Colder weather urges cooking in a way that summer’s insouciant plenitude cannot rival. Now that we’re down to about a third of the garden, it’s all roots and greens out there (though bolstered immeasurably in the kitchen by the deep benches of pantry and freezer). Their flavor—the sheer information, the resolution and detail in each bite of humble leaf or root, sweetened by frosts and elevated to center stage by the departure of the tender competition—presents targets both easy and challenging. Easy, because a fat fall turnip needs little embellishing to glow, and challenging because families are wont to clamor for novelty when it comes to dinner.
While the garden is just beginning—tiny sprouts popping up over the last couple of days in the early beds—the lawn is nobly stepping up to shoulder the verdant burden of providing actual green things with which to adorn our dinner these days. The chervil deserves mention, since it always bounces back from winter faster than anything else, and provides great garnishes right out of the gate, but the wild garlic takes the prize for the most useful wild plant in both early spring and late fall (and winter, really, as long as there’s not so much snow that it can’t be seen).
I do so love these late summer days: warm enough to frolic, cool enough to actually cook food in the evening. And the garden is banging right now, despite June’s woodchuck invasion and the powdery mildew and squirrels, which between them devastated all of the cucurbits. The mildew killed the cucumbers and zucchini, and the miserable rodents nibbled a little bit of each winter squash so they all rotted. Their thick, waxy skins make squash impervious to the wet ground, but once punctured they turn to much in no time. How dumb does an animal have to be to see a squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, and then see another, identical squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, then see another, identical squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, and so on until they’re all ruined. I’m getting an air rifle.
For the last entry in this here contest, I received a bag of clams (already cooked and eaten here) and some ground lamb. Half the ground lamb became the kofta from a few posts ago, and the rest was the basis for this extremely gratifying dinner: 100% homemade gyros.
Recently I was invited by the Charleston Wine and Food festival to participate in their Lambs and Clams contest. There will be four monthly entries, each featuring a splendid ingredient, and the winner gets a trip for two to the festival, which looks like an awfully good time. You can see all the other contestants at the link, and fans of a certain charcuterie contest will recognize more than a few of them. It’s like we’re getting the band back together.
The lamb came from Border Springs Farm, which provides superb pastured meat to restaurants up and down the coast. When the leg arrived—plump and lovely, I might add—I was excited to open it up and get started. The problem was the head full of ideas that were driving me insane; I could not for the life of me decide between them. I paced, stared at the meat, paced some more, and couldn’t settle on anything. At one point, I just wanted to stuff it with rosemary and garlic, rub some spices on it, and throw it on the grill for a bit, since it’s hard to beat that treatment for a whole leg. But realistically, for a family of three that was going to yield a massive amount of meat that we’d spend a week getting slowly sick of. And I wanted to do this gorgeous meat justice, especially given that it had been shipped from afar.
Ultimately, the notion that there were just three of us ended up being the solution. I decided to take the leg apart and do a bunch of things to it, each resulting in a manageable quantity that we could eat as they were ready over the course of a few days of normal life. Because I am a crazy person, however, I kind of jammed it all into this weekend, so it became kind of an epic endeavor.
Last weekend we went to Vermont to escape the heat and do some serious relaxing. We brought up a bunch of stuff from the garden and some meat from the freezer so we were well provisioned, though that did not stop us from hitting the Saturday market and getting more food. That evening I went to town on all the bounty, and this meal was the result.
As regular readers know, I’m a fan of from-scratch standards (often sandwiches, for some reason) as an ideal format for drilling down into the essence of food while following it up the supply chain as far as possible. It helps me understand cooking better. More often than not it also tastes really fucking good, so there’s also that. In this instance, to celebrate the ninth anniversary of our fun summer wedding (we had the legal one the previous December while my Mother was still alive), I prepared what was by any measure a simple meal. But it technically took seven months to make it.
Lamb is probably the meat that loves seasoning the most. Because it’s so assertive, with that lovely gamy richness, it can take some serious spice without being buried under it. And it matches so well with such a wide variety of strong flavors, from garlic and rosemary to preserved lemon and harissa to feta and black olives (and so many more). What I try to do when I cook it is season the meat a particular way and then use one or more complementary flavors in the accompaniments. It’s good fun to play around with different delivery systems and combinations ranging from formal and fancy to fast and dirty, and I never get tired of cooking and eating it. This application fell emphatically in the latter category, but was no less pleasurable for its informality. There’s not much better than a couple of lamb sliders after a long day spent not eating lamb sliders.
Look: another sighting of my dinner, rare as hen’s teeth these days. It’s been strange getting back into the regular cooking routine after so long out of it. It’s not the actual making of dinner, which I have not in fact forgotten how to do, but trying to reconcile all the wild flights of culinary fancy that my mind embarked upon while my hands held sandpaper and brushes (rather than knives and pan handles) with the quotidian realities of wandering into the kitchen at 5:30 and making good food from a cold start. So much of what I rely on to lift my meals up a level or two are the various time-intensive processes and ongoing experiments and just plain old leftovers that are in the fridge on any given evening, so it’s taking a little while for those secondary rhythms of production to catch up and I feel a little clumsy.
Bread-baking never stopped, although there were some hiccups. The vinegars are thriving. Cheesemaking is back under way, which is grand, so whey is in the mix, and of course there’s plenty of charcuterie about for mincing into soffriti to lend that lavish depth in an instant: salami, guanciale, duck prosciutto, bresaola, and lardo. And the freezer always has something worth eating in it. What galls me most at this time of year really is the dearth of good vegetables; there are still greens in the garden, sure, and a few roots, but I daydream about being able to walk outside and load up a basket with all the fat bounty that is still invisible over the horizon. This mild hardly winter isn’t helping, either; I keep feeling like I should plant stuff. The birds and spring bulbs are equally confused. I’m sure we’ll get some monster blizzard in a few weeks after everything is all budded out and lose it all.
Meantime, comfort food is still on the menu, though this example was leavened some with a couple of summery ingredients to symbolize my yearning for spring and the ephemerality of life, man.