Introduction: Lamb Loin Chops With Pan Sauce
Turkey is blah. (Assume that I'm talking about the commercially grown turkeys available to most consumers, not the wily and fascinating wild turkeys)
You have to do SO MUCH STUFF to it just to make it palatable for a holiday meal. It's big, takes ages to thaw, and is overwhelming for smaller families or individuals to cook and serve. I understand the history of Thanksgiving. I get that turkey is sort of traditional... but so are a lot of other foods that we no longer eat because they're just not worth it.
It seems that Thanksgiving is mainly about two themes: stuffing oneself with food, and being thankful for what we have. Either way, there's got to be a better way of celebrating it than cramming down chunks of dry, bland meat that have been soaked, injected, fried, glazed, and/or slathered with copious amounts of flavoring and moisture retaining compounds.
Here, I present one such alternative: lamb. Lamb loin, specifically, sliced into convenient chops, tender and moist without special tricks, enhanced with just a few simple ingredients (and in small amounts), and promising spectacular results with very little effort. How long does a turkey take to prepare from beginning prep to plate? Hours? Days, if you're thawing and brining? Yeah... this takes under 30 minutes, including prep time. It might take a bit longer if you're preparing more than one loin because you might need another pan... but not much.
One more thing... see that sauce on the meat? Yeah, there's a fair amount (mostly for pictures) considering what it is, but nowhere near the amount one would use of, say, gravy. No smothering crap with more crap here. All you need is a drizzle of intense, exquisitely flavored pan reduction. No flavor muddying thickeners, no extenders, no unidentifiable lumps. Once you try a mouthful of perfection, you'll likely think twice about going back to the cult of turkeydom.
Step 1: Choose Your Ingredients
In this recipe, I used:
1 lamb loin pre cut into chops
1 sprig rosemary (or... about 1/2 t dried)
a couple sprigs of thyme (let's say 1 t dried thyme)
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t salt
1 clove of garlic
1/4 of a large onion (or use 1 shallot if you have them - the stores here were out)
2 T olive oil
2 T condiment quality balsamic vinegar (decent stuff aged in oak barrels, NOT the outrageously expensive syrupy stuff, and not the cheap garbage made from white vinegar and flavoring/coloring agents)
2 T honey
2 T butter
1/2 C low sodium chicken broth or stock (or water is fine... this is mostly to keep the pan sauce from reducing too much while the onions are softening)
Find some lamb at your grocery store. New Zealand lamb is typically understood to be of a good quality. Some suppliers sell older sheep as lamb. Once the animal gets too old, the lanolin in the meat becomes pretty apparent. It tastes a bit... soapy. Mutton - gross, tough, strongly flavored older sheep; good lamb - fantastic, tender, mild flavored meat with absolutely no lanolin odor or taste.
There are some companies in the states that now offer locally grown high quality lamb. Read reviews online if you can, and get to know your butcher. Lamb isn't cheap; best to get your money's worth, and that does take a little bit of research.
In all honesty, I picked this stuff up (on sale) at our local wholesale club. I've had the lamb they sell here before, though, and it's always good. Your mileage may vary; a special holiday dinner probably isn't the best time to discover that your main dish consists of poor quality meat; no amount of herbs can compensate for that.
The rosemary and thyme were from my dying herb garden. They're a bit woody and dry, but whatever. They're still good. I used onion because the store was out of shallots. Shallots are a lovely relative of onions. They're small and purplish, and have a mild, subtle flavor. They're used a lot in French cooking, which is probably why they tend to be overpriced at stores. It's not like they're harder to grow than onions or garlic.
Step 2: Lamb Needs Lingerie
Okay, maybe lamb doesn't actually NEED this stuff, but it adds... a special something to the flavor and presentation.
By the way... do you know how to finely chop an onion? I've given instructions before... but here they are again. Slice an onion in half from root to tip. I put half in the fridge because I knew I wouldn't need a whole onion for this dish.
Wait! Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F before you forget! Okay, back to your onion.
Chop off the blossom end from the half you'll be using. Peel back the outer skin. It's okay if you also peel away one of the white layers; sometimes they can be leathery if they've started to dry a bit under the outermost layers of skin. Make a cut in the onion perpendicular to the one you made to remove the blossom end. Don't cut the onion all the way to the root; the root end holds everything together while you're chopping. Make other radial cuts in the onion, making sure not to cut the root. Now start slicing very thin pieces of onion, parallel to the cut you used to remove the blossom end. See what comes off? Lovely little pieces of chopped onion! Keep chopping the rest of that half of the onion. Throw away the root end. You won't use all the chopped onion in this recipe, but it's still handy to keep for another dish. Onion is good, and it helps prevent colon cancer.
Add a tablespoon each of the olive oil, honey, and balsamic vinegar to a bowl. Add the salt and pepper. Crush the garlic with the flat side of a knife. Peel away the papery skin, and add the squashed garlic. Squash the rosemary and thyme with the knife (I chopped it, but that made it harder to remove the rosemary needles from the meat later on) to release more of the flavor. Add a tablespoon of the chopped onion (or shallot if you bought that instead). Stir it all together with a fork. Put the lamb chops into a large zip top plastic bag, then pour in the... lingerie. And, yes, I'm going to keep calling it that.
