Thursday, March 22, 2007

In like a lion, out like a lamb......

Oh goodness! I want to stand on my tin-roof and fiddle a tune all about Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries.

What does that mean, you ask. Do I play the fiddle? Isn't the roof all icy? All of these are very good questions. (And no, I don't play the fiddle - though I wish I did; and yes, the roof is icy. But, my dad played the fiddler in a local playhouse production of Fiddler on the Roof, and all these years later, the tune for "If I were a rich man" can still wrap me up in the warmth of childhood memories.) As for what I mean - the simple version is like this: I discovered Nigel Slater's recipe for "Slow-Roasted Lamb with Mashed Chickepeas," which he described in his kitchen diary entry for February 21 ("A slow roast for a snowy night"). But it's more, really, than simply discovering this new recipe. It's about discovering something new, that arrived with the impromptu packaging of a new tradition. It's a bit about discovering it whilst embracing a family tradition. And it's about the most excellent evening of leftovers - a cold, snowy Sunday evening with a bubbling shepherd's pie. A shepherd's pie so perfect for the moment, in fact, that I was able to persuade my boyfriend to keep me company while I watched a complete, utter, [sigh], chick flick.

I'm sure Mr. Slater would have comment about some random, Alaskan newcomer gushing like a schoolgirl because she was able to reduce his recipe to leftovers so meat-and-potato-esque that a girl could actually persuade a coma-induced boy to watch The Holiday, but it really was that good! I mean, Mr. Slater's incredibly simple recipe is that good. And, oh, so are the lovely leftovers! In any event, I'll take my daily [symbolic] cartwheel of glee as it's gifted, even in the form of British judgment or the too often disdained concept of leftovers!

Quite a few months ago, I bought a leg of lamb and stuck it in my freezer for a good cause that was not then determined. Please understand that, around these parts, one can’t just go to the local store and buy a leg of lamb. No, the local grocery stores don't tend to carry lamb. Not any cut of lamb, actually. Rather, one has to anticipate – and plan accordingly- that some day, in some future, one might develop a hunger for lamb (probably studded with garlic and perfumed with rosemary – purchased and stored in the freezer for similar reasons, for I had never dreamed of lamb served without the accompaniment of rosemary).

This particular leg of lamb was purchased last year in Anchorage on some trip or other. It was carried back here (together with a pork tenderloin, some cuts of beef, several containers of orange juice, a precious cargo of cheese, a bounty of fresh herbs, etc., etc., etc.) in my new favorite suitcase.

Look at this suitcase! Isn’t it perfect? I love it so.

[Ugh. I bet I’ve probably turned off many. After all, this was a frozen leg of lamb. Not fresh. Not from any great butcher. Nope none of that. What kind of food blogger can she be? And she goes off so about a plastic cooler on wheels! Is she seriously saying it is her favorite suitcase? Must she really refer to herself in the third person? Will she next start listing all the things that one can make out of duct tape? I know. I know. You must be wondering why am I going on so…so ecstactic about this stuff. But if you are still reading…… ]

I certainly never imagined that I would be preparing it for St. Paddy’s Day. No – for such a holiday, I would expect to make the traditional and true: my Auntie Donna’s Boiled Corned Beef and Cabbage. This year, however, after a survey of town that led to nothing but artificial-and pink-glop-imbued, plastic-encased pre-corned beef (I couldn’t even find a plain old brisket to corn myself!!), I adjusted my expectations. I decided to stage a protest against the artificial-flavoured, artificial-coloured and mass-marketed, and to celebrate this very important family holiday – instead - with a roast leg of lamb. Leg of lamb was, after all, my Irish grandmother’s favorite dish. So it seemed like a very good kind of adjustment, and I took it out of the freezer and started the thawing process.

