Scoring a table for four on a Friday night in the city is not always a simple task - especially if you’re attempting to do it off the cuff. With over fifteen thousand restaurants crammed into the the 23.7 square mile island that is Manhattan, one could understandably presume that securing a table would be nothing short of effortless – however, that is often not the case. Sure you can pop into one of the zillion forgettable pubs for a mediocre burger or a passable steak au poive, but if you’re looking to dine at prime-time-o’clock at a smart new restaurant buzzed about for its good food, service, and crowd du jour, it generally takes weeks of forethought….and that’s if you are lucky.
You can all but but forget about going anywhere that has been recently gushed about by New York Mag, and if Sam Sifton so much as breathes a kind word about the Lamb Bolognese at the next new ‘IT’ spot you can assure yourself that unless you share a name with one Colin Firth or one Natalie Portman….you just aren’t getting in. Now that’s not to say there aren’t a myriad of less flashy restaurants, hidden neighborhood gems, and yesterdays golden children (whose fanfare has since waned) who’d be able to accommodate you – it’s just that in this over-scheduled city that never sleeps it can be tough to lock in a last minute reservation anywhere.
Except – that is – in your own kitchen. Dining ‘in’ with friends is one of my most favorite things to do. There are no incessant busy tones on tied up reservation lines, no anxiety over a testy maitre de, and there’s never a horrendous line to use a too-trendy unisex bathroom. The wine is always fantastic and had for the right price, and if the service is bad I’ll never complain…to myself, that is. You can make a decadent meal and enjoy your drink into the wee hours, without waiters dropping hints by hurriedly snatching away half eaten desserts and partially drank espressos. I really do love the ceremony of dining out as much as the next person, but it can be just so nice to take off your shoes (and eat in your socks!) in the comfort of your cozy abode amongst good friends.
Such has been the extent of our “wild” Friday nights lately, and I have to say they’re the most enjoyable they’ve been in years. We had our friends Mark and Mary over last Friday night, and as they are total omnivores I had carte blanche when it came to planning the menu. It’s still cold outside, so I wanted something hearty, but with it being March and slightly less fridgid I wanted it to have a decidedly springy feel.
I picked up two small racks of lamb, seared them just enough to lightly brown and caramelize the edges of the chops, then crusted them in a bright herb-laden crust. I baked them at a high heat to seal in all of the delicious juices from the tender little lollipops, and took them out to rest when they were just barely cooked medium rare. The meat on these is so tender, and taking it out when the temperature was 120F rendered the chops into a delightfully melty state. They were delicious and special, yet very, very simple to make.
The actual interactive time of this dish is very little. You can salt the meat a few hours before, then let it sit and come to room temp while you make the herb crust. The meat cooks fairly quickly, so only place it in the oven when you are just finishing up making any side dishes. It’s perfect for a holiday meal (Easter immediately comes to mind), a special occasion, or a just night spent in sharing laughs with good company.
Make this for your mom, your dad, your girlfriend, your husband, your estranged dog-in-law….just make it. Please? It is so, so good.
Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb
This is such a crowd pleaser. Lamb racks are not inexpensive, but they are great for special occasions or for when you feel like splurging.
Plan for about 4 ribs per person, or one rack per two diners. I chose not to slice them up before serving, as the herb crust is somewhat delicate and I didn’t want to risk it falling off – next time however I would just carefully cut them into individual chops and pile the extra crust atop.
2 Racks of Lamb, each with 8 bones
2 Cloves Garlic
1 1/2 Cups panko breadcrumbs
1/2 Cup fresh basil (a handful)
1/4 Cup fresh rosemary (a small handful)
3/4 Cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
4 Tbsp Olive oil plus additional for searing
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper
At least 2 hours (and up to 12) before you plan to cook the lamb, trim as much excess fat off the racks as you can (lamb fat is tough and not tasty, so trim away my friend). French the bones if your butcher has not done so already.* Score the remaining thin layer of fat in a crosshatch pattern, and salt the racks liberally on all sides (making sure to rub the salt well into the scored fatty side). Cover, and store in fridge until 40 minutes before you are ready to cook.
40 minutes before you are ready to cook, take the racks out to let them come to room temperature and prepare the crust.
To make the crust, in the bowl of a food processor combine the garlic, basil, rosemary, parmigiano cheese and Dijon mustard. While adding the olive oil in a thin stream, pulse until the herbs are chopped finely and well combined with the cheese and mustard. Finally, add the panko, and pulse just a few times to slightly crush the crumbs and combine them well with the herb mixture. You don’t want the mixture to become too pasty, but you do want the panko to have a fine minced texture and for everything to be incorporated. Set the crust mixture aside in a bowl.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 450F. In a large heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. Sear the first rack, fat side down, until it is golden brown and the fat has rendered, about 2 minutes. Continue to quickly sear the rest of the rack, turning it to get all angles, until the meat has a nice brown crust. When completely seared, set to the side and repeat with the second rack.
Carefully crust each rack with half each of the herb crust mixture by gently pressing it over the fat side and around to cover the tops of the chops. The crust should be about 1/2 – 3/4″ thick.
Place the lamb in the oven, and cook for 20-25 minutes for medium rare, or 120-125F on a meat thermometer.** On a thermometer, When you see that the meat is 120F, remove from the oven immediately.
Let the lamb rest to the side for 10 minutes, tented with foil. Remember, the meat will continue to cook after you take it out of the oven, increasing approximately 5 degrees, and lamb chops are best when they still have a distinct pinkness to them (which is right at the 125F mark). Check the temperature when the meat has been in the oven on the earlier side, approx 20 minutes, to avoid overcooking.
After 10 minutes of rest either slice each rack in half (to serve half racks) or slice the racks into individual chops, and serve.
*Most butchers will have already Frenched the racks – that is, cut all of the fat and gristle out from between the bones (up to where the meaty chop starts) leaving the bones clean and exposed. If they haven’t, ask them if they can before you have them wrapped up. If they can’t you can French them yourself. Saveur has a good step by step tutorial here.
**Meat thermometers cost next to nothing and take the guesswork out of cooking pieces of meat like this where it can be difficult to tell how cooked they are. Also, it is very hard to judge how long your meat will take to cook, as oven temperatures can vary greatly. When you use a thermometer you know exactly how cooked the meat will be, weather it took you longer or less time to achieve that than it takes me in my oven. I’ve invested in a digital thermometer that I can actually keep in the meat while I cook it (there is a thin cord that runs out of the oven and into the reader) and it cost about $18. I highly recommend doing this. It costs far less than the lamb, and if you overcook the meat and ruin it you will rue the day you didn’t want to shell out for the thermometer.