Easter provided the perfect opportunity to work lamb stew into my year of soups. Hsing-ay does not like lamb so I only make it once or twice a year. But I adore lamb and especially like tender braised lamb that falls apart with a fork. I’m not entirely sure how lamb makes sense for Easter. Easter celebrates the risen Christ who is known as “the lamb of God”. So, we eat dead lamb meat for the party. Hugh? But this tradition offers the perfect excuse for me to cook lamb.
I recently snuck lamb chops into my own birthday meal. We collected 16 bones with scraps of fat and meat. I added lamb neck bones procured from a local organic farmer and roasted it all for 45 minutes. There was a turkey back near the expiration date in the fridge so that went in as well. I hoped that turkey would complement the stock and not obliterate the delicate flavor of lamb. I made a rich and fatty stock in the pressure cooker several days in advance of my stew. The stock was good but I am curious how it would have turned out if I had double the amount of lamb bones and removed the turkey back.
My Dad was one of the dinner guests for our Easter feast. As he gets older he regresses more and more into the “meat and potatoes” American cliche. Oh well – I’ll work with that. I planned to spruce up the stew with a rich liquid base and roasted root vegetables (instead of cooking them in the stew). I began with generous amounts of butter to sauté onions, garlic, and carrots. Tomato paste, cinnamon, cayenne, and a few tablespoons of flour were added after the onions were caramelized. The stock had to be spooned in because it had solidified into jelly (an excellent sign!). I also added a cup of red wine and simmered this mix for 30 minutes and used a stick blender to get things as smooth and thick as possible. The flavor was rich and complex.
I purchased a sizable roast of lamb at Costco and cut it into large chunks which were heavily browned in the oven. The meat and liquid cooked on high pressure for 45-minutes followed by 20-minutes of natural depressurizing. The pressure cooker is my new favorite method for braising meat. Everything becomes uniformly tender, nothing burns to the bottom of the pot, and supposedly the flavors and moisture remain locked in the pot. This method is consistent and a great braise can be accomplished in one hour
I roasted large pieces of carrots and potatoes and caramelized pearl onions in butter. The flavor and color of roasted vegetables made a nice change from my typical stews. I put these pieces on top of the stew so their roasted char was on display. Chopped parsley offered a nice green and the final dishes looked magazine ready. The rich liquid was the star of the dish and everything came out as desired.
The family came over for Easter dinner and I needed a vegetarian option. If tradition dictates lamb for easter then carrots seemed the right choice for the non-meat eaters (get it? – carrots and bunnies). Carrot soup is simple and foolproof. It only requires carrots to taste vibrant with a bright orange color. Peel and chop a few carrots, cover in water, boil for 20-minutes, and blend. America’s Test Kitchen recommends not using any broth as it is not needed and competes with the carrots. With a stick blender everything stays in one pot.
Simple carrot soup is fine but I wanted to create something fancier. My sister could not partake in the rich lamb stew and carrot soup would be her meal. Ginger and cashews are my favorite complements to carrots for a pureed soup. I began sautéing chopped shallots in butter. I added a bit of garlic and a healthy dose of chopped ginger. After the shallots began to caramelize I poured in the water, chopped carrots, cashews, and a touch of cinnamon. I let it simmer for 20-25 minutes and went in with the stick blender. My instinct kept me from adding too much water. I worried about a runny or less hearty soup. I found it simply too thick to work the stick blender effectively. I was conservative and had to keep adding water to make a consistency runnier than baby food. I could have added a good bit more water if the soup were designed as a starter.
I made the soup a day in advance hoping that the flavors would meld. I also had little time to cook on Easter. I served the soup with a garnish of chopped parsley for color. The soup tasted good but the ginger pushed the boundaries of balance and I wish I had a bit more cashews. While finishing the soup I looked longingly at my fine mesh chinois hanging on the wall. Carrots, ginger, and chopped cashews all have a good amount of roughage. Carrot soup is not far from baby food and I thought a fine straining would create a luxuriously smooth finish.
The last time I broke out my chinois was for asparagus soup. The straining process was difficult, stressful, and nearly derailed me from the rest of the meal. So I wimped out and opted to serve the carrot soup without straining. I envy the skill and time afforded professional restaurant cooks. Every demonstration of a chinois on television moves with blazing speed and unfazed muscular chefs. The liquid is poured into the strainer and extensive pumping motion forces the liquid through the mesh. A fine mesh requires a longer straining process. The asparagus soup took four times longer than expected and wore out my arms. I don’t think home cooks can develop quick skills without thousands of hours in the kitchen. Musicians share the same level of craft and expert proficiency that can only be earned through time and repetition. I appreciate the refined touch of a concert pianist. For Hsing-ay, my wife, this training began at age three and she easily logged six practice hours a day by high school. Who knows when she passed the 10,000 hour milestone but it was likely long before her years at Juilliard. Her touch and accuracy are superb.
I wish I had one or two extra lifetimes to develop a professional level skill for my hobbies. Refinement and consistency often allude my cooking efforts. Sometimes things turn out great and sometimes not. Even dishes I have made 20 or more times might be off. Perhaps it takes 200 attempts before excellent results are guaranteed. I can rest at peace knowing that no one I cook for is paying me for food!