Sunday, February 12, 2006

I shouldn't have bought the plate.

I bought a nice plate. You see, I love my red-bandana-patterned plates, they're cheery and bright and my favorite color red-red-red, but unfortunately, they don't make the best food backdrop for pictures. They have too much presence. I had been wanting a new plate for some time now - just one, something plain, sleek and modern, for pictures. So I indulged myself with a nice oversized white square plate from China Fair, just the thing.

That's where things started going wrong.

You know how put pressure on yourself over little things, and suddenly you can't do stuff that you can usually do with your eyes shut. Like, um, cook? This weekend consisted of one cooking failure after another, and I blame the damned plate.

Saturday night I decided to make a dish from Chris Schlesinger, the wonderfully talented chef from the East Coast Grill in Cambridge. He's my boyfriend's favorite chef, so I figured I would make something special for pre-Valentine's (Valentine's Day itself I will spend sitting in a deeply boring reference class, thank you very much). I had a lamb shoulder roast in the freezer, so I chose a recipe for - get ready - Mustard-Crusted Roasted Lamb Shoulder in a Rosemary Jus with Tomato Ginger Confit. Now, that's a fab-sounding dish, don't you think? Me, too. I put aside my principles about out-of season tomatoes (California-grown, what isn't this time of year) and made the confit, which consists of chopped onions, minced fresh ginger, and whole cherry tomatoes, roasted in the oven until the onions start to caramelize, then the whole mix combined with brown sugar and lemon juice (I subbed lime). That was perfect.

I also roasted the shoulder in the mustard crust, and made the jus, which included balsamic vinegar and red wine as well as the rosemary and pan drippings, and that jus was also fab.

But the roast....There was something wrong with the roast. I had been a little skeptical about roasting a shoulder anyway, thinking it would be tough. But I trusted Chris, who has never before led me astray. And the meat was good, really good, tender and deeply flavored from the mustard/salt/white pepper coating.

But there was barely enough meat on the 4 pound shoulder for two people.

I had bought this lamb from the same farmer who had sold me a couple lambs last year. She was very nice, but a bit flakey. Unlike the beef man and the pork guy, the lamb lady (as we call her), never seemed to have it together. She forgot about parts of order; her whole lamb seemed to be missing some parts and have extras of others. And I think her butcher was drunk.

Maybe it's me. I've never made a lamb shoulder roast before. But this was the weirdest roast I've ever seen. It was all bones and cartilage and fat. There were ribs and what must have been the upper part of the leg bone and whatever the sheep equivalent to the scapula is. Between the bones there was a tiny amount of meat. Cutting it into presentable slices was impossible. We hacked at the meat and finally resorted to tearing with our fingers. I was very unhappy, because the sauce and the confit and the flavor of the meat were all fantastic. But the roast itself was a mess.

Sunday. Determined to salvage the dinner, I put the leftover bones in the pot to make stock. I then thaw some lamb stew meat, slice some onions, cut up a few potatoes. I sauteed the onions, removed them, and browned the stew meat, but again I was a little horrified by my meat. This stew meat is more than half fat. It had also been cut into chunks of greatly varying size - hacked, really. I put the onions back in, poured over the lamb stock and the remains of last night's jus, plus a little wine, and simmered away, adding the potatoes after the meat had cooked a while and finished with rosemary and black pepper. The stew was okay, nice and flavorful, but really, really fatty. I decided that I'm finding a new source of pastured lamb.

Okay, that should have been enough. But I had to go and make chocolate mousse.

Now, I consider mousse a personal speciality. I've made mousse without a recipe, just estimating the eggs and chocolate and so on, and had great results. Maybe I should have stuck to the estimation method. But no, I had to try a new recipe, from Francois Payard.

The recipe is probably fine. I just should never have 1) tried it while grumpy and tired and 2) cut it in half. Rule of thumb - don't cut a recipe in half if it calls for sugar syrup. There is no way to get your syrup to a precise temperature if there's only 1/2 inch of the stuff at the bottom of the pot. I burned the sugar. I started again. Meanwhile, I had taken the melted chocolate off the hot water, because I need the smallest pot for the syrup, so the chocolate was getting colder and colder. When I mixed the chocolate into the eggs, the whole business stiffened up, and I was left with all sorts of textural problems when I tried to fold in the whipped cream. Frankly, the whole thing was a waste of good chocolate, though we ate it, because unless actual burning is involved, anything made with chocolate and whipped cream can only be so bad. (The boyfriend called it "tapioca mousse" and proclaimed it delicious.)

So no pictures. Blame the plate.


Aromatherapy said...

I know a good lamb lady. Drop me a line if you're interested. aromat1 at aol.

Helen said...

Hey there,

Hope you are recovering from the plate syndrome. When I went to crate and barrel and got all those nice white plates, nothing I made seemed to taste good for couple of days. I promise it gets better and I can't wait to see all those nice photographs! Nevermind, I don't mean to put any more pressure on you. Yours is one of the blogs I read because your writing is so wonderful. That's my ultimate test of a blog. If I am willing to read it without pictures, it must be good :)

By the way, we signed up for CSA! I am so excited I can't wait.


Urban Agrarian said...

This is funny. I have white plates and have been thinking I should get some plates with patterns so that when the food looks dull then at least the plate will look good. I'm now warned that new plates have their own problems.

On the lamb, my order to the butcher for the shoulder is to have it boned and rolled. With the size lamb I get from my farmer friend, it makes about a 2 lb bonless roast. Email me (you know where) if you want the name of my farmer.

Nina said...

Your writing is fantastic! I got such a kick out of reading about plates and the lamb lady. And I'm glad that an obsession to get plates that make good backdrops isn't just mine :)

lindy said...

One of the unexpected pleasures of foodblogging, for me, has been a reason (okay, excuse) to buy individual plates and bits of crockery, just because I like them, from time to time.
I don't need to be able to afford enough of anything to feed a group, because I can use a singleton for photos.
I have seen this concept referred to by others, as "buying a present for my blog." Note how this diffuses the shopper's guilt and feeling of greediness?
The white plate jinx is sure to wear off.
BTW, the first thing I bought of this sort was also a square white plate.