Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The rack of lamb, undressed

I was checking out the lamb rib chops at Fresh Pond Market, when the vision of a juicy rack of lamb came to me. "Could you give me a rack not cut into chops?" I asked the butcher. "Sure," he said, "but you have to buy the whole thing. We don't sell it per pound. It's $28 per rack." Taking a whole rack didn't seem like a problem since a rack normally serves two. But since I normally see prices of meat per pound, I was trying to figure out in my head whether that was cheap or expensive and whether we should have a rack of lamb for dinner on a random Tuesday night. But before I figured it all out, the little red nuggets sitting on their bones like lollipops on a stick got the best of me. I was suddenly a kid in a candy shop and I couldn't resist. "I'll take it." The butcher disappeared for a few minutes and then handed me a paper package.

When I got home, I sharpened my boning knife and got ready to trim my lamb before coating it in rosemary and garlic. I unwrapped the package, and my jaw dropped. It was all gone. The flap, I mean, and all that fat, and connective tissue that normally sits on top of that little red nugget called the "eye." Was I sad that the butcher got rid of about a quarter of my rack? No! On the contrary, I was jubilant. Finally, there is a butcher in Boston who trimmed the rack of lamb to my liking.

I've never had any luck asking butchers to prep the meat for me and after a few years I gave up. With fishmonger, its a different story. I am always asking them to scale, gut, trim the fins, remove the gills, fillet, debone, and skin to make my life easier. But butchers... They always try to convince me that all the fat and connective tissue is "the good stuff that gives the meat its flavor." At first, I tried to listen. But when time after time, we ended up pushing the chewy pieces towards the edge of our plates, I gave up and started striping racks of lamb to the very eye. After getting over the shock of how much I had to throw away, I was much happier with the final results. Now the herbs and spices were stuck to the yummy part and were not discarded with all those chewy pieces. Every bite was sublime, and eating was a joy, not an obstacle course.

How come more butchers don't trim their meat? My guess is that it's all about marketing. If they sold the meat already trimmed, they'd have to raise their prices by 20-30% and lose some customers. And if they trimmed it after weighing it, most customers would be upset that after paying for 2 Lbs of meat, they only brought home one and a half. With fish, the story is more clear cut. I've never seen anyone upset that they didn't get the scales, gills, and guts. But with meat, it's a bit more fuzzy. It's also tricky that whether to trim the meat or not depends on the cut and the method of preparation.

With tough cuts that are going to be braised or cooked slowly to that fall-off-the-bone texture, the answer is easy. You can cut some of the fat cap off, but don't trim the connective tissue. You'll be cooking that piece of meat for so long and at such a low temperature that the connective tissue will melt away leaving you with spoon tender and moist meat. This happens when the internal temperature of the meat reaches 200F. But when you are cooking your meat to medium-rare (120-130F internal temp for beef, lamb, and veal) the connective tissue is not going to melt and it's best to trim as much of it off as possible.

What makes it psychologically difficult is that the cuts that don't require additional trimming are the cheap ones, and the cuts that do are pricey. Throwing away a quarter of the $18/Lb meat, just doesn't seem right. That's why I like Fresh Pond's policy of buying a whole rack. When there is no per pound price, they don't have to worry about giving me less meat than what I paid for. I paid for one beautiful rack of lamb and that's what I got.

A little about anatomy of a rack. A rack of lamb is equivalent to rib-eye cut from a cow. The eye is bigger on one side of the rack than on the other. On the side where the eye is biggest, I prefer to trim all the way down to it.

But on the side where the eye is smallest, I prefer to leave a little bit of the flap.

This makes the rack more even and allows it to cook to a more even internal temperature. My lovely butcher at the Fresh Pond Market even got this subtle thing right. See how he left a little bit of the flap on the smaller end? So sometimes, a bit of the fat cap or flap can be useful. On a New York strip, I keep a little on the skinny end of the steak to protect it from overcooking. But you always have to ask yourself: what is this stuff doing here? If the answer is that it's here because I paid for it, you might not be eating the best possible steaks and roasts. If this sounds wasteful, think about it this way. You are saving your body from saturated fat consumed with less than the optimal amount of pleasure.


Unknown said...

