I was really flattered and excited this week when my mother, of all the available options, chose to come to our place for her birthday dinner. Naturally, I wanted to cook something really special, and I reached out to several of my foodie friends for ideas. Although I got lots of terrific suggestions, I finally found my answer in a library book.
That’s right, I’ll confess–I check out cookbooks from the library and read them cover-to-cover like novels. That’s the kind of food nerd I am. A couple weeks ago I’d found Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking.* I was poring over the recipes, attempting to control my drooling, and hit the jackpot.
Carré d’agneau au moutarde (rack of lamb with mustard)
Gratin dauphinois (creamy, garlicky potatoes)
Here’s the thing about lamb, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this gastronomical delight. It’s incredibly flavorful, so it takes very little “dressing up”. The flavor of the meat is sort of musky, and I always have the feeling I can taste the essence of the grass the little animal ate. It’s a little on the pricey side, so it’s not an everyday meal for most of us, but it is perfect for a special dinner.
First the pictures, then the recipes.
The meal--and sadly, the only pic I got of the potatoes before my family devoured them.
Look at that lovely little lamb.
Sweet and creamy lemon tart--how pretty is that?
Ok, so there was a particular timeline for getting this meal done and on the table without any of it getting cold. As with any cooking, make sure you gather your ingredients and do any chopping and measuring you can before you turn on your stove or oven. It’s called mis en place and it’s super important. I am not always good at remembering to prep everything first, and I pay for it in stress if not always in food-quality.
I started with the tart, since it has to chill thoroughly before cutting. I woke up early and made it before leaving for work. Also, I opted to use my standard recipe for crust rather than the one in the cookbook. I’m sure the Les Halles pastry chef makes a great crust, but there are lots of ways to make great crust, and I like mine.
For the filling: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Whisk together 1/2 cup lemon juice and 1/2 cup sugar until blended. Whisk in 4 large eggs until incorporated, then whisk in 1 cup cream. Pour the mixture into a prebaked pie crust and bake for 25 minutes, or until the custard is set. Cool thoroughly and serve with slightly sweetened whipped cream. What you’ll end up with is a more-creamy-than-tart lemon tart that is a lovely, light finish to a meal with some pretty strong flavors.
So, once I got home from work I got going on the rest of the food. First on the list was the potatoes. They have to hang out in the oven for a while, so I wanted to get them started. This dish was amazing! It was so creamy and flavorful. My family made short work of it, making little happy sounds as they ate.
8 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 cups heavy cream
5 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of flat parsley
salt and white pepper
freshly ground nutmeg (Tony says “go easy“)
1 tablespoon butter
4 ounces grated Gruyère cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large pot and add the cream, 4 of the garlic cloves, and the herbs. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. After 10 minutes of simmering, remove from the heat and discard the garlic and herbs.
Use the remaining garlic clove to rub around the inside of the gratin dish. Butter the inside of the gratin dish as well so that it is evently coated. Transfer the potatoes and cream to the gratin dish and sprinkle the top with the Gruyère. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the mixture is brown and bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
While the potatoes were baking, I started the lamb. It’s remarkably easy. At first I followed the recipe, which I’ll include here as it’s written. I am, however, convinced that my oven stinks, so I ended up having to leave it in longer than the called-for 17 minutes to get it cooked enough.
2 racks of lamb, French cut**
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup red wine
2 cups strong, dark lamb stock
1 garlic clove, slightly crushed
1 bouquet garni***
1 pinch fresh thyme leaves
1 pinch fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
Season the racks with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in the saute pan and, when the oil is hot, add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Once the butter has foamed and subsided, put the racks in, fat side down, and sear, turning with the tongs, until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Discard the fat from the saute pan and, over high heat, stir in the wine, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Reduce by half, then add the lamb stock, garlic, and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook down until thick enough to coat the spoon. Strain into a small pot and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle half the thyme and rosemary leaves over the lamb. Then spoon the mustard over the fat side of the lamb rack and cover the are with bread crumbs. Press the bread crumbs into the mustard with your hands, so that they adhere to the mustard, forming a thick layer over the outside. Place the lamb in the roasting pan and cook in the oven for 17 minutes (for medium rare). Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before slicing into double chops and arranging on a serving platter. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the remaining thyme and rosemary. Whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and serve alongside the lamb.
And finally, while the lamb was in the oven, I sauteed my veggies. I had a bunch of them, so they wouldn’t all fit in my cast iron at once. So, I melted some butter and threw in a chopped red onion to caramelize, then cooked each type of vegetable individually (keeping the onion in the pan to tie the flavors).
It went like this: get the onions cooking, add the asparagus. Salt and cook until crisp-tender, take out the asparagus. Add the peppers. Salt and cook until crisp-tender, take out the peppers. Add the mushrooms. Salt and cook until the mushrooms are browned. Dump the lot into the bowl with the other veggies and toss together. Super tasty.
Nothing smells better than sauteeing peppers and onions.
Asparagus--one of the loveliest harbingers of spring.
*After reading it cover to cover and cooking three of the recipes, I have decided that I need, need, need my own copy of this cookbook. You should get it too. We all know that I was already a big Bourdain fan for his food/travel show No Reservations. Now, my fangirl adoration has just increased.
**To get my lamb French cut for me, I called my meat guys at Steve’s Meat Market in DeSoto, KS. They’re wonderful! Look for a blog post to come, featuring my new favorite foodie place!
***Bouquet Garni: 2 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 sprig fresh flat parsley, 1 bay leaf, bundled up in cheesecloth. It’s essential in French cooking. There may be other variations on the herbs.