Each Sunday evening Brandon and I try to cook something fashionable and delicious to accompany our viewing of Downton Abbey. I recently read an interview with Lesley Nicol, the actress who plays the fiery cook Mrs. Patmore. Her acting is quite convincing since, much to my surprise, in real life she says, “I can do basics but I’m not a proper cook. I can do a roast. I can stick a chicken in the oven with vegetables.”
So I decided, in Mrs. Patmore’s honor, we needed something tonight that even she could pull off. To make her look more like a “proper cook,” I include a prepared fennel salad and a stunning, but easy, hazelnut-crusted lamb.
I started off easy this afternoon by roasting a pint of cherry tomatoes. Roasting tomatoes is (I think) a well-kept secret that I have shared with many friends since Ina Garten’s Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad is one of my favorite party appetizers. Roasting takes the fresh tomato taste and intensifies and sweetens it by concentrating what’s already good about them. I threw the tomatoes in early this afternoon for two reasons: so they had time to cool before being combined with the rest of the salad ingredients, and to make sure I had sufficient time to roast them to perfection. Here is where the low and slow comes in – you just dont get the same results unless the oven is as low as 250°F and you just ignore them for a few hours.
The hazelnuts for our lamb needed to be roasted as well, which accomplishes two things. First, it gives the nuts a toasted and more complex flavor which accompanies the lamb so nicely. Second, it allows the hazelnuts to be blanched. “But doesn’t blanching mean boiling and then shocking in ice water?” Blanching hazelnuts actually means removing the tasteless, papery, sometimes-irritating skin on the outside of the nuts. After they have been toasted and cooled, use a paper towel to rub off the skin, and the nuts are ready to use. It is difficult to get the skin off some of the smaller nuts, but since they are being finely minced for the lamb, don’t stress about it.
Lastly, toasted sesame seeds are also in the lamb crust. Dry toasting is fast and, just like roasting, accentuates the nutty and rich flavors. All you need to do is set a dry pan containing the nuts or seeds you are toasting over medium to medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan often so all sides are toasted and they don’t burn.
I’ve written already about how I dislike the majority of kitchen tools since a good, sharp kitchen knife or sturdy wooden spoon can do almost anything I need. Today, though, I rely on two special tools that I actually could not live without. A mandoline steps in as a substitute for my just-better-than-mediocre knife skills for the fennel in tonight’s salad. When purchasing a mandoline, make sure that it has a way to adjust the thickness of the slices so you can use for many different preparations.
A food processor helps turn an hour of chopping and chopping and chopping nuts & seeds for the lamb’s crust into mere seconds. We have a small, easily-stored food processor.
One other piece of kitchen equipment that I use for the lamb, and is quite the opposite of specialized, is our cast iron skillet. Oil & butter + heat + good quality meat = an amazing sear every time. When searing lamb or pork chops I always use butter and oil since I like the taste the butter imparts to the meat (who doesn’t?!) and the oil allows me to get the pan hot enough to accomplish a perfect sear without burning the milk solids in the butter. We like our lamb medium to medium-rare so usually 4 minutes on each side does the trick.
Just before Laura Linney welcomes us to Masterpiece Classic, I dress the salad, dredge the lamb and pour a cocktail. We may be cooking and serving ourselves, but I sure feel like the Earl of Grantham tonight.
HAZELNUT-CRUSTED LAMB CHOPS
- 12 lamb rib chops, bones frenched (or any cut you prefer)
- 3/4 cup blanched hazelnuts
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3/4 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- To blanch the hazelnuts, roast in a 350°F oven on a baking sheet until golden brown, tossing, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove outer papery skin.
- Toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat until golden, tossing, about 5 minutes.
- Add hazelnuts and sesame seeds to a food processor along with the coriander, cumin, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt; pulse until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Transfer to a shallow bowl.
- Pat the lamb chops dry and season with salt and black pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add the butter and olive oil. After the butter has melted and stopped foaming, position the chops snugly in the skillet with the fatty edge down (the bones will curve); cook until browned on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the chops and cook on the flat sides until browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Dredge each cooked chop in the hazelnut crust.
FENNEL, ROASTED TOMATO & PISTACHIO SALAD with YOGURT DRESSING
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/4 cup 2% Greek yogurt
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 1/4 cup shelled salted pistachios
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Toss the tomatoes with olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and roast at 250°F on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet for 2-3 hours. Allow to cool.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Slowly drizzle in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, whisking continuously, until emulsified. Add the yogurt and whisk until smooth. Season to taste with black pepper and set aside.
- With a mandoline or sharp knife, cut the fennel bulb crosswise into very thin slices. Place in a large bowl and toss with the dressing until thoroughly coated. Add 1/4 cup of the roasted tomatoes and mix carefully, so tomatoes don’t burst.
- Using the flat side of a knife blade, lightly smash the pistachios to break them into pieces and sprinkle over the salad before serving.