Just in case the sheer number of vegetables around here lately has been overwhelming, it’s time for some meat.
This was my first encounter with a lamb shoulder. I’ve had nothing but good times with legs and shanks in the past. Chops are good, but for whatever reason (probably price), they never get made at home. I was looking forward to trying the shoulder, and hoped it held the same promise as the other shoulder cuts – the pork butt and the chuck roast.
A quick review: Shoulder muscles – strong – lots of movement – lots of exercise – tougher meat – fat and connective tissues. Think of the exact opposite of a pork chop or a beef filet.
These cuts (not the pork chops and the filet) are far and away my favorites when feeling carnivorous. They don’t require anything fancy – in fact, I think they are at their best when done simply. And the best way to cook them is undoubtedly the braise. Cook it long and slow with some liquid in the pot and you’re braising, and you’re probably going to end up with something good.
The options, of course, are endless – to brown or not to brown, what kind of liquid, what kind of vegetables, flavors, aromatics and herbs. The sauce at the end – strain, reduce, puree, remove?
Lovelier than the sheer number of options are the overall pace of the preparation and the results. Braised dishes are perfect for evenings and cold weekend days (so I really had no business doing this in August) – you do some initial work to get the dish going, you get it in the oven or at a simmer on the stovetop and you walk away, coming back every now and then for a whiff or a stir. I almost always make them the day/night before, as most braised items refrigerate really well, often in the same pot, and usually taste better the next day anyway.
So, back to the lamb. I figured I would go with the simplest preparation of all to get a sense of the flavor and behavior of the cut. It was a 3 LB piece of boneless lamb shoulder that had been gathered up into a butchers twine net, but I released it from those shackles before cooking.
The following approach could be used as a nice pattern for any braisable item.
1) In a nice, heavy pot (with a lid) – heat some oil – just enough to coat the bottom – over medium high heat.
2) Dry the lamb off as well as possible, rub with salt and cook until all sides are well browned. The oil is going to sputter and make a mess, but it’s not only worth it, but necessary. The outside of the meat should look completely done when you’re done browning it. Keep flipping it until all sides are done.
3) Remove from pan – if the oil looks nasty, dump it out, add some fresh, and add a chopped onion and some salt. Cook over medium heat, scraping up the bits from the bottom as you go.
4) When the onion is soft and taking on some color, throw in a couple cloves of minced/sliced garlic and cook for another minute.
5) Add the lamb back in and pour in a dry-ish white wine about halfway up. You could use some chicken stock, red wine or even water instead.
6) Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and then either get it on a gentle, steady simmer (this is where a heavy Dutch oven pays its dividends) or put it in the oven at 300.
7) Cook for as long as it takes to get completely tender. I didn’t want the oven going, so I had mine on the stove and it took about 4 hours. You can flip the lamb every now and then. I left the lid tilted off toward the end, to let some of the liquid evaporate. No idea if any did.
8) Take the lamb out, pour the liquid into a tall glass – when it starts to cool, all the fat will come to the top and you can spoon it off. You can add salt/pepper at this point as well. I added some chopped marjoram and lemon zest.
You can stash it all in the fridge or eat it right away. I shredded the lamb, and ate it gleefully over some egg noodles with the sauce and some minced parsley and more lemon zest.
The results? I wasn’t disappointed at all, although I didn’t think I’d be. The cut braised beautifully – there were still a few grisly bits left at the end, but they were easy to remove when shredding. It was tender, juicy and full of flavor. The sauce was ridiculously good – it was fresh and concentrated, not muddy at all.
Molly, my official taster/new-kindergartner loved it, requesting more “lamb juice” at one point – it was both gross and appreciated.