UPDATE: Vote Here. Vote Often. Maybe even for me?
Upon being invited to join nine invited Boston bloggers for the inaugural American Lamb “Pro-Am Lamb” competition, I did what anyone in my shoes would do. I punted.
On Being Rational
I listened to the little angel on one shoulder who said “decline”. Alternately this angel bears a resemblance to my husband, patiently awaiting the day this “writing thing” takes off (read: makes money.) At other times, this spirit looks like my agent, possessed with almost as much patience. She too, looks forward to the day I begin life as a published author.
Then, the seduction began. I thought about a million recipes, cultures, angles I could explore and all the gorgeous flavors that complement lamb. I could go in a Mediterranean, North African, or Middle Eastern direction. “Accept!” “Do it!” “It will be great fun.” “You’ll be supporting local American lamb.”
Being in the midst of a swirling vortex of “broken” - everything going kaput at once (not even kidding: dishwasher, phone, AC, computer, fridge), it would have been smart to say “No thanks.” With all the repair and troubleshooting calls, my time has disappeared faster than [insert illicit substance of choice here] at a LiLo party. Declining would have been the rational thing to do.
Seduced by Lamb
Rational has not always been my strong suit. Naturally, I said "Yes!" My pipeline is skinny enough to make Kate Moss look like plus-size model, but yes, I said, let me create a recipe or two, test them, edit them, cook them, shoot them. Tweak and tinker. I have faith that new work will come, as it always does, in the nick of time.
At the very least, I’ll be able to add a “cooking competition” bullet to the resume. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Well, I'm a firm believer in doing what scares us - as often as possible.
Look at that gorgeous Lamb!
But First - Some Music
To accompany my Texas-sized flood of ideas, I put on Stevie Ray Vaughn. In addition to being a kick-ass album of bluesy rock, Texas Flood (the last album before his early death) wowed listeners across genres. It includes a clever tune incorporating the nursery rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb. Only he could make a children’s nursery rhyme sound naughty. Listen to his phrasing “...Tisket, ...tasket..” punctuates pauses, spitting out a dare. Whatever tisketing is, I want to do it. If you’re not familiar with the album, have a listen. Lenny, Vaughn’s instrumental tribute to his wife, is so moving, if it doesn’t get to you, I’m gonna have to start worrying.
Listening to Stevie Ray you can fairly feel the Texas dust kick up around you. Or, maybe that’s just the state of my house. Ignoring the hairball in the corner, I get to work.
On the Creative Process
Vaughn muses on the Texas Flood re-release, about the difference between creating from the mind, as opposed to listening to the heart.
“If I go with what’s in my heart and let it come out, then I’m okay.” Not bad advice. For musicians, for cooks. For all of us.
Random ideas swirl, a testament to the diversity of lamb:
- Mongolian - salty, sweet palate of lamb-loving culture. After some research, I learn the “Mongolian BBQ” of my childhood was not so authentic. Scratch this one.
- North African - cardamom, cumin, harissa (see Harissa Comes out of the Closet) Love these flavors but I may need more time to figure it into a lamb dish. Pita stuffed with spicy lamb and harissa sauce?
- Mediterranean - garlic, lemon. Classic. Love it. Too common to excite me for this competition.
- Korean - never heard of this before but something tells me the garlic-sweet-salty combo might be enticing with lamb. I will come back to this and try it again after the Lamb Pro-Am the first two tries were intriguing enough.
Back to Xi’an
Ultimately, I came back to the cumin-scented Sichuan profile I love. As a child I saw the newly unearthed army of Xi’an Terracotta Warriors in National Geographic Magazine. I vowed to one day see this magnificent army in person. When I was part of a management consulting team that went Beijing and Shanghai, I negotiated for extra time to complete my part of the report so I could make this childhood dream come true.
Imagine an army of these guys, each unique and life-sized?! Breathtaking.
One of the most memorable meals was a hot pot meal that included lamb, eaten alone, in a huge restaurant, where not a soul spoke a word of English. I saw the terracotta warriors and ate the local, authentic lamb. This memory helped to inspire this dish. Xi’an is in the Shaanxi province which borders Sichuan, many of the same flavors appear in each region’s cuisine. This recipe is probably not authentically representative of either, but it gives you a taste of both.
