Spring was in the air when Mel and I took the train from Boston to New York to have dinner with some dear friends of our from our 1990 restaurant days in Colorado. They chose the glitzy Mark Hotel where Jean-Georges Vongerichten oversees the Mark restaurant.
We all dressed up in our finery and sat down in comfortable chairs in the beautiful quiet dining-room. From there things went downhill. For a start, all three men at the table went into shock at the wine prices and muttered to each other that the Markups (pun intended) were outrageous. They grumpily ordered the cheapest wine on the menu for the entire dinner – a Provence rose costing the same as a vintage White Burgundy anywhere else. After a slurp or three we all relaxed but then couldn’t get any service. The meal was mediocre as well but with bad intermittent service we were all disappointed by the experience after spending over $150 each. It could’ve easily been $300 each if we hadn’t had the rose.
Returned to Boston the next morning and then flew off to an even sunnier climate in Austin Texas for three days of wine promotion and fun. We joined our son Charles at the airport who had flown in from Denver for our wholesale meeting and sped to The Grove Winebar|Kitchen, our absolute favorite wine bar restaurant there. (6317 Bee Caves Road, Austin, Tx 78746, 512-327-8822). OMG just look at that wine list!!! We introduced Charlie to one of the owners, Matt, and told him about our experience in New York and he hooted at the prices. The very same wines cost one fifth at the Grove. Sat on the terrace under a massive prickly oak tree and enjoyed the attentive friendly southern staff who never left our glasses empty for a second. We imbibed an assortment of jewels from their eclectic list with fabulously fresh dishes served with southern spice and generosity. We also had a fantastic rock and roll dinner with our distributors in Austin Mark and Julie Murphy and listed to old Zep records and drank great wine!
There’s a lesson to learn here. Yes, yes, I know that the upper east side of Manhattan has bigger rents but really, which experience did we prefer? Myself? I’d fly to Texas.
I flew home to Boston while Mel and Charlie roamed around the vast expanse of Texas, Arizona and Kentucky making friends wherever they went. Of course, on my way home I was stopped by a patrol car.
Actually, it was just three miles from home and it was our local ‘one and only cop’ who ambled over (as only cops can amble) and informed me that my registration had expired and to go get it up to date and ambled away again. Phew!
The very next morning I went to one of those jiffy-lube places that do the ‘old jalopy test’. My 1994 scarlet red VW Cabrio convertible failed. She’d never failed me before. What was it? Ahaaa, said the mechanic, you need a new windscreen. Whaaaaaat? I gasped. Yep, he said, there’s a crack in the bottom left corner and it’s the law. Well, the ‘crack’ was a three-inch one where a stone had hit the windscreen months and months before last summer and nobody else had noticed it! $270 later I returned. Nope! Failed again, he intoned. This time it was a front right ball-bearing on my wheel that might jam and needed replacing. Another day in the shop, another $480! I returned in a right royal temper – OK, now? I muttered through clenched teeth. Nope! You replaced the wrong ball bearing!
Well, I only know about green beans, I yelled. I don’t know about bloody ball bearings and my garage had replaced the only ball bearing they found to be needing replacement – on the back left wheel!!! The mechanic disappeared beneath my car and in 5 minutes he fiddled around and then said – I tightened it up, it’s OK now. He gave me my registration and I wondered on the way home if these guys have relatives in every garage in the local region and give each other work for a cut. Naah, it’s New Hampshire. “Live free or die” is our motto. I am paranoid, no?
When Mel arrived home a few days later there was a parcel waiting for him from Louisville. It was a bottle of Van Winkle 13-year-old rye whiskey from what Mel describes as the King of Louisville, a wine guy who he calls Gordo from Downtown wines. Mel told me that this was one of the rarest of the rare gifts he had ever received and he sat down in shock and awe. Being a recipient of Southern hospitality and generosity has it’s sublime moments. Maybe next year I’ll get my car registered in Kentucky.
And now for some food notes
Spring Lamb (and I don’t mean ME!) is different in all the continents of the world. In Spain, new born lambs or goats are taken straight from their mother’s breast and roasted plainly over wood fires. In Africa, Asia and even in Switzerland these ‘milk-fed’ lambs are eaten only because of the limited feeding grounds as there is no extra pasture for more stock. In Biblical times lambs were only slaughtered and eaten on religious occasions. Otherwise, mutton was on the menu.
