What Did The Connollys Have For Dinner Last Night?

Because "What's for dinner?" is the most important question most of us answer every day.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the vital importance of this feature. Honestly, short of answering questions like "Are you a doctor?" or "…but have you ever landed a plane?" "What's for dinner?" is truly the most vital issue we all wrestle with on a daily basis. Now, to be honest, for dinner last night I had an awful and tasteless turkey wrap in the Detroit airport. (It was so cold in the D.) But the image below depicts the last meal I made for the fam before shipping out to Exuma for four days of kiteboarding. (More on that later.)

The Menu:

Pan roasted rack of lamb
Curried lentils in a tomato and white wine broth
Romaine lettuce salad (steamed broccoli for Oliver)

I would call this meal a resounding success. An honest-to-goodness 10 out of 10. I have lots of goals when I cook and this meal satisfied some of the most important ones. First of all, I always try to make something I'm excited to eat. (Hey, I'm doing the cooking, right?) Secondly, I like to either try something new or refine a tried-and-true technique or recipe in every dinner. (In other words, I want to be intellectually involved in cooking--to grow as a cook each time I fire up the stove.) And finally, I often try to put interesting and compelling things on the plate that will reduce the overall amount of meat we eat.

This last goal, of course, is not possible every single night--it would be a violation of the founding principles of Rib Night to eat one rib then focus on the dirty rice--but within reason I really do try to prepare small, perfect portions of meat and surround them with other things that are exciting enough that I don't feel as if I've shortchanged myself (and the family.) For example, the photo below is of a meal I made a few weeks ago. It was the last of the glorious steak I bought at CostCo and then butchered and dry aged myself. I also roasted up some haricorts verts and crispy red potatoes and everyone went home happy. (Click through for larger images.)

But if the sliced steak meal was a triple, the lamb dinner was a home run. A seven or eight-bone rack of lamb at, where else?, CostCo will run you about $13, which is a fantastic price. In California they sold New Zealand lamb, whereas here in the great Midwest it's American meat. I personally think the NZ lamb is better--the chops are smaller, but the meat is grassier, slightly sweeter and what I would call "lamb-ier." The American lamb, on the other hand, is larger, a tiny bit tougher (but still quite tender,) and it tastes more like beef. I suspect, although I have not verified this in any way, that in America, where we eat a lot of beef, lambs are bread to taste beefier, whereas in NZ, where lamb is king, they're focused on producing lamby lamb.

Either way, whether they sell American or foreign lamb at your local CostCo (I refer to all supermarkets as "CostCo;" sort of like how southerners call all sodas "Coke,") it's a great centerpiece for a meal. It was pretty cold and pretty late when I started cooking, so I wasn’t able to grill the lamb. This was probably lucky because all of our heads might have exploded if the meal had been any better. Instead, I pan-roasted it.

If you are not already pan-roasting just about everything you cook, you are either really good at cooking or you’re making a mistake. Pan-roasting—a technique of searing the target foodstuff in a hot pan, then sliding it into the oven to finish cooking in a gentler, more forgiving convection environment—is probably the pillar principle of my kitchen. I will not buy any cookware that cannot survive a transition from burner to oven (plastic handles, rubber lid knobs, Teflon,) and I even apply pan-roasting principles on the grill and to things like soups and sauces. (We’ll get into pan-roasted liquids and pan-free pan roasting another time.)

The chief advantage of pan-roasting is that you can achieve a perfect, eye and pallet pleasing sear on the outside of your food, then let the inside come up to temperature in the oven. While a stovetop burner is a lot easier to control than say, a charcoal fire, it’s still a relatively violent way to apply heat. This is why it’s so tricky to get a great crust and a juicy interior cooking exclusively on the stovetop. Can it be done? Of course. But using the oven gives you a lot more wiggle room.

So, let’s go step-by-step with pan-roast lamb in question. I pre-heated the oven to 350, and when it was almost up to temperature I lit the burner under a frying pan. I let the pan heat, dry, over a medium flame for about five minutes, then I sliced off a little piece of fat from the lamb and tossed it in to render along with about a spoonful of grapeseed oil. (I’m a big proponent of using a meat’s own fat as the primary cooking lubricant. I find it gives a unity of flavor, plus, I enjoy fishing out and eating little crispy pieces of fat while I’m cooking.) The purpose of the grapeseed oil, by the way, is to raise the temperature at which the lamb fat would start to smoke and burn.

I turned the burner up to mid-high, then I salted and peppered the lamb and waited until things were really sizzling in the pan. I then put the lamb in, fat cap down and let it crisp up. When the exterior had achieved a state of mind-altering perfection, I removed the meat from the pan and slid it into the oven to finish. This is really the best thing about pan-roasting: It removes all the guesswork. You can get the outside exactly the way you want it, then use a thermometer, or just your senses, to figure out when it’s finished in the oven. Using this technique will eliminate all of the combinations of charred exterior/perfect interior/flabby exterior/raw interior with which you may or may not currently be struggling.

Now, you may have noticed that I left the pan on the burner. Good noticing, you guys! Usually I would just put the whole operation into the oven, but this time I wished to use the lamb leavings (fond) as a base for my lentils. I chose these lentils because my son Oliver is crazy about the color pink and the lentils were, in a general sort of way, pink. (We went to the library the other day and I told him to go pick out some books and he came back with all pink ones.)

Using lentils was very gratifying to me for a lot of reasons: they’re not something I cook a lot (I don’t think Oliver had ever tried them before;) they’re a legume (which we all need more of;) they are comfortable on a plate with lamb; and finally they taste frickin’ awesome.

I tossed some slivered garlic into the lamb fat and followed that with a spicy curry powder. I let everything get slightly toasty then I deglazed the pan with white wine. As I was reaching for the wine I noticed a half-cup or so of tomato sauce eyeing me hopefully from the depths of the fridge so I rescued it and stirred it into the wine with some water and the lentils. I brought that to a boil, covered the pan, cut the heat to low and hit the showers.

I’m not joking when I say I hit the showers. Often, while I’m cooking for the fam, I get quite hot, so if I have about five to seven minutes, say, when a piece of meat is resting, I’ll often pop into the shower to cool off between cooking and eating.

Fresh and clean, I emerged from my shower, made a little salad (Oliver doesn’t do salad so he got broccoli) and we sat down to eat. Pretty much a great experience from start to finish if you ask me.

Here's a picture from my kiteboarding adventure. I will set down my thoughts on the excursion soon. Stay tuned!