I am ready to clear the dining room table of mail, newspapers and the never-ending list of chores. I want to entertain. Time to welcome friends and family to my home.
I need a menu that sets a lively tone for the guests and that doesn't torture the cook (or the wallet).
For inspiration, I'm dreaming of a recent high-energy, delicious meal at Prune, chef Gabrielle Hamilton's beloved neighborhood bistro in New York. The meal started with a bowl of bright, red radishes served with buttery bread and coarse salt. Hearty salad greens, dressed with a tangy vinaigrette, arrived family-style along with a platter of thick slabs of crusty lamb chops. These were not pricey, precious loin lamb chops. Rather, Hamilton served thick, bone-in blade chops complete with an edge of gorgeously seared fat. We dug into the chops, doused with a tangy onion and caper topping, and licked our fingers when every bone was clean.
Lamb blade chops, according to "Lobel's Meat Bible," are from the shoulder, right next to the rack. I find them to be the most flavorful of all lamb chops -- and mostly affordable, which means lamb more often. Typically a blade chops runs $9 to $10 per pound; loin lamb chops or rib chops are nearly double that cost. Not all stores stock fresh lamb. I order mine in advance. My local butcher shop stocks frozen chops. Fortunately, lamb takes well to freezing; I simply allow 24 hours for refrigerator thawing.
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High heat proves the ticket to restaurant-quality meat. Restaurants employ super-hot cooking surfaces and heavy-duty broilers. I do like the convenience and easy cleanup of broiling. However, the home broiler doesn't yield the deep browning and crusty edges possible with an inexpensive cast-iron skillet.
Two tricks to pan-searing: First, heat the pan thoroughly; a drop of water should evaporate furiously on contact. Second, do not crowd the pan; allow plenty of room around the chops. This promotes browning. Browning equals flavor and texture. Just be sure to turn on the exhaust fan before you start cooking.
I can comfortably fit two lamb blade chops in my 10-inch cast iron skillet, so I work in batches. To keep the chops hot while I cook them all, I set the cooked chops on a wire rack set over a drip pan in a warm oven. The rack keeps air circulating around the crispy-seared chops rather than letting them steam in their own juices on a plate.
To enhance the seared flavor of the lamb chops, I make a caramelized onion and tomato topping. The mixture can be made several days in advance; simply reheat in the microwave before piling it on the chops.
I offer raw veggies and decadent bacon-wrapped chicken livers to warm up guests while I sear the chops. You'll feel the atmosphere rise when friends taste the honey chili sauce glazed over the meaty nibbles. Serve a sour beer, such as a Belgian lambic, to cut the heat and quench thirst.
For dessert, simple baked apples, filled with cherry preserves and topped with a honeyed cream, will send guests home smiling.
Radishes, green onions, trimmed, set out with coarse salt and soft butter
Sliced French bread
Bacon-wrapped, red chili and honey chicken livers
Seared lamb chops with caramelized onion and tomato
Blanched skinny green beans with buttered almonds
Romaine and frisee lettuce salad with vinaigrette
Cherry baked apples with honeyed cream
Bacon-Wrapped, Red Chili and Honey Chicken Livers
1/4 cup Sriracha or other red chili hot sauce
1/4 cup honey
5 to 6 strips thick cut applewood smoked bacon
1 pound small chicken livers, rinsed
Chopped fresh chives or green onions, for garnish
Makes 15-18 pieces.
Soak the wooden toothpicks in water for 20 minutes before using them.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil. Mix Sriracha and honey in a small bowl.
Cut each strip of bacon crosswise into thirds. Pat chicken livers dry. Wrap each liver with a 1/3 piece of the bacon, and secure the bacon with a wooden toothpick.
Place wrapped livers on the prepared baking sheet leaving plenty of space around them. Bake until bacon is almost crisp and golden, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven. (Recipe can be prepared to this point about 30 minutes in advance.)
Just before serving, heat the broiler. Broil chicken livers, 6 inches from heat source, until hot and bacon crisps, about 1 minute. Baste heavily with honey mixture. Broil until glazed, 1 or 2 minutes. Watch carefully as they can burn easily at this point.
Transfer to a serving plate. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds and chives. Serve with remaining honey mixture.
Seared Lamb Chops with Caramelized Onion and Tomato
6 lamb blade (shoulder) chops, each 1 inch thick, about 3 pounds total
Salt, freshly ground peppercorn medley (or black pepper)
2 medium onions, halved, thinly sliced, 12 ounces total
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh or dried rosemary
Safflower oil or expeller pressed canola oil for high-heat cooking
Sprigs of fresh rosemary for garnish
Pat lamb dry with paper towels. Sprinkle both sides generously with salt and pepper. Let stand up to 1 hour. Or, refrigerated, loosely covered, up to 2 days. Remove meat from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.
Cook onion in olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in sugar; cook to caramelize onions, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes. Boil hard, stirring, to reduce juices, 2 minutes. Stir in broth and chili powder. Simmer over low heat until thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in balsamic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the rosemary. Set aside. (Mixture can be made up to 3 days in advance; refrigerate covered; reheat before using.)
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Turn on the exhaust fan over the stove. Set a wire rack over a baking sheet.
Heat a very large cast-iron skillet (or use 2 skillets) over medium-high heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Lightly film the bottom of the pan with the high heat oil. Immediately add lamb chops in single uncrowded layer. Sear over medium-high heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Lamb will release easily from pan. Flip chops and cook second side until medium-rare, about 2 minutes more. Transfer chops to the wire rack and place in the oven while you cook the remaining chops. (Wipe out pan and add more oil as needed.)
To serve, reheat onions during last minute of cooking chops. Serve lamb chops topped with a spoonful of hot onion mixture. Garnish with rosemary sprigs. Pass remaining onion mixture.
Cherry Baked Apples with Honeyed Cream
6 medium Gala, Cortland or Golden Delicious apples
About 6 tablespoons thick and chunky cherry preserves
1/2 cup sour cream, creme fraiche or mascarpone
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Working through the stem end, use a grapefruit spoon or melon baller to core the apples. Be careful not to pierce the bottom of the apples. Stand apples up in a baking dish.
Fill each hollowed out core with about 1 tablespoon preserves. Bake until tender when pierced with a knife, 40 to 45 minutes.
Use a whisk to mix sour cream and honey in a small bowl. Serve warm apples topped with a spoonful of the cream.