The taste of Scottish or New Zealand lamb is different from its cousins in the Mediterranean. The rich wetlands in both areas produce fat, roly-poly babies. The dry hillsides of Provence, Greece and Southern Italy produce skinny, muscular little animals.
Cooking lamb is as varied as its pedigree. Tender meat is eaten as rare as beef and tough stringy meat needs to be braised or boiled over time. Lamb gets tough in cooking either because it is too fresh or cooked too fast.
In America I find myself trimming off mounds of fat from cutlets, chops and breasts as the ‘lambs’ are practically sheep before they are slaughtered. Legs, shoulders and shanks are never a problem, though, as they are always cooked over a longer period which renders off much of the excess fat. If you grill lamb it tends to sear the outside too quickly and you can easily end up with a charred Goodyear tire! Lamb just begs for herbs or spices as it is a sweet meat with lots of sweet fat. Thyme, rosemary, ginger and cloves can all be stuck in and around the meat. Add crushed garlic just 10 minutes before the meat is fully cooked or it will overpower the flavor of the meat.
Here are two recipes:
Slow Roast Lamb with Lemon, Apricots, and Piñon nuts(serves 6 – 10 depending on the size)
- A 4 to 5lb leg or shoulder of lamb (with or without bone)
- 1 lemon
- ½ cup dried apricots
- ¼ cup pinon nuts (or sliced almonds)
- 1 tbs rosemary leaves (fresh is best)
- 2 whole cloves
- 3 tbs olive oil
- salt to taste
- 2 cups water for roast
2 cups quick-cooking cous-cous (you can find it in your supermarket) plus 21/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (or broth)
Method: Preheat oven to 450F. Slide a sharp kitchen knife through the flesh along the bone (if you have one) to make a nice tunnel for the spices or cut off string and open up a deboned joint. Chop up the apricots and put in a small bowl with the pinon nuts. Grate off a tsp lemon rind and pound together with the rosemary and cloves in a pestle and mortar (or in a spice grinder) with a good pinch of salt. Now mix in 1 tbs lemon juice and 1 tbs olive oil. Add the apricots and nuts and mix well. Stuff into your cavities in the lamb. Roll up and tie a boneless leg with string. Rub the outside with lemon juice and sprinkle with salt. Put 2 tbs olive oil into a large roasting pan and place the leg or shoulder fat side DOWN and meaty side UP. Roast for 30 mins. Turn it over and pour in 2 cups water. Turn oven down to 350F. Leave it to slow roast for 3 hours. I turn on the broiler when it is finished to brown the top well but – be careful – as it only takes a minute or two. Remove the leg to a platter and leave at least 10 mins to relax.
Pour the juices from the roasting pan into a small casserole and add 2 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock (or broth). Bring to a rolling boil and remove from heat. Pour in 2 cups quick-cooking cous-cous and let stand until all the liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and serve with thickly sliced meat on the top.
Breaded Lamb Chops with Honey-vinegar-orange-mint sauce(serves 4)
- 8 chops ( 2 per person or 3 – 4 cutlets per person)
- toasted breadcrumbs
- thyme leaves and salt to taste
- 1 tbs honey
- 1 tbs balsamic vinegar (or red-wine vinegar with 1 tsp sugar)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 tbs melted butter or olive oil (or your favorite light oil)
Method: Mix your breadcrumbs with salt and thyme leaves. Trim some of the fat off the outside of the chops and render it down over high heat in a frying pan. Remove the pieces but keep the fat. Brush the chops with a little of the rendered fat or some olive oil and press into the breadcrumbs to coat them all over. Fry your chops over low heat in the rest of the rendered fat adding a little butter or oil if there is not enough.
For small cutlets, fry for 3 -5 mins each side. For larger chops it will take 5 -7 mins per side.
Leave to rest for at least 5 mins in a warm oven 170F.
Whisk together the vinegar, honey and mint leaves and season with a little salt, more sugar if you wish and add orange juice to thin it down to a runny consistency. Leave 30 mins or more to marinate.
Serve chops with sauce over the top or on the side.
Accompany with boiled baby potatoes scattered with chopped fresh mint leaves.