The Nasty Bits: Lamb Ribs
Whenever I see a frenched rack of lamb, I recall how, under the tutelage of a German-born butcher, I was taught to french lamb using the method he learned as a boy apprentice in Bavaria, during the 1950s. If this sounds like the beginning of a butchering story with a lot of positive emotional valence, about master butcher and beginner, the teacher passing on his hard-earned knowledge to the novice, well, it is not really that kind of story....at all.
Using a length of twine, the thing to do was to shimmy the rope up and down the bone with enough tensile strength to separate flesh from bone. In the hands of the old Bavarian, the method produced sticks of clean bone and lollipop-like lamb chops. The scraps, once removed, were tossed into the chop bin for ground meat and sausage. I watched my teacher french a few racks, until I was sure I could do it myself.
But somehow the twine in my hands seemed more drawn to my flesh than the lamb flesh. The twine took hold. It was sinking and digging, not into the fatty lamb ribs, but onto my bony and un-fatty fingers. Numbed as I was by the coldness of the meat, I failed to notice this until it was too late and I'd already frenched into the second segments of my index and middle fingers. Like I said before - it's a butchering story with a twist, when the butcher becomes the butcher-ed (or butcher-ee?).
Even if I hadn't mauled myself, I'd still be miffed. Why do people want their lamb chops to look like lollipops? As far I can see, a rack of lamb, consisting of the loin and part of the ribs, get "frenched" for aesthetic reasons only. The issue here is not whether frenched racks of lamb look pretty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though I happen to think that the honeycomb pattern of tripe, the glisten on a very fresh piece of liver, the woodsy patina on a well-aged slab of beef, are much better displays of the beauty of meat.
Beauty aside, I would argue that frenching a rack of lamb is neither an efficient nor a tasty use of your time or your butcher's time. Since we eat pork ribs and beef ribs, why not lamb? Why scrape away that part of the lamb's ribs, called by some the lamb breast, when those fatty, sinewy sections, with a layer of meat that's tender and flavorful, make for such good eating right off the bone?
Of course, lamb ribs are often demonized as too fatty. True, your lamb ribs will most likely come with a cap of fat on one side. To deal with this, towards the end of braising, uncover the pan, and the fat will begin to brown and become a little crispy at the edges. I would never, of course, brazenly advise without any consideration of one's health that one ought to eat all the fat on the ribs, but have a taste of it. The fat on the meat will carry the flavor the spices you've added, and it will smack of the sweetness of the apricots and onion.
This recipe is so easy that it almost doesn't seem like cooking to me. You slice some onions, get yourself some dried apricots, and nestle the lamb, rubbed with whatever spice mixture you prefer (I like a mixture of ground cinnamon, chili pepper, and cumin), amongst the dried fruit and onions. Set it in a low temperature oven for a while.
The result after a few hours: an apricot-onion-lamb fat jam that tastes, as you might expect, pretty incredible when slathered onto your fork-tender, juicy lamb ribs. (Actually, the apricot onion paste tastes great with anything. When I ran out of ribs, I slathered the paste onto grilled goat cheese sandwiches.)
Finally, if you do find yourself with a pool of rendered lamb fat in your roasting pan, consider collecting it for future use, in something like skillet biscuits, which I usually make with butter, but which are very good with lamb fat, lard, or tallow.
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About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.