Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Five ingredients or less

It's amazing how much you can coax out of only a few ingredients. There are certain staples in cooking that bring so much to recipes with only the barest minimum of effort--especially when used in conjunction with each other. For me, some of the first few that come to mind are as follows: olive oil, canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and wine. Looking back over the recipes that I've posted on this site, it's remarkable just how many of them call for those very ingredients. It makes sense. For one, they're super convenient: canned tomatoes are cheap and available everywhere; the same goes for canned chicken stock (yes, I do like to make my own, but because I freeze it in large quantities I like to use canned stock when I don't want to have to plan ahead by thawing my homemade broth). Olive oil and wine, while not always cheap, are constants in my kitchen regardless: for both, a little goes a long way. And, after all, what is life without olive oil and wine? Those two ingredients all but gave rise to empires in certain parts of the world. Additionally, these four staples pack so much in the way of good flavor that it's nearly impossible not to be a good cook when utilizing them.

I was recently struck by the perfect alchemy that olive oil, canned tomatoes, chicken stock and wine create in the pot when I prepared a dead-simple lamb dish that didn't call for much else. Those five ingredients--plus, OK, some chopped garlic, a scant bit of flour, a pinch of dried herbs and salt and pepper--simmered together to produce a rich, smooth, nuanced final dish that wouldn't find itself out of place on a restaurant table. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here--it's just that I am definitively a home cook, someone who employs relatively simple ingredients and cooking techniques and favors intuitive, low-stress recipes. I'm not often one to slave over a hot stove, chopping this and blanching that and transferring things to ice baths. What I'm trying to express is that somehow, almost magically, even a no-fuss, get-to-the-point cook like me can create luscious, distinctive, noteworthy dishes just by choosing the right ingredient combinations.

The ingredients that I listed above do particularly well by long, slow cooking preparations. Olive oil provides the opportunity to infuse your whole dish with the taste of whatever you choose to cook in that first slick of fat on the pan; wine gives up its alcoholic and acidic bite in a puff of steam; tomatoes soften, sweeten and start to break down; stock concentrates and becomes richer and fuller-tasting. When all of these processes occur in one pan, the result is hard to argue with: big, powerful, noticeable. And what did you have to do, really, besides open a few cans?

The dish I created recently was designed to showcase a somewhat unusual and not highly desired cut of lamb, the shoulder. What makes it undesirable? It's somewhat inconvenient. It has a bone. It has gristle. It has fat. You can't just cube it up, shove it on a skewer and onto a hot grill, like you can with a leg of lamb, and expect it to taste good. No. Instead, you have to gently encourage it to give up it succulence. You have to coddle it, in a warm bath of flavored liquid, until it relaxes. You have to braise it. This way, the connective tissue in this part of the lamb will break down, becoming meltingly soft and also releasing gelatin, which will the thicken the sauce that surrounds it with that sticky, cling-to-your-lips goodness that meat has (sorry, vegetarians: a bell pepper just doesn't have the same effect). What's the virtue of the lamb shoulder? It's cheap. Really cheap. The particular lamb shoulder chops I cooked were given to me for free at work, so I don't know the exact price, but I've often purchased them at my local grocery store for a pittance. Also, lamb shoulder has a lot of flavor. Like other tough cuts of meat, it's packed full of it. Think of a filet mignon: soft as butter, yet with almost less flavor. Then think of, say, a shank bone, like the kind you use in osso bucco: it's tough and you have to braise it for hours, but when you do, you'll enjoy a robust, full-pitch piece of meat as your reward.

This recipe started with two bone-in lamb shoulder chops. Taking a cue from osso bucco, I seasoned them and then dredged them in flour before I browned them in olive oil. This step ensures uniform browning on the meat, and the starch from the flour will help thicken the sauce that is later created in the pan. After I removed the lamb from the pan, I sauteed a generous amount of chopped garlic in its residual fat, then deglazed the pan with red wine. After the alcohol cooked off I added some hand-crushed canned plum tomatoes and some of their juices, transferred the lamb chops back to the pan, and then added enough chicken stock to almost cover the lamb. Simmered together for about an hour (the chops are thin and don't need much more time than that), the five ingredients in the pan united in a common cause of savory richness that found its home atop a mound of sweet, fluffy potatoes mashed with celery root.

