by Maria Cerretani
I wondered if anyone would hesitate to try the lamb carpaccio being passed around considering that we were watching a lamb being broken down into parts just a few feet away. I glanced around the room. No. Everyone seemed to be doing just fine. Perhaps it was because we were mesmerized by the deftness of the butcher as she effortlessly wielded knives and a hacksaw. Or maybe it was because the chef's lamb carpaccio was so excellent. Then again, the free flowing Long Island wine probably didn't hurt either.
If you were unable to make Slow Food NYC's Slow U - Lamb Butchery event at the International Culinary Center on March 14th, you missed out on an evening of practical culinary tips, great food, and a lot of laughs. Our presenters for the evening were Master Butcher Sara Bigelow from The Meat Hook in Brooklyn and Chef Steve Dustin from Monument Lane in the West Village. They taught us about the different cuts of lamb and how to cook them, demonstrating with a milk and alfalfa fed lamb from Ferraro Farm in New Jersey and accompanied by a hefty dose of dry wit.
One of the biggest takeaways of the evening was Sara's advice to think about how an animal behaved while it was alive when selecting a cut for a recipe. Though this might be the furthest thing from your mind while planning dinner, the way the animal used those particular muscles impacts how you cook it. For instance, the neck of a pasture-raised lamb is tough because the muscle was well worked as it grazed. Therefore, the neck should be cooked low and slow, so that the connective tissues can break down. A leg, on the other hand, is tender and suitable for roasting because it was basically just supporting the weight of a grazing animal during its life.
Sara also spoke about the challenges and benefits of whole animal butchery, which gave us a deeper appreciation for butcher shops like The Meat Hook. As she explained, it is more favorable for the farmer to sell an entire animal rather than trying to find multiple buyers for all the individual cuts. Though certain cuts take more effort (one reason you probably won't find them at large-scale operations), utilizing all parts of the animal is part of The Meat Hook's commitment to nose-to-tail butchery. In return, The Meat Hook benefits from working with small farms because it gives them direct access to their producers. If they have a question about any aspect of how a pig was raised or slaughtered, they can call the farmer. Working with the same farmers allows them a measure of quality control over their product because they develop a familiarity with the meat from each farm.
Leaving us with a tray of beautifully sectioned lamb cuts and a "creepy looking carcass," Sara ceded the floor to Chef Steve Dustin from Monument Lane. Chef Steve walked us through the three ways to prepare meat: dry heat, wet heat, and raw. Dry heat means anything where the meat comes into direct contact with a hot surface (grilling, sautéing, roasting) and is best for more tender cuts like legs or the rack. Tougher cuts of meat, like the shanks and the neck, are more suited towards wet heat (i.e. braising) because it allows the connective tissues to break down. As for raw preparations, everyone's mouth started watering at the idea of a lamb saddle tartare served with root vegetable chips.
Chef Steve prepared two lamb dishes for us to try, using lamb from Vermont Family Farms. The first was a lamb loin carpaccio served with local greens, pickled red onions, grated farm egg, country loaf croutons, and pickled ramp vinaigrette. Next up was a roasted leg of lamb served with escarole, Hen of the Woods mushrooms, rye berries, and mint. Lamb is always hit or miss for me, but Chef Dustin's preparations were fantastic. The lamb flavor wasn't overpowering and was complemented nicely by the flavors and textures of the other components on the plates.
Thanks to Sara Bigelow and Chef Steve Dustin for sharing their expertise with us and for their continuing commitment to good food. And thanks to the International Culinary Center for hosting the event and to all our volunteers and supporters for making the night a success. Slow Food NYC will continue working with these and other partners to put on fun (and delicious) educational events that encourage people to learn about the sources of their food and how best to enjoy it. Keep an eye on this website for upcoming events.
Maria Cerretani has been a Slow Food NYC board member since 2013 and was selected as a delegate to Terra Madre in 2012. She works in television production on projects ranging from comedy to educational children's programming.