The techniques are familiar enough I didn’t need weeks of time, and a whole herd of lambs, to perfect it. This is simple enough you can make it at home, unique enough to entice you. And it’s very satisfying indeed.
Three Peppers Lamb LDGourmet-style
Sichuan cuisine is characterized by a balance of hot, salty, fragrant flavors. Chilli peppers were not originally part of the cuisine, but Sichuan cooks have fully incorporated them into dishes many of us have come to associate with the region.
Sichuan peppercorns (prickly ash) are not actually in the peppercorn family but are referred to as such. They’re actually more closely related to citrus. Toasting them prior to incorporating is key to getting the full benefit of their fragrant, slightly citrusy-floral flavor. They also are slightly numbing to the tongue.
Lamb is a staple in this part of China. Here, the lamb is sliced thin and tossed with a fragrant spice rub, scented with cumin and coriander, then stir-fried. I incorporate the spices and heat that characterize Sichuan dishes, adding the notes of warm sweet spices, citrus and vinegar.
Three Peppers Lamb
Serves 2-4. Three peppers here are the Sichuan peppers, white pepper and red peppers in the form of whole fresh and dried chilli flakes. The actual cooking time is quick, so be sure to read through recipe and have your ingredients all prepped (mis en place) before you begin.
- 1.5 lbs of boneless leg of fresh American lamb
Cleaned of silver skin, sliced across the grain, into bite-sized pieces. You could also use other cuts of lamb, the trick is to use small enough pieces they will be tender to the bite and not so small you over cook them.
Make spice rub:
- 2 TBSP cumin seeds
- 1 tsp red chilli flakes
- 3 tsp Sichuan pepper
- 2 tsp white sesame seeds
- 1 tsp coriander
Toast spices lightly until fragrant in dry skillet. Cool, buzz in clean spice grinder or mortar & pestle. (Tip: to clean spice grinder place a hunk of soft bread in it, and buzz. A silicone basting brush works almost as well. Be sure to unplug before sticking fingers in there! I keep one for coffee beans only, one for spices.)
- 1/2 tsp 5 Spice Powder (recipe: How to Make Chinese 5 Spice Powder)
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 2 fresh red hot chilli peppers (try slicing one thinly and leaving one whole)
- 1-2 scallions, sliced
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced fine
- 1 medium onion (halve North to South, then thinly sliced into thin half moons)
- For garnish: toasted sesame sesame seeds, orange zest, cilantro
- Make the spice rub.
- Make 5 Spice Powder if blending at home.
- Slice lamb, toss with spice rub, refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
- Heat large skillet, add one TBSP best quality peanut oil or corn oil. When it shimmers, add onion slices and one whole hot chilli pepper (to scent the oil, but don’t eat it.)
- Sauté in 1 TBSP peanut oil (I like Spectrum.)
- Push onions to edge of pan, add about 2 teaspoons more oil, then add meat.
- Next add scallions, garlic and sliced chilli.
- When the scallions start to soften, give your sauce-slurry a good mix, add it to the lamb and give a good toss.
Tip: you do not need a wok, get a good pan nice and hot, add the oil, then add onions. Sprinkle a small amount of sugar on the onions to give them a faint caramelized sweetness.
Into a 1 cup measure add:
- 1 TBSP cornstarch
- 1 TBSP Xiaoshang Rice Wine
- 1 TBSP Soy sauce
- 1 TBSP fresh squeezed organic orange juice (save peel for zesting)
- 1 TBSP Chinese Black vinegar
Fill measuring cup up to ~2/3 C with cold water. This should be about the amount of liquid to make a sauce that works for a pound or so. You can thin it by adding more water to the pan if you like. Garnish with any or all of the following: fresh zest of orange, chili threads, cilantro, sliced scallion, sesame seeds.
- American Lamb Board - a site with recipes, cuts, videos and more. Check it out!
- eNotes on Sichuan cuisine - new site to me, but pretty good information
- Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages - satisfy the food geek in you; one of the best sites for information on spices
- Cook with your kids - learn about Chinese food together
Please stay tuned for a link to the Boston Chefs American Lamb Pro-Am website. There, you can look at all 9 or 10 of our recipes and vote for the post and recipe you like best. Only four of us will make it to the next round! Please also share this around FB, Twitter, etc.