Six years ago, on a cold Monday night in February, TJ and I stood in front of the woodstove in our living room and, certified by a local Justice of the Peace and witnessed by my best friend, pledged to one another our troth. We were both wearing jeans. Afterwards (and after signing the required documents) we shared a bottle of champagne with the JP and my friend. When they left, I made a simple risotto for our dinner.
The following weekend, when the kids were down, we invited about 20 friends over and TJ cooked up a paella and we all drank and toasted. Later, that summer, when family and friends were freer to travel, we rented a big white tent and had about 100 of our nearest and dearest here for tapas, paella (3 of them, tag-teamed by TJ and his Dad and uncle), and wedding cake (and lots of beer, wine, and sangria). I've never in my life understood the mania surrounding weddings and luckily, neither had TJ. So we married in a way that was simple and true to ourselves. To all the women who insisted I would forever regret not wearing a dress: I haven't yet and surely never will.
Yesterday was our anniversary. We usually go out to dinner, but I was in a cooking mood.
TJ spent a stretch in Greece when he was in the Air Force; he developed a particular fondness for lamb during his time there, so when I want to be extra nice, I cook him lamb. It's been a while since I've made rack of lamb, so I picked one up in town. I love the way parsnips pair with lamb – I thought a nice creamy purée of potatoes and parsnips would be a fine complement. And some bitter greens to balance the sweetness (I'd bought some broccoli rabe over the weekend). A simple red wine, garlic, and rosemary jus would finish it all nicely.
I rarely make dessert for just the two of us, but such a special occasion warranted the extra effort. I'd also picked up some Meyer lemons on the weekend, and I got it in my head to try a Meyer lemon soufflé.
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Nearly Idiot-Proof Rack of Lamb
When I did time in a restaurant kitchen, I worked the hot line at night with the chef. He did most of the fussy sauté work, although I'd pick up the slack where needed. Mostly, I oversaw the convection oven, roasting fish, fowl, and chops.
With rack of lamb, there's a very fine line between “temperatures”. Put another way, a few extra minutes in a 450° convection oven will push a medium-rare rack firmly into the medium zone, which will probably result in the rack's being sent back and...well, a 20-minute wait to fire another MR rack just isn't gonna cut it. We sold a lot of rack of lamb, and I got really good really fast at nailing the temperatures right-on. I was legend.
It's been 10 years since I've reached into the gaping maw of a commercial convection oven, but I can still roast a rack of lamb like nobody's business. And so can you. Do it like this:
Unless you're a practiced butcher, buy your rack already “frenched” (cleaned). A single rack (8 bones) will handily feed two hungry people, with a rib or two leftover; if you're feeding birds, it might feed three.
Take the rack out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to cook it, and let it come up to room temperature or thereabouts. Heat your oven to 450°F, and have standing by a roasting pan large enough to hold the rack without crowding it. A sheet pan will do nicely, especially if you're cooking more than one.
Make a paste of very finely minced shallot, garlic, and fresh rosemary with a little dijon mustard and olive oil. For one rack, about 1/4 cup of paste will do.
On high heat on the stove, heat a sauté or fry pan large enough to hold the rack. Salt and pepper the lamb well just before putting it in the pan. Add two tablespoons of oil to the pan and carefully place the lamb meat-side down in the oil. After 2 or 3 minutes, once it's nice and brown, stand it up on its meaty end (lean it on the side of the pan to hold it upright) and let that get nice and brown. The important thing is to brown the outside without starting to actually cook the meat.
Remove the lamb to a cutting board or your roasting pan. Let it cool enough to handle, then smear the meaty side with the flavoring paste. Put the lamb in the oven. Now, to my mind, medium-rare is the perfect temperature for lamb (if you like it more or less “done”, there's no shame in that). Medium-rare will take about 20 minutes (more or less depending on a number of unpredictable factors). Experienced cooks can tell by poking how well or not the meat is cooked (if you're an experienced cook, you probably haven't bothered to read this far), but a meat thermometer is much more accurate than a finger probe. Check the temperature at 20 minutes; 128° – 130°F will yield a medium-rare rack, with about a 10-minute resting period out of the oven. For rare, check it at 15 minutes; pull it at just under 125° (unless you want it bloody, which you'll get at @120°). For medium, go to about 135°. If you want it better cooked than that, you're on your own – precision won't matter so much.
