I got a call from Robbie Richter the other day. Robbie Richter is a New York barbecuer, and probably my oldest friend in meat. I’ve cooked with him, and drunk with him, and argued with him about the use of water pans, for ten years. His brother is my doctor. Now, after all these years, he is leaving for LA so we decided to cook one last blowout meal together. And we did. There were beef shortrib tacos, with a sriracha / kewpie mayo and a piquant Korean bbq sauce, and kim chee, and fresh cilantro; there was a jamaican jerk pork belly, which Robbie finished on the grill; there were some fantastic mojo-marinated chicken thighs.
And there was a whole 2 year old Tamarack ewe.
A ewe, in case your wondering, is a fertile female sheep. It’s a grown up animal, not a baby, and that gives it a very different taste, in every sense. Animals taste more like themselves as they grow and develop; their bodies are as unformed as their personalities when they are little. And I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better about eating an animal that has had a chance to live a little before being ripped out of the world. And this was not a factory animal, either: it was raised in a wonderful, loving environment in the verdant pastures of rural Vermont, watched carefully over by Ben Machin, its owner. Machin breeds one of the oldest and rarest kinds of lambs, and he was good enough to donate an animal to us for this special night. So it was on us to do something very special with it.
First, we brined it. We used a standard salt brine, three parts salt to one part sugar, and some herbs and peppers mixed in, really, just for the hell of it. We let the animal soak in that bath for nearly 48 hours. In case you are wondering, it’s no easy thing to find a waterproof crate that can hold an 85 pound animal. We managed though, and seven hours before the dinner, we were able to get the ewe slathered up with a turmeric-based rub that we hoped would give the outside bark of the animal a kind of aromatic pinquancy. There was also plenty of salt, cardamom, ginger, curry, and chile powder, but it was the turmeric that gave the rub its color and its dominant flavor. Cooking would be easy – six or seven hours at 225 degrees and a continuous bath of oak fumes seemed about right – but it was necessary to take certain precautions before putting it into the smoker. This wasn’t just a piece of meat you buy in the store; it was a whole animal, that had lived a (sort of) full life, and had been donated by a dedicated farmer who knew every one of his animals. So we couldn’t screw it up. We set the animal belly down, cut the shanks and neck off to fit, and bound the thing to the smoker rack with the care and attention to detail of a Japanese rope fetishist. There was no way this ewe was going to fall off its rack; and there was no way we were going to overcook it.
But we almost did. The plan was to serve some of the bigger pieces as straight smoked lamb, and to pick the rest of the carcass, and to mix it in as part of the Uzbek dish known as plov (their version of pilaf.) We rendered some of the lamb kidney fat and softened an immense amount of carrots and onions in it, finally adding the rice and some lamb braising liquid I was able to scam off Anup Joshi, the chef de cuisine at Tertulia. Anup showed up and helped us finish the lamb, and it was almost too late. We spent so much time getting the plov ready that we almost overcooked it. We pulled it out, inserting a meat thermometer into the deep thigh and finding it an alarming 160 degrees.
But when it has cooled a little, we paraded it around the room, inspiring the awe and excitement that a well-cooked whole animal alone can generate. I thought of Ben Machin up there in Vermont, and with what care he had maintained and protected this ewe for two years, and then slaughtered it and sent it down for me for this dinner. I thought of the green grass of Vermont, and how I was about to taste it through the prism of an animal that had eaten it, all day, every day, for its entire life. And I thought about how many animals I had cooked with Robbie, and how special every one of them was. The lamb was amazing, not only in its flavor, but in its very presence and all the emotions and reflections it called into being. There is nothing like cooking a whole animal to make a man feel whole.