But my heart wasn't really in it. I tried, I did, to find enthusiasm for the change, imagining the cannellini beans I could soak, the green beans that could be sautéed with the recent shipment of fresh ginger, and all the other side dishes that could be made to go with a leg of lamb. Maybe there might even be a recent shipment of asparagus at the store. Grandma always insisted on asparagus with her lamb. She loved it too much to be bothered with any fuss over whether or not it was in season. In the end, my friends, I couldn’t seem to reconcile myself to this bend of tradition. And, so, when I was at the store to buy cabbage (because I knew at least one side-dish had to be traditional, but which, “coincidentally”, had gone up $1 a pound in the last few days before St. Paddy’s), I decided I wanted corned beef, even if it was all artificial. Without any foresight beyond this sudden need to hold firmly to a tradition connecting to extended family in connection with this particular holiday, I grabbed one of those plastic packages of corned glop (this is the melting into resigned spontaneity part), purchased it, made it, ate it, and then made and ate some delicious corned beef sandwiches for lunch, and then it was all gone. It had been good. It more than exceeded expectations. St. Paddy’s Day, and its leftovers, were done. Auntie Donna was, as always, toasted.

And when the last of the leftovers were stuffed into the last of the sandwiches, my eyes turned to the lamb. As you can imagine, it was thawed by this point. So I roasted it.

I started after work. The recipe is quite simple. Gloriously so. Just before rushing off to a Camai Committee planning meeting to discuss various logistics for our upcoming festival, I gave my boyfriend quick but pleading instructions to re-baste it every 30 minutes during its 3 hour roasting session. And two hours later, after a windy, cold walk (with not nearly enough layers of mittens, though my ears stayed warm thanks to my boyfriend’s gift of a malakaik), I was welcomed home by (among other things, such as two canine hooligans) the most lovely perfume of….of home: a kitchen’s warmth having perfumed my house with the production of a simple meal.

Served atop my new favorite recipe for mashed chickpeas (jeweled with caramelized red onions as these chickpeas were) and under the roasting juices (all spiked with cumin and mellowed with roasted-garlic-basted-in-butter as these juices were) – well, folks, Nigel Slater’s Slow Roasted Leg of Lamb, nary a hint of rosemary about it, was most certainly the source of that day’s daily [symbolic] cartwheel of glee.

Plus, it turns out (though it was not planned) that this dinner ended up being made on the cusp of the Vernal Equinox (i.e. the last official night of winter before the first official day of spring). I do think there is a new tradition in the works here: a winter braise of a spring delicacy on the night that borders both seasons. Yes. There is most certainly a new tradition here.

And then - that shepherd's pie! So simple. Simply carmelizing an onion, tossing in for a saute some carrots, celery and garlic, tipping in a spoon of flour to cook for awhile, deglazing with some [boxed] red wine, dashing in a bit of [dried] thyme (unlike my good friend who suddenly has access to grocery stores that service fishing boats that stop along the Aleutian Chain, I have no access to the fresh kind), combining it the pan juices and chunks of lamb, pouring the aromatic concoction into the handmade ceramic pot that by boyfriend's father gave us for Christmas, and letting the potential stew for a good long, homey Sunday afternoon before being topped with buttermilk-soothed smashed red potatoes and being baked until hot and bubbly. Served, with a side of simple steamed peas, and ground pepper - sublime.

Yes, sublime! The whole experience - from dish to leftover!

Going back to my original hyperbole - why do I want to fiddle on roofs about all this? I do because I know that at least once before the next St. Paddy’s Day/Vernal Equinox, I shall be taking my “suitcase” back to town and making sure it comes back with a leg of lamb and a brisket amidst its hoarde of frozen pantry items. Next year, I shall anticipate, and plan accordingly, having Auntie Donna’s corned beef and Nigel Slater’s Slow Roasted Lamb. And I won't waste any time or effort trying to choose between the two. I'll simply take both - hence, my new tradition of 2 Roast Week. Where before I had only the traditions of St. Paddy’s Day, I now have also the tradition of bridging the seasons with a leg of lamb. Traditions are lovely, aren't they? So can be their expansions.

And, let's be honest here. Recipes, discoveries, and all the like - they're great. But, I’ve always loved fiddles and admired those who dare their balance to play them from rooftops.