If you're brave, and you want to learn how to tell from a poke if your meat is cooked to your satisfaction, give it a poke once the meat thermometer tells you it's where you want it to be. I won't give you all the standard descriptions (most of them based on body parts – hands, usually) because they're ridiculously subjective. But if you get in the habit of poking the meat when the temperature's right, you'll get to know the feel of the right temperature.
Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes or so. This will let all the lovely juices that have been trying desperately to escape to settle down and redistribute through the meat.
I had a cube of veal demi-glace hanging around in the fridge, but I thought it might be too intense on its own for saucing my sweet little lamby. So I reduced a half-cup of red wine with half a shallot (roughly sliced) and a small sprig of rosemary, then added some mild chicken stock and let that reduce, and then I added the demi-glace. Finished with a pinch of salt for balance and some butter just because. (But lamb is perfectly happy to be served on its own. Or with some kind of chutney. Just not mint jelly, for heaven's sake.)
To separate the ribs, hold the rack upright by the tips of the bones and, using a very sharp knife, slice down between the bones. It helps to follow along the bone, but on one side there'll be a little spur that will catch and stop the knife. To the other side, the knife will follow cleanly right through. I wish I could say how to tell before you start cutting, but I can say that after the first cut you'll know – and it's the same side all along the rack.
You can stand the ribs in a pretty formation; the bones will help hold them in place.
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Individual Meyer Lemon Soufflés
1/2 C whole milk
2 large eggs yolks
1/4 C plus 1 TBSP sugar (plus additional for prepping the molds)
1 TBSP cornstarch
pinch of kosher salt
1/4 C freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice (from @ 2 lemons)
3 large egg whites
additional pinch of kosher salt
pinch of cream of tartar
1 TSP finely grated Meyer lemon zest
softened unsalted butter for molds
Equipment: two 1-cup ramekins or soufflé molds; parchment paper, or foil, & kitchen twine, for creating a collar for the molds.
Cut strips of parchment or foil that will wrap around the circumference of the molds to form a collar that sticks up about 3/4" – 1" above the rim of the mold (don't attach the collars yet). Coat the insides of the molds with a thin film of butter, then dust completely with granulated sugar.
Heat the oven to 375°F.
In a small (1.5 qt.) heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the milk just to a simmer on very low heat, then remove from heat.
In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar and whisk vigorously until the mixture is light, fluffy, and thick. If your egg yolks are very stiff (as mine were) add about a tablespoon of the milk to loosen the mixture (whisking as you add it to keep from cooking the yolks). Add a pinch of salt and the cornstarch and continue whisking to combine thoroughly. Add the milk in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Continue whisking until the mixture is completely smooth.
Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or small a silicone spatula. As the mixture begins to thicken, stir more vigorously to prevent clumping, and scrape the sides as you go. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture is a thick, smooth, pudding-like consistency. Remove from heat and scrape into a medium-sized bowl. Add the lemon juice and whisk firmly until completely combined. This is your “custard base”. Press a piece of parchment or plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin from forming, and let it cool to room temp. before proceeding.
In another bowl, begin beating the egg whites (use an electric mixer, unless you're a glutton for punishment). Be sure the bowl and beaters are perfectly clean and free of grease, and that there are no specks of yolk in the whites (any fat – even just a speck – will hinder the development of the whites into a thick, stable foam). Once the whites are loosened and a little bubbly, add a pinch of salt and continue beating until the whites are a translucent foam (kind of like thick spit – sorry to be gross, but it's the most accurate descriptor I could think of). Now add a pinch of cream of tartar and continue beating until the whites are thick, glossy, and stiff – when you pull the beater out, the whites should form a neat, stiff point. If they start to look chunky, stop immediately...you're going too far.
Transfer about 1/4 of the beaten whites, along with the lemon zest, into the bowl with the custard base and stir to blend and lighten the whole mixture. Now add the rest of the whites and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold the mixture together: scrape the spatula under the contents along the bottom of the bowl, then lift it over the top and gently cut through the mix with the edge of the spatula once or twice. Continue folding, as gently as possible, until the mixture is well blended. The goal is for there to be no streaks of either custard or whites, but if the mixture starts to collapse and get soupy, better to stop and let there be a few streaks.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared molds, filling them just to the rim. If necessary, tap the molds gently on the counter to settle the contents, and smooth the tops with the spatula. Then attach the collars to the sides.
Put the soufflés in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until they're nicely puffed (if you did everything right) and the edges start to brown slightly. Carefully remove them from the oven to individual serving plates, let them rest for a moment, and then carefully remove the collars. Serve immediately.