May 2011

I’ve held off on writing a post about this, because it all hinged on a poorly remembered Julia Child video, (perhaps even recreated by Meryl Streep’s JC caricature in Julie and Julia- don’t want to be too derivative of other food-centric bloggers) wherein she had a whole lamb carcass, which she then proceeded to fabricate and educate her viewers about the various methods of preparation. I’ve searched high and low, and cannot find a copy of the video on Youtube, or even a mention of the lamb itself, affectionately referred to as Vincent, Virgil, or some other V name.

Ah, well.

I was also going to write about packing a picnic lunch, but the weather in Chicago has gone from 80 degrees on Monday to an abysmal 45 and foggy today. Here’s the cribbed version: On Monday, I made a picnic lunch- Two kinds of hummus. One had fresh basil and pistachios while the other had sun-dried tomatoes. Made a pasta salad with feta, zucchini, broccoli, sweet peppers, and some leftover balsamic dressing. Also made a salad with Plums, Peaches, basil, red onions, rice vinegar, tomatoes, and a splash of olive oil. All were tasty. We ate them at an outdoor concert.

As a sidebar which I as the writer of this blog reserve for questions, what does a sun-dried tomato factory look like? There’s no way that all these tomatoes can be left to dry in the sun. Are they really? Why not just say preserved or oven roasted? There is no way. Who works at these places, walking by row after row of tomatoes out in the sun, deciding, “Nope, those aren’t ready yet.” What happens if it rains?

Hey. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about lamb.

At my store, we get most of our lamb from New Zealand. It’s plentiful and lean, raised on the Middle Earth Pasture, and by itself, it’s pretty good. However, it has to come from New Zealand, and it takes a long time to get to us, as does anything sold in mass quantities from overseas. Don’t worry. It’s the same every place. Look at those bananas. Do you think they were green because they were picked yesterday? Unless you’re on the crisp cool shores of Puget Sound, do you think that salmon was caught that morning? Nah.

But this new lamb, we get in every Friday and Saturday from Chiapetti Lamb and Veal, a processing facility not two miles away. The lamb come from South Dakota, and they are slaughtered on a Tuesday and delivered to us on a Friday as whole lamb carcasses (heads removed, of course).

We then break it down into parts that will be more easily marketable. The first cut, we split the animal in half with a lengthwise cut. This gives us visual access to the rib bones, and lets us see where we need to make the cuts to come up with rack of lamb, loin chops, and the leg of lamb/shanks.

Shoulder, Square Cut

From the front of the animal, this is the first piece to come off. Sliced and trimmed, this can be made into lamb shoulder chops for the grill, done as a bone-in roast, braised, or taken off the bone, rolled, and stuffed. It’s a versatile, flavorful cut of meat,

Splitting the Rack and Loin

After the shoulder is removed, we split the rack section from the loin. There are eight bones in the rack, and further fabrication of that cut  (removing the meat from between the rib bones, or Frenching) yields what we see on fancy menus as rack chops or “lollipop” chops. In addition to the frenching, we remove the feather bones, to make it an easier cut at the table.

Removing the Chine from the Rack

What you’re left with, after a little bit of trimming, is the leg. With a sharp knife, trim around the aitch bone (which is connected to the leg bone), and remove it. You can trim the short end, make it into the lamb hindshank for braising, and trim the leg bone out to make a boneless roast.

The best thing about getting the whole lamb carcass is that by trimming it, and sectioning it out into all the cuts, is that there’s virtually no waste. There’s a tiny bit of feather bones to be thrown out, but you can use the bones for stew, grill the riblets, and use the trim for lamb burgers.

Really, lamb is pretty good. Just as with veal, it is a younger version of a meat that some people don’t find quite so palatable. Me? I don’t really care for beef. If I had my choice between an animal that wanders around for 2 years, getting tougher and tougher with every step, or one that is younger and more tender, I’ll go for the milder one.

It’s healthy, tender, mild, and does really well with any flavors. Next time you’re in my store, buy some. It’s delicious. Any questions you have about lamb, post them here, and I’ll be happy to send up some recipe recommendations.

For a while, on the twitter, I’ve been following the trend of the Not-So-Secret-Anymore food trucks that are popping up all around the nation. There’s Kogi Korean Barbecue in Los Angeles, Maximus/Minimus in Seattle, and coming up in Chicago, The Southern Mac, run by Cary Taylor of the Southern restaurant in Wicker Park, and Phillip Foss’ Meatyballs Mobiles, purveyors of meatball sandwiches in many different flavors.

If you haven’t heard of the trend, these mobile food outposts tweet their locations in the morning, sometimes en route to an approximate location, and it falls to the customer and well-keeled internetian to be in the right place at the right time.

This morning, on my day off, I decided to give one a try. Such a tough choice. Usually, they park somewhere around my neck of the woods, and with a ten minute walk, I could get to whichever was the most convenient. After checking the twitter, I determined it was the Meatyballs mobile number 3, ready to post at 12:20 at Illinois and St. Clair, about three blocks away.

Here’s a helpful tip if you’re going to go on a sojourn to the nearest grease truck: Know the menu. If you think you’re being clever by showing up blind, there’s no patience for looky-lous at the trucks. Sure, they’ll smile and explain the menu to you, because they too like making money. However, the people behind you in line? They’ll grumble. If you haven’t caught the trend by now, you’re way behind the curve. Back of the line.