Squeeze out the excess air from the bag to help keep all sides of the meat coated. Seal the bag, then put it on a plate in the refrigerator for a few minutes. This will give you just enough time to heat a pan on the stove and wash a couple dishes (although you probably didn't put your raw lamb chops on a plate for pictures like I did... so you probably don't need to wash that one).
Step 3: Sear
Searing doesn't seal in moisture.
It does add flavor, though, through the maillard reaction.
I hope you put your pan on the stove and turned on the heat in the last step. I did tell you to do that. Add a little olive oil... maybe a tablespoon to the pan when it's nice and hot. Get some tongs out. You can use your hands to put the lamb chops into the pan if you like, but you'll need tongs in a minute or two.
Place the lamb chops evenly in the hot pan. Don't stir them; they need constant contact with the hot surface. Wash your hands really quick if you just got sticky raw lamb lingerie all over them.
The lamb chops won't need more than 1-2 minutes per side. Use your tongs to check the underside of one of them. If it's got a lovely rich brown color, turn it and the other pieces over.
Once the lamb is turned over and searing on the other side, get some aluminum foil out. You'll probably want an oven mitt or a potholder, too.
Step 4: Bake
A probe thermometer is helpful here. If you have one, stick it into one of the thicker chops so the tip is deep inside, but not touching a bone.
Cover the pan loosely with foil (careful - pan hot!) and place it in the oven.
I first set my thermometer to beep at 135 degrees, then changed my mind and set it to 140. It's an unpardonable sin to cook lamb loin or rack to anything above 145, by the way.
I cooked these chops to medium rare.
Don't leave the kitchen at this point! A pan of seared lamb loin chops won't take long to finish cooking in a hot oven. Mine took under 5 minutes. That's enough time to throw away the bag, maybe wash a bowl, and herd a kid or two out of the kitchen.
Step 5: Make the Pan Sauce
When the lamb reaches temperature, use an oven mitt to pull the pan out of the oven. You might want to rest the oven mitt on the handle of the pan to remind you that it's HOT (if you're used to being able to touch the handle from using it on the stove). Not that I would know anything about burning my hand repeatedly on the stupid handle of the pan after baking something in it...
Pull the foil off and set it aside. Using the tongs, remove the lamb chops and place them on a plate. Wipe off any bits of rosemary from the meat. Cover them loosely with a little foil tent.
Place the pan on the stove over medium heat. Add a couple tablespoons of the chopped onion you have left over. I TOLD you not to waste it. You can add a little bit of butter to keep the onion from sticking to the syrupy pan if you like. Stir frequently as the onion softens. If you want to speed it up, add a very tiny pinch of baking soda to the onion. It works even better than salt when you're softening onion (something to do with counteracting pectin... you can look it up. I'm tired.) You can add another tablespoon of honey and balsamic vinegar if you're worried there won't be enough sauce... but no more than that. You don't need it, and you don't want to dilute the other flavors too much.
The water from the onion should help loosen up some of the browned bits and sticky sauce in the pan. As it cooks away, though, the whole thing will be harder to stir. Add the half cup of water or low sodium chicken broth before it turns too dark. Whisk until everything is mixed well. I strained this mixture into a bowl before returning it to the pan, but you could just use a fork or tongs to pick out the woody bits of herb stems (and rosemary needles) if you prefer. I had to use something other than my normal strainer because SOMEBODY used both of my strainers to refine spruce resin and hasn't yet cleaned off all the pine residue with denatured alcohol like he promised. *ahem*
There's not much liquid to reduce, so even with the deglazing (stirring up the cooked on meat essence using the liquid we added to the pan), this shouldn't take more than a couple minutes.
Move the pan to a cold burner. Let it sit for about a minute to cool off slightly.
Butter contains some weak emulsifiers. If they're heated too much, they stop working.
When the sauce isn't quite so hot (but still warm enough to melt butter), add the tablespoon of butter. Whisk the sauce as the butter slowly melts. If the sauce wasn't too hot, the butter won't separate in the sauce.
Take a tiny taste. This stuff should be intense, but not salty enough to make you thirsty. Remember that you'll only be using 1-2 TEASPOONS on each serving.
Step 6: Plate and Serve
This kind of dish also tastes great as a leftover, although it doesn't often become one at our house.
Serve 2-4 chops per person, depending on the other dishes you're serving with the meal. What if there are young children eating, too, and they want some lamb? If you're uncomfortable with serving them medium rare meat, don't worry.
Carefully pull the sections of meat from the bone. Slice each section thinly, diagonal to the grain. You can either heat these thin slices in the microwave or in the unwashed pan you used for sauce. Once the meat is no longer pink, you can put it on the child's plate with a small drizzle of sauce. Eat any remnants of lamb meat from the bone when nobody's looking. Meat is easier for little kids to eat if they don't have to deal with bones and connective tissue. Lamb can be pricey, yes... but their age doesn't make them less important than any other diner at the table. :)
If you serve the meat with the bone removed, you could save the bones for making some wonderful lamb stock.
I know my photos don't show any other side dishes. We're postponing our thanksgiving meal this year, hoping we can have it after Abigail comes home from the hospital. We've got other lamb in the fridge and other stuff for... whenever we decide to have it. Hopefully she can be home for our celebration. I wanted to make the lamb chops now, though, because they were on sale. The guys here (my husband and my brother) sure appreciated them.