market Basket rotisserie chicken every single week, got two meals out of it, then made stock. What do you do with yours?

If this post has left you craving some, don’t worry, you can watch a full length movie of one roasting thanks to Netflix. Or, you know, visit the Costco Rotisserie Chicken official Facebook page. Like you do.

Smoked Salmon, Potato, and Dill Tart

20160508-DSC_0264It is hot outside. Like, so hot. I am barely tossing together salads these days, let alone turning my oven to 450 for a nice golden tart crust. However, looking through photos recently, I realized I never did anything with the ones I took of a pretty decent smoked salmon tart I made for Mother’s Day this spring. Consider this a #latergram.

20160508-DSC_0256If you have a thoroughly air-conditioned kitchen, this would be an excellent dish to make ahead and have for cold summer lunches, or serve with mixed greens and chilled rosé for a perfect summer dinner.

For the base of my recipe, I used this one from the BBC. I liked two things about it. (1) It called for a quite easy custard mix of egg and cream, no separate heating or complicated multi-step whisking, and (2) it added thin slices of potato to the usual combo of salmon and dill. Potatoes are such a natural pairing with both dill and cream bases, and I felt they would provide a nice textural dimension in a tart that would otherwise melt in your mouth.

salmon tart with dill potatoesSteam the potatoes rather than boil them as the BBC suggests–it takes less time overall, and it’s easier to keep the potato slices intact with the gentler cooking method.

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I threw in much more dill than strictly called for, and used lemon instead of lime as that’s what I had around. Otherwise I stuck close to the recipe in an attempt to overcome my naturally relaxed approach to cooking–custard-filled pastry does not take kindly to anarchy.

This was a successful smoked salmon tart. Lovely, if not perfect: well-set custard, not too rich but rich enough to complement the fish and potatoes, and against which the dill and lemon popped.

(The shortcrust was gorgeous, if I do say so myself. Sparing you the photos because really, how many pictures of crust can a person look at in his lifetime, but I did a much better job with this one than my delicious Thomas Keller failure of recent memory.)

Crispy Chicken with Lemon and Olives

Plate of crispy chicken with lemon and olivesI’ll take savory over sweet any day. I’ll also take simple over complex, luscious over ascetic. This quick dinner of roast chicken thighs with Mediterranean flavors hits all those notes. Also my goodness that skin. This is my usual Frankenstein’s monster of multiple recipes plus my own whim, so I’ll go ahead and take credit for the way it appears here.

*Disclosure: Not only did I only take pictures with my phone, but it was also dark in my kitchen. I’d say “lesson learned,” except this will doubtless continue to happen. Who, when they are actually busy cooking, has time to stop and take photos? Not I.

lemon olive roast chicken ingredients

  • 8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
  • 3 t kosher or sea salt
  • Black and hot pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c flour (any; I used unbleached all-purpose)
  • 1/3 c olive oil
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled (or more! live a little!)
  • 3 lemons, quartered
  • 1 c mild olives, chopped or whole (Cerignolas or Castelvetranos; if you use briny ones, or a mix, adjust your other salt levels accordingly or just use fewer)
  • 1/2-1 c chicken stock, white wine, or water
  • Preheat oven to 400F.
  • Season chicken with salt and both peppers to taste.
  • Dredge the skin-on side of the thighs lightly in flour; tap off excess.
    • I absolutely stole this part from the NYT and I’m never going back to those sad, dark, pre-flour-dusted days.
  • Heat oil in large roasting pan over high heat (or two oven-safe skillets–just don’t crowd the chicken pieces and adjust oil quantity if necessary). When shimmering, add chicken, skin side down. Cook until golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
  • Flip the chicken so the skin side is up. Scatter olives, lemon pieces, garlic and rosemary over all, and add enough liquid to comfortably cover the bottom of your pan(s). Most of the chicken should be well above the liquid.
  • chicken (3 of 4)
    • I recommend leaving some of the olives whole, especially if you’re using large firm ones like the Cerignola. I cut an X on each one to help it absorb the cooking liquid. Made the olives incredibly tender and flavorful.
  • Roast until chicken is done and delightfully crispy on top–25-30 minutes.
    • Thigh meat is often dark or even pink (especially if you buy free range chicken) when done. It should read 165F on a meat thermometer or juices should run clear when cut near the bone.

Crispy roast chicken with olives and lemonI served with steamed cauliflower tossed in some butter and hot smoked paprika, with bread on the side for all the excellent juicy bits. (Leftovers the next night were excellent with roast broccoli salad and stuffing.) The bread deserves its own post at some point; it’s the King Arthur Flour no-knead bread recipe and it’s taking me some time to figure it out properly, but as you can see it is more than sufficient for excellent-juicy-bits duty.

This method is my favorite for large batches of chicken no matter what the flavor profile. Replace olives and lemon with quartered mushrooms and shallots, and rosemary with thyme. Maybe oranges, broccoli and dried chilis for a play on General Gao’s? (I just thought of this one and now I want to try it.) Or season the thighs with ras el hanout, replace half of the citrus with preserved lemon, and voila–Moroccan profile. So many options, so many easy weeknight dinners.