I asked what the menu was, and the line was only one person behind me who didn’t look too famished, and I picked up the BBQ balls sandwich. Pulled pork, Cola-bourbon barbecue sauce, red cabbage, and apples. Not too shabby. I made sure to have my cash ready, but I noted that they had a Square Credit Card reader attached to the iPhone they were using to track orders. This little baby, if it hasn’t already, will revolutionize small, mobile businesses with a transaction structured system that is easy to use and affordable.

Well, back to the sandwich. The Meatyballs Mobile is all about Meatball sandwiches. From their website, I have now come to the understanding that you order a sandwich with a theme and a clever nickname (Schweddy Balls. Ha.), and then you go sit somewhere on your lunch break and eat it. I ordered my sandwich, (8 bucks- not that bad), walked a block, and sat by the fountain in the park. I unwrapped my sandwich and dug in.

I totally forgot that I eat pulled pork almost every day. Each night at work, we smoke two or three whole pork shoulders, rubbed down, for about ten hours. Little pinches here and there every so often have given me an idea of what pulled pork is supposed to taste like. This one? Mmmmmmmeh. It sure was shredded, but then, the shreds were rolled into the shape inspired by meatballs. The balls were mushy lumps, and I wasn’t terribly impressed.

To recap- Trends are good. I am in favor of supporting small mobile businesses, specifically ones who become trendsetters by being early adopters of technology for the sake of their business. (As a sidebar, check out the twitter account of @Msbeervendor– sending tweets to your beer vendor at Mariner’s Games to have your beer delivered to your seat. Genius) However, just because something is trending, doesn’t mean that it has to be good. And @msbeervendor, if you’re reading this, don’t worry. Beer is beer. You’re safe like Ichiro stealing second base.

Will I try Meatyballs again? Probably not for a while, if ever. There’s so much variety in the neighborhood, with the Mac Truck, and the Gaztro Wagon somewhere in the mix. As I said before, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. I’ll go if the truck is parked within walking distance and it gets some good reviews, but if the food’s only going to be just okay, I think I might make myself a sandwich at home.

I’ve been thinking about sharing meals with people this week, and just how much it means to sit down with someone and enjoy the company of a dining companion while you enjoy your food. It doesn’t even have to be something that you prepare, as these days, finding time, talent, or inspiration to cook seems to come at a cost that we are not always at liberty to pay.

What I do enjoy are those occasions where we can all gather, family and friends, to share a meal around the table. People who we haven’t seen in a while greet us with smiles, hugs, and kisses, and we sit and eat. In a mix of who you are with and what you are eating, there is a measure of comfort to be had.

I come from a huge family- five kids on my dad’s side, nine kids on my mom’s. When we get together, it’s always a mix of inside jokes, knee-buckling sibling humor, and camaraderie. And Andy.

Andy, the second child in the family after my mother, has spent his life between family and a few different assisted living facilities for adults with needs that go beyond the scope of what families are typically able to provide on a daily basis. In my lifetime, he has lived most of his days at Brother James Court, a facility run by Franciscan Monks in Springfield, Illinois, about 2.5 hours south of the family homestead in Princeton. He is fulfilled with activities and spirituality, and when he shares visits with members of the family, it is a reunion and a celebration.

An Easter Celebration

As we get older, we see less and less of the family, but at Independence Days, Thanksgivings and Christmases, he appears, and spends a few days with a choice number of siblings. Picnics are had, we take long drives in the country, and his presence makes us feel calmer. His strong, unconditional love and ear to ear grin are reminders that there remains in this world a bit of purity.

When he has been up visiting my parents in Wisconsin, we’ve gone to movies and for walks down by the lake, but it is in eating with him that I get a true sense of his delicate nature and relationship to his food, and on a larger scale, life.

One day, before catching a showing of Finding Nemo, we stopped at a pizza place across the mall for a meal. To me, the pizza wasn’t that special in itself. I ordered a slice for me, a slice for him, some breadsticks, and a couple of fountain drinks. We each took our trays over to a table. Within his actions, he carried the tray more gingerly and with deliberate purpose. We sat down and I opened the box in which my slice was contained, but a silent hand reached across the table and touched my wrist. I looked up, and Andy looked me right in the eye.

He placed his palms to one another and began to pray, using words that I could only half make out through his trademark muffled, stuffy delivery. There was a “God” in there, a couple of “pleases”, and an “Amen”.

For Pizza.

Now we could eat.

I sat there and thought about it, as we ate our slices. It was so ingrained, his pre-meal prayer, that it just had to be done before we could touch our food. The world would not end, of course, if we didn’t, but without words, and by his actions, he just let me know that it was the right thing to do.

Did it taste better because of it? Maybe. Maybe not. I didn’t really pay attention, but after we ate, I felt fulfilled and content by this meal that we shared.

We put our empty boxes on our trays, and Andy gave another short prayer of thanks, got up, and brought it to the trash.

Within each one of us, even if it isn’t spiritual, we hold a ritual connection to how we address and eat our food. If one man can show compassion for every meal he eats, what shall we do to make sure that every meal put in front of us means something?