Tuesday, April 5, 2011


A shoulder of lamb

I recently watched the great Jamie Oliver braise a shoulder of lamb from his TV series and companion cookbook, JAMIE AT HOME (Hyperion) that looked so good, I was dying to make it myself.   Having lived in New York City for many years, I was used to being able to buy meat in any form I liked--whenever I liked, at a variety of places, supermarket, butcher, specialty shop, etc. But it's not so easy to find this economical cut of meat in this very food-trendy city. In fact the meat aisles at supermarkets in Portland these days pretty much stick to the tried and true--lots of beef and pork, with little in the way of lamb and veal.  Turkey parts, excellent for stock are rarely to be seen at Fred Meyer or Safeway.  Chicken wings are also difficult to find fresh, though you see lots of "drumettes", which have become popular for Buffalo Chicken Wings.  

Lamb shoulder chop

A fully cooked lamb shank--heaven on a plate

Lamb seems to exist outside of New York only in cryovac plastic or at expensive grocers. Portland, has few first rate butchers that can order a lamb shoulder or any other specialty cuts not found in local supermarkets by special order. At Gardner's one of the city's most popular butchers, they sell top quality steaks, roasts, and other tender, in-demand cuts such as veal shanks, but if you want a lamb shoulder you must buy it in a box of six (the average lamb shoulder can be five to seven pounds)--not very practical. Trader Joe's here sells New Zealand racks of lamb frozen. What little fresh lamb they have is processed much like supermarket meat and is also expensive.  You'll see boneless leg of lamb in supermarkets and sometimes in shank form--again, in plastic. It's difficult to find flavorful shoulder lamb chops in supermarkets, and ground lamb is difficult to find as well.  New Seasons, Zupan's and Whole Foods do stock these items, but you'll pay dearly for them. Costco offers only boneless leg of lamb shrink-wrapped and fancy lamb loin chops. 

Breast of veal

Ground lamb, shoulder lamb chops, and shanks were a fixture of my childhood meals.  My mother braised lamb shoulder for stew, and Sheperd's Pie.  A leg of lamb was reserved for Christmas or Easter dinner. In my teens flank steak, knockwurst, oven-fried chicken, rabbit (why do we resist this delicious meat?), meatloaf, spaghetti and meat sauce (as well as a baked American version), beef stew, roast chicken, chili, and the like, was our daily fare.  My mother had the only kids who would cheerfully eat calves liver and relished it. We rarely ate grilled steak and never chicken parts. She cut up whole chickens for her meals including chicken and dumplings.  Boiled beef with homemade noodles, was comprised of inexpensive cuts of beef long simmered.  In California, butchers cut the chuck blade in thick slabs on the bone and we at it braised in one piece with onions, carrots, potatoes and peas (I was shocked to find thin bony versions of this cut when I moved to New York in my early 20s).  My mother raised four boys with no father and only her income to keep a roof over our heads.  There wasn't any spare money to lavish on the kinds of boring tender and boneless cuts of meat that you see in today's markets. 

A chuck blade steak

Maybe we're too far removed from the farm.  Americans bland diets will adventurously try every hot and spicy sauce that comes on the market, but get very squeamish about about anything meat that smacks of offal.  And now that chefs have co-opted all those delicious cheap cuts--veal and lamb shanks, flank steak, hangar steak, skirt steak, beef, veal, pork and lamb shoulder (and thus ramping up the price at the supermarket checkout), it's as if we've retreated even further towards the really expensive steaks, filet mignon, rib eye and Porterhouse steaks, veal rib and loin chops, lamb loin chops and and pork tenderloin.  It's good for a restaurant's bottom line, but is it good for ours?  A pork loin roast, with crispy fat on it's surface was a well-loved Sunday supper entree.  But the fat police interfered, pigs lost much of the fat that made them taste so good, and so today's supermarket roast pork lacks fat marbling and isn't as tender as it once was. 

But back to butchering.  I've been hearing that butchering is the hot new career in food.  I've yet to see it really take hold.  Maybe there's not enough money in it.  When I was a kid, there were butcher shops in every neighborhood.  I have vivid memories of covered farmer's markets in the center of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the vendors stalls overflowed with locally produced meat and dairy products, vegetables, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. Later when we moved to San Francisco, it was a big deal to go downtown where there were these specialty markets packed with fresh, local, delicious food.  The meat for sale looked amazing, and the variety was overwhelming.  About the only butchering development that has captured my imagination is sausage.  In Portland, the city is awash in fabulous sausage. Otto's, Sheridan Meat and Fruit, and Edelweiss are just three local markets that make their own sausage and elevated the art in the process.  Of course, we're surrounded by chicken sausage, but it's a small price to pay. 

Let's hope there's a return to great butchering soon.  We certainly have a lot of cookbooks with recipes for these nearly forgotten but recovered recipes. We long overdue to start cooking them again. 

1 comment:

  1. Do you remember Bryan's in Laurel Village? I just bought fresh lamb shanks there. Expensive, but oh so good!