If you are up to a bit of butchering yourself, an untrimmed rack is actually a great thing (or a rib roast, if we are talking about a cow). Most of the connective tissue on it is between the ribs and the rib cap - a flat muscle that covers them - and the rib cap is well-marbled and wonderfully flavorful. If you remove it and roll it up, you'll have another delicious little roast, in addition to your rack.

The connective tissue, of course, should be removed.

There's a video of butchering a rib roast on ideasinfood.com (should be easy to search for it) which is very detailed and helpful. Same technique would apply to lamb, just on a smaller scale.

Helen said...

Yup, when I used to trim it myself, I would remove all connective tissue from the flap, and cook it separately. It's very yummy, but on a lamb, it's very small. So I am not completely sure it's worth the work for those 2 bites. I used to do it in the PBE (Pre-baby era), but gave up on it for now. On a cow, on another hand, it's a pretty big and incredibly yummy muscle, so all that work is totally worth it.

Alex M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

So what did you do with it?

Helen said...

I slow roasted it using the same method I use for steak, then seared in the skillet. It gives you a great crust AND perfectly medium-rare insides throughout. When the rack was out of the skillet, I coated it with a little mashed garlic and mint.

Anonymous said...

Oh no! The fat/"chewy stuff" is my favorite part! In fact, I know many-a-foodie that agrees with me and absolutely cherishes the fat. Granted, its all personal preference and I can certainly see how some (or maybe most) don't like it, but I wouldn't be so quick to judge that there's a conspiracy marketing ploy that's keeping butchers from removing the outer flap. I feel its gives a richness and pleasing contrast in texture. Just an opinion - always enjoy your posts.

Anonymous said...

I NEVER want them to trim it. I much prefer to trim it to my liking. I have taken home far too many cuts that looked great in the case and then when I opened the package after they performed their job it was a disaster.
But that is just my preference.

Helen said...

Jon and Jo,

You raise some great points, so let me address them.

Is the fat the good part? It depends. The fat inside the muscle, called marbling is the good part. It makes the meat juicy and flavorful. But the fat between the muscles is usually surrounded by connective tissue making it chewy.

Just like everything else with food, whether to eat the flap is a matter of taste. Some people LOVE meat so much (for example, my Dad :) that they don't want to waste any of it. What's a little chewiness when it's flavored with lamb?! According to them, it's all good. I am like that with fish. I often find myself eating parts of fish most people wouldn't. But when it comes to meat, I am much pickier. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy meat, but I only want to eat it if it's perfect. Having something stuck in my teeth totally kills the experience for me. As Diana pointed out, there is a way to rescue the flap, trim it, and cook it separately eliminating all the chewiness.

If you are cooking lamb chops (vs a whole rack) and will be browning the eye,I wouldn't mind leaving the flap on. In case you don't want to eat the flap, you can easily remove it without eliminating the parts that are seared (searing is what develops flavor in meat and it would be a shame if the part you are actually going to eat would not be seared). If you do want to eat the flap on individually cooked chops, it will be nicely browned and more fat will render out of it than when the rack is cooked whole making the flap even yummier, if that's your thing.

But if we keep saying that everything in cooking is a matter of taste, we'll never be able to have a real discussion or improve on the final results, so I will stand my ground and say that in a side by side comparative tasting, the trimmed rack of lamb would win. I've never been served a rack of lamb with the flap in an upscale restaurant, so I must not be the only person who thinks it should be trimmed completely when cooked whole.

I am not trying to say there is some sort of butcher conspiracy. But butcher's are not chefs (at least most of them aren't). And even when it comes to chef's there are two types: the Jamie Oliver type (easy-going, it's-all-good), and Thomas Keller type (obsessive perfectionism). I tend to lean more towards obsessive perfectionism, so I find chewiness in meat simply unacceptable.

To answer Jo's point about asking a butcher to trim it. I totally agree that most of them do a terrible job, so I never ask for it and normally do it myself. It just so happens that one of the guys who works at Fresh Pond Market (Crosby, though I am not sure about the correct spelling of his name) is really good. He trimmed it perfectly, which was a great surprise to me :)


Anonymous said...

Oh, see I'm with Jo for an entirely different reason-- that children's rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife? That's me. I love saturated fat. Yes, I know it's gross, but I can't help it!

Heather said...

wait, roast THEN sear?

Helen said...

Yes, roast then sear. Follow instructions to the letter and you'll get a phenomenal rack of lamb. This method requires you to have a thermometer.


Heather said...

fabulous, thank you!