Lamb Shoulder Chops Braised in Tomatoes and Red Wine
Serves 2

1. Set a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add 2 tbsp. of olive oil.
2. While waiting for the oil to heat, season both sides of two bone-in lamb shoulder chops with salt and freshly ground black pepper. On a large plate, dredge the chops in all-purpose flour, shaking off the excess.
3. Add the lamb chops to the pan and cook for about 4 minutes per side, until the lamb is nicely browned. Remove to a plate and set aside.
4. Add 3 - 4 cloves of chopped garlic to the pan, along with about 1 tsp. dried herbs de provence or similar dried herbs (such as rosemary or thyme). Cook, stirring, until garlic just starts to brown, then deglaze pan with about 1/2 cup of dry red wine.
5. After alcohol has evaporated, add about 5 - 6 canned peeled plum tomatoes, crushing them by hand as you add them to the pan. Add about 1/2 cup of the tomato juices to the pan, stirring to incorporate. Place the chops back in the pan, then add enough canned low-sodium chicken broth (or homemade) to almost cover the chops.
6. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow chops to simmer, covered, for 1 to 1-1/2 hours. When the meat is done, it will be tender enough to pull from the bone with a fork, and the liquid in the pan will have reduced to a thick sauce. Check sauce for seasoning and adjust to taste.
7. Serve warm, one lamb chop per person, over mashed potatoes, orzo, or a grain such as couscous, farro or bulgur. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and some grated lemon zest, if desired.

Celery Root Mashed Potatoes
Serves 4

1. Peel 1.5 lbs of baking potatoes, such as Idaho or Russets, and cut into a large dice. Place in a medium saucepan filled with cold water.
2. Peel a .5 lb celery root (also known as celeriac) and cut it into a small dice. Add to the pan.
3. Cover the pan and set it over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, uncover the pan, drop the heat to medium-low, and cook at a low boil until potatoes and celery root are tender, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and celery root and then return to the pot.
4. Add a few tablespoons of milk (preferably not nonfat) to the pot, along with 2 tbsp. of butter. Cover pot briefly to heat milk and melt butter. Uncover and mash the mixture until it is mostly smooth with some chunks remaining. Add a generous amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.


Gideon said...

this looks delicious, but i'm going to have to question your history a little. where, exactly, did wine almost give rise to an empire? I think there might be some argument that olive oil helped Athens rise to prominence as a center of trade and culture in Greece, but even they never ruled an empire.
in any case, the lamb looks mouthwateringly good.

Lauren said...

I should have known that the resident history expert would weigh in on my little bit of writerly exaggeration. Indeed, I was referring to the important economic roles that wine and olive oil played in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations, to name a few. Also, apparently, tribute taxes in ancient Britain had to be paid in mead. So, there ya go.

Lauren said...

History of olive oil: http://www.explorecrete.com/nature/olive-oil-history.html
Tidbit: Dealing in olive oil was the backbone of the import-export trade in the ancient world. Merchants came from Phoenicia, Crete and Egypt to the Mediterranean basin and even farther, from 600 BCE onwards. The Scythians of the southern steppes of Russia came to replenish stocks of olive oil at the prosperous Greek trading posts of the Black Sea which later became the spas of Romania. Depositories of oil jars such as those of Komos in Crete are evidence of the importance of the olive oil trade. Olive oil was already liquid gold, ages before fuel oil became known as black gold.

Wine in Ancient Greece: http://www.allaboutgreekwine.com/history.htm
Tidbit: The Greek wine trade was organized and sophisticated and was one of the methods the Greeks used to spread their culture throughout the ancient world. The islands of the Aegean Sea were so famous throughout the ancient word for the quality of their wine that Homer referred to the Aegean as the "Wine-dark Sea".

Gideon said...

important to trade is one thing, giving rise to an empire is another. I think olive oil and wine were both important trade goods for the Greek city states, but none of them ruled any empires, and if they did, they probably would have built it on something less inebriating than wine, and less slippery than oil.

Lauren said...

Oh yeah? OH YEAH? Well in my empire we're just going to drink olive oil/wine cocktails all day long, and you know who's gonna be mixing them and then pouring them into our mouths sip by sip? You and all your descendants! Ha! Haha!

willy said...

I'm pretty sure the Phoenicians built their empire on chicken stock.