February 16, 2009

Silence of the Lambs

By the time you finish this story you'll have heard the journey of lamb meatballs that are no longer. This post was inspired by an eating experience I had this weekend at 112 Eatery, that of 'veal tongue.' I know, right? A whole summer eating no meat, and the following February finds me eating the tongue of a calf. How did I sleep at night? Very well, thank you very much.

To me, veal tongue tastes like a subdued pot roast with intense moisture. It's soft all around - texture, flavor, mouthfeel, and color. Served with a side of cucumber-sauced cold soba noodles, it was a perfect balance of light and heavy food. So how did the calf inspire the lamb? Because it reminded that I am, indeed, and animal, and love meat. This is the first time a non-veggie dish has been featured on this blog, so be gentle while they make their debut.

Last week I was reminded that summer still exists in, of all places, my freezer. I still have farm-corn and tomatoes in the freezer, along with quite a random assortment of other foodstuffs: goji berries that a hippie gave me this summer, frozen basil pesto, hamburger buns from my mom, soynuts, goat milk ice cream, and popsicles. As golden as corn and tomatoes may seem in these dark months, I spotted a mysterious white package and my curiosity was instantly heightened. Turns out my roommate's old roommate has lambs at his farm and brought some ground lamb last year, which I have a huge weak spot for. Immediately my mind raced back to the great lamb-curries I had in New York while staying with a family in Richmond Hills, Queens, but I know that to make a real, good curry, one needs a lot of time and its flavor doesn't keep well. I cook and eat for one, which means I need to make something whose state of 'leftoverness' holds its integrity. I was in need of something fast, hearty, portable, and, most importantly, delicious. Then it occurred to me that I recently learned how to make jazzed-up meatballs at the restaurant where I intern, so it was decided. Ginger, red wine, garlic, fenugreek, onions, and cloves also decided to join in on the fun.

I was in denial from step one. I knew the meat had been in the freezer for over a year, maybe two. That should have been enough information there, but I was determined. The poor lamb was sitting in the cold dark for a long time, it deserved to go for a spin. As I love to order lamb at restaurants, I'm not as familiar with it in the home-kitchen. Had I not been so green to the lamb-experience, I would have known better. Preparation and baking went fine, but the most important part - the tasting - was unexpected. Usually, when one has lamb, one knows it. It has a distinct 'barnyard' taste. After popping one of these in my mouth, the flavor was all muddled and confused. I couldn't get the lamb to speak. Doubled with a post-eating upset stomach, I had a harsh reality to swallow - the meat was just too old.

Even after I got them all dressed up for a photo shoot, I decided to throw the guys away. The fear of sickness overrode any sense of meaty satisfaction. Sorry, guys. This experience, along with many observations at the restaurant, have shown me the importance of foundations. You can gussy something up all you want, but if you don't start with quality ingredients, you're doomed and your dish is going to be nothing but silent. Whether it's braising liquid for the meat, court for the soup, roux for the chowder, or dough for the pasta - the base gives the dish its identity, not the cranberry mustard or tarragon sour cream dalloped on top. And such is life - a quality life is about the fundamentals, too. I've never drank so much water and gotten such consistent sleep (not saying it's a lot, but it's consistent), and have also never felt so well.

So my advice for the week: Stay away from the mystery meat in your freezer and drink your water. And since I didn't give you a story about something good to eat, here's a picture of one.

Chickpeas - a safe staple in my life.

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