Saturday 14 December 2013

Rack of Lamb (basic approach with pan sauce)

A rack of lamb can be one of the pricier items at your butcher shop but you owe it to yourself to cook it even if it's just once in your life. It is a popular menu item at many fine dining restaurants but oddly enough isn't cooked that often at home. You might be surprised how easy and quick it is to nail a perfectly roasted rack of lamb. Since this is the first rack of lamb on the blog, I'll ease you in with a dead simple technique that delivers outstanding results. 

This is a French technique that we've gone over a few times already on the blog (such as duck breast and pork chops) where a piece of meat is seared on all sides, placed in the oven to finish cooking, then set aside to rest. The remaining fond on the pan is deglazed with a liquid then reduced into a pan sauce. There are all kinds of liquids that work great as the base for pan sauces like wine, Marsala, apple cider, grainy mustard dissolved in water, broth, etc... but one of my favourite pan sauces for lamb is balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is sharp, sweet and has many complex layers that really play with the palate. When cooked down and reduced the sharp acidity relaxes into a mellow tang. A little brown sugar helps to bring out the sweetness and caramelize the sauce making it sticky and rich. It is such a beautiful thing.  

Last summer I butchered a lamb (well, most of it). You can check it out if you need to be acquainted but a rack of lamb comes from the rib cage. It is the upper rib bones accompanied by the rib-eye muscle that would have run along the backbone. 

Usually you will find rack of lamb "Frenched" which means the meat has been cut completely away from a section of the ribs. Each rib in turn becomes a handle for what one could describe as a meat lollipop. The butcher shop I frequent always sells racks of lamb Frenched (the scraps of meat that get removed go into grinds and Merguez sausage). 

The best way to enjoy rack of lamb is to season it generously and getting a good sear on all sides of the meat. Then finish it in a hot oven just enough to warm it through. Rack of lamb can easily be overcooked (and tough) so it is best eaten medium-rare. It should be blushing pink in the middle but never raw. It's all about capturing that perfect moment of doneness. I recommend the feel for firmness technique by lightly pressing your finger against the meat. To know what medium-rare meat should feel like when you touch it, touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your middle finger. With your other hand, feel the firmness at the base of the thumb where it meets your palm. That's a general idea of medium rare. The temperature and time in the oven provided in this post are only guidelines. What you want to aim for is the feel of medium rare. The lamb will continue to cook a bit as it rests so I recommend taking it out of the oven when it feels just under where you want it to be.

Start by seasoning the lamb with salt and pepper and browning the sides of the meat. In an oven-safe skillet, place on medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp of oil. Sear the seasoned rack flesh side down. 

Try not to disturb it too much. Leave it to get a good sear for a few minutes. Then turn the rack on one side to get a good sear on top of the rack. If it doesn't stand on its own, let it rest standing against the side of the pan.

When all the sides of the lamb are seared, place the whole pan in the middle of the oven reheated to 375F/190C. 

Let the lamb roast for 8 - 10 minutes or until you are satisfied with its firmness. Remove  from the oven and set the rack of lamb aside to rest.

Now we are going to use the same pan to make a sauce. Since it has just been taken out of the oven, the handle will be very hot! I always put an oven mitt over the handle at this point. That way if I reach for the handle out of instinct I won't burn myself. I (unfortunately) have an electric stove in my apartment. If you have a gas stove, you can still use the oven mitt technique just make sure it doesn't catch fire. Place the hot pan over medium-high heat.

The bottom of the pan will have a dark fond stuck it. That is basically concentrated bits of lamb flavour that have charred against the metal. You want to get all of that flavour into your sauce. First, use a paper towel and a pair of tongs to soak up any excess oil. Then deglaze the pan with about 3/4 cup of good balsamic vinegar and 2-3 tbsp of brown sugar. The acidity in the vinegar will literally wash the fond off the pan and take on all of its flavours. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil and allow it to reduce to 1/4 - 1/3 its original size. The sourness will cook out and the natural sweet and earthy notes of the balsamic flavour will become concentrated and delicious. 


When the sauce has reduced, turn off the heat and stir in a small knob of butter. Then taste and adjust for seasoning. When making a pan sauce, I always wait until the end before seasoning. There is already seasoning in the fond and it also concentrates when the liquid reduces. There's nothing more tragic than a beautiful pan sauce that's been overpowered by salt. So season at the end.

Your lamb should have 5-10 minutes to rest before you cut it. That will keep all the juices from running out of the meat. If you have an electric stove your sauce will take between 5-10 minutes (less time if you have a gas stove). So you may be able to cut the rack of lamb as soon as your sauce is done. You can cut the meat however you like but I prefer them as 1 or 2 bone pieces. The feel for firmness method (which works the same with steaks) may take you a couple of attempts to perfect. But the lamb should be just cooked through and still blushing pink in the middle.

The rack of lamb and balsamic reduction are the heroes of your dish. You can add whatever side dishes you like. In the top photo I served mine with parsnip purée and wilted swiss chard. 

To make parsnip purée, chop parsnip and boil in lightly salted water until fork tender. In a separate pot, simmer cream with a crushed clove of garlic, sliced shallot and sprigs of fresh thyme. Drain parsnips reserving 2 tbsp of the liquid. Place in a blender (no more than half way) with a little butter and the reserve liquid. Pulse to begin blending. Strain the cream and slowly pour it in through the top of the blender while mixing. Stop when desired texture is achieved. Taste for seasoning before serving.

For this swiss chard, sweat some chopped shallots with a little salt and pepper in a pan and then add chopped swiss chard and stir until the greens wilt and soften. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

So as you can see, this is a very basic and simple meal but makes for a beautiful plate and was absolutely delicious. If you do the math, this meal takes about half an hour to make but looks like you put a lot of effort into it. This is a fantastic option if you need to impress someone when it's the middle of winter and your choices of fresh produce are limited. I kept this demonstration very basic but you can amp it up by marinating the rack of lamb before searing it for added flavour. Lamb is one of those meats that has  pronounced flavour on its own so it doesn't need much. Lamb does go very well with cinnamon and/or cumin though. Minced garlic, fresh rosemary, a touch of olive oil with salt and pepper would be a delicious marinade for rack of lamb. Those are just a couple of ideas. Have fun and be creative!

Give this a try sometime this winter. It's perfect for a date night, nice meal for the family, the boss is coming over for dinner or even if you just want to treat yourself. It is warm and comforting but refined and special. 

Coming up soon, a little something to wet your whistle this Christmas season. Stay tuned...


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