Slow-Roasted Lamb with Mashed Chickpeas
(blatantly, and affectionately, plagiarized from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries, p.60)

a leg of lamb, about 5lbs

For the spice rub:
garlic - 2 cloves
sea salt flakes - a generous tablespoon
a pinch of sweet paprika
cumin seeds - a generous tablespoon
fresh thyme leaves - 2 generous tablespoons [I, of course, used dried - sue my grocery store!]
olive oil - 2 generous tablespoons
butter - a thick slice

Set the oven at 325F. Make the spice rub: peel the garlic cloves, then lightly crush them with the salt, using a pestle and mortar. Mix in the sweet paprika, cumin seeds and thyme leaves. Gradually add the olive oil so that you end up with a thicken paste. Melt the butter in a pan and stir it into the spice paste.

Put the lamb into a casserole or roasting tin and rub it all over the spice paste, either with the back of a spoon or with your hands. [Can you guess which option I used?] Put it in the oven and leave for thirty-five minutes. Pour in 1 cup of water and bste the lamb with the liquid, then continue roasting for three hours, basting the meat every hour with the juices that have collected in the bottom of the pan.

Remove the pan from the oven and pour off the top layer of oil, leaving the cloudy, hewrbal sediment in place. [Ok. I had no patience for that. I simply put the castiron pot outside for 5 minutes, it being negative fifteen degrees and all, and then scraped out the fat until only the "healthy" bits were left.] Cover the pan with a lid and set aside for ten minutes or so.

Carve the lamb, serving with the mashed chickpeas below, spooning the pan juices over both as you go.

Chickpea mash:
chickpeas - two 14 oz cans [I used one - we were only 2 after all]
a small onion
olive oil - 4 tablespoons
hot paprika

Drain the chickpeas and put them into a pan of lightly salted water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a light simmer. You are doing this to warm the chickpeas rather than cook them any further. Peel and finely slice the onion, then let it soften with the olive oil in a pan over a moderate heat. This will seem like too much oil, but bear with me. Let the onion color a little, then stir in a pinch of hot paprika. Drain the chickpeas, then either mash them with a potato masher or, better I think [as did I], in a food processor. Mix in enough olive oil from the cookied onion to give a smooth and luxurious puree. [I also added just a bit of heavy cream to smooth the taste- I know - bad, but it's still winter here - fifteen below - I'm ok with taking my comforts where I can.] Stir in the onion and serve the roast lamb above.

The recipe now printed, I’ll return for just a wee bit more of hyperbole: Take some of my favorite comfort foods, and present them to me with a few subtle twists and with an ease I hadn’t contemplated – that seems to be this book. It revels in the actual actions of cooking: the epiphanies of hunger and whim, the meandering and shopping, the harking reminders of a pantry and the enticing calls of market sirens, the logistics of time, and the convening for eating. He does so cleanly, with few words and none of the hyperbole with which I describe him. He doesn’t pontificate or elevate himself to stylized perfection. He doesn’t make you resent your limited work space or lack of direct sunlight, rather he leaves one almost glad for the creativity that hindrances inspire. The spark of this book – what has me fiddling on roofs about it - is not necessarily in what Nigel Slater did, or plated, or the traditions or the twists of the recipes, but rather his eloquent, yet curt and casual, love for the environment of cooking. The culture of it. The tradition of it. The conversation about it!

Truth be told, I probably love it because this is how I learned to cook. Before the world discovered Oregon and the Willamette Valley, before it became a destination, this is the kind of cooking I learned by being raised with daily interactions with stoic farmers and field-gleaning hippies. This is how my decidedly non-hippie Grandpa made a legacy out of a humble adoration of breakfast. This is how my mother, certainly not a hippie herself but definitely enamoured with the idea, raised a family that finds our greatest moments emerging in kitchens and our greatest conversations being the stories involving ingredients and recipe adventures. I love this book because it presents that manner in which I want my own kitchen to be remembered, a reflection of how I want to be remembered in my kitchen. Kitchen Diaries is, I guess, an example of what I deem to be “humble magnitude.”

p.s. If you’d like a picture, an inspiring one, flip to p. 65 of The Kitchen Diaries. He has stylists and light and cameras with lenses and stuff like that. I can’t compete. I wouldn’t even try. I’m thankful, however, that he did.

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