Sometimes, despite all the planning, the wearing-thin of cookbook pages, the carpal-tunnel-clicking through epicurious.com, I’ll find out the hard way that it’s what I don’t have, what I didn’t plan for, that determines whether my food ultimately succeeds, or merely sucks. Typically, I’m undone by good, old fashioned pilot error: Things done with ease dozens of times, but which suddenly become daunting in the face of too much wine and conversation and too little focus on the task at hand, like spacing out on the kitchen timer while roasting nuts (great tip I read somewhere but can’t place: always put a reminder-nut in the corner of your cutting board whenever you’re roasting nuts), or burning anything, ever, for that matter.
Typically, but not always; sometimes it’s the uncontrollable and unforeseen, a black swan crapping on my mise, and it’s just such an exception to the rule that inspired this edition of Meat, Braise, Love: A slow braise of shoulder of local lamb with bitter chocolate, rosemary, and bad-ass Syrah (I talk in much more detail about the basic braise in the parent post to this thread here; the full recipe for this dish is at bottom of post, so please feel free to skip past my blathering).
Context: Friends for dinner; weather that could only be described as dank; a crazy-good Hermitage burning its way through the cellar door; and – according to one of our favorite small ranchers, Deborah Owen of the Owen Family Farm in Hopland – a lot of young sheep on the express train to Darwin’s kitchen. All in all, the sort of night that probably inspired our Provencal cousins to wait upwards of 7 hours for their lamb to come out of the oven. In keeping with the PK MO, my intent was to keep things simple, to highlight the quality of the ingredients in a well-executed, classically inspired dish: Shoulder of young lamb, in a rich braise of Syrah wine (even if you like neither Syrah nor wine, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better pair of dancing partners than lamb and Hermitage Rouge), with lots of fresh local garlic and a handful of rosemary from our garden. The black swan flapping around my kitchen, mere hours before the bell? Our guests, it turned out, do not, can not, eat garlic. Karmically speaking, I of course figure this out well after leaving the market, the meat – a shoulder, rather than the more commonly braised shank – already searing in the pan, the veggies prepped, indeed mere minutes before the garlic cloves were destined to meet their flaming cast iron maker.
The thing about garlic-and-rosemary scented lamb is this: Garlic does magical things with lamb, and in its absence something important – depth, spice, aroma – will be missing, the dish will fall short of its potential. With neither time nor resources to reconfigure the dish entirely, I poked around the dusty corners of pantry shelves and stewed… for some reason, with childhood memories of biting into that awful box of Baker’s unsweetened, chocolate came to mind. Perhaps it was the first time that I had herb-infused chocolates, easily a decade before such things were de rigeur, from the brilliant Joel Durand in St. Remy en Provence (see the letter “R”, for rosemary, in his “Chocolate Alphabet”); or maybe it was the ragu of rabbit in a Barolo and bitter chocolate sauce served at Scalini Fedeli, with its peripheral echo of my meat and my wine, that I still remember from an anniversary dinner with my wife several years ago (this was before they lost – correctly, in my opinion, but not because of that dish – their Michelin star).
Whatever the case, I was pretty sure the concept would fly, so I dropped the garlic in deference to our guest, and hastily reworked a plan for Syrah, Rosemary, and Bitter Chocolate, and set to work on some garnishes with which to pull it all together. I had already planned on using some preserved Meyer lemons from the folks at the Cheese Shop, and the salty-citrus bite of the lemons only sounded better and better against the chocolatey undertones that were now to be part of the sauce. The only remaining puzzle at this point was the other garnish, a gremolata, which contains a bunch of garlic and is classically paired with Osso Bucco. And again, I shot that swan down, too: Lamb and mint jelly at my grandmother’s house… chocolate and mint, in all its myriad and uniformly tasty variations… why not substitute mint for the parsley, drop the garlic, and call it minty gremolata? So there you have it: Not what I planned, not what I shopped for, but something more interesting and possibly better, all because I couldn’t do what I wanted and had to deal with it.
Braised Shoulder of Lamb with a Bitter Chocolate-Syrah Reduction, Preserved Meyer Lemons, and Minty Gremolata
This dish is considerably more complicated than the vast bulk of what I do; frankly, it is something of a pain in the ass. But I did it, it wasn’t hard, just time-consuming, and I’m telling you, it will impress the heck out of your next dinner party.
- Start with a 3lb (+/-) shoulder of lamb from a good local rancher (you could use a couple of shanks; I just used the shoulder to do something different, and because I knew I was going to pick the meat for replating anyway). Prepare as for a basic braise (same reference again here), with the following substitutions: (a) Use a Syrah-based wine, something stylistically similar to a Gigondas, with its leathery, gamey notes; (b) Add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to the braising liquids; and (c) add a couple of tablespoons of unsweetened chocolate, either melted into some of the cooking liquid or – easier – made into a paste from powdered baking chocolate and water. An untempered bitter chocolate, such as the 100% cacao from local purveyor Choco Vivo would work particularly well, and could simply be crumbled into the braise.
- While the meat is cooking, cut the lemons into neat dice and prepare the minty gremolata: Mince up some fresh mint and zest a lemon (preferably Meyer, to match the other garnish, and for its wonderful and not overly aggressive smell). Don’t mix it right away, as the citrus will “cook” the mint.
- When the meat is done and resting, strain the liquids and reduce to a syrupy consistency, skimming for grease and impurities. Mount with a few chunks of cold butter to give it body and shine and adjust the seasoning with finely milled pepper and kosher salt.
- In order to plate, pick the meat from the bones and use a ring mold to set it neatly in the center of the plate. If you’re feeling motivated, or you already have some Onion Marmalade (recipe at bottom of that link) sitting around, first heat and then layer the onions thinly at the bottom of the ring mold – it’s another step, but this is a very rich, dense dish, and the extra sweetness and acidity does great things, although it is a bit gilding-the-lily. Finally, arrange some of the lemon dice, drizzle the sauce around the disc of lamb and top the lamb with a spoonful of the gremolata.