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.