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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lamb Necks: Frugal Cooking

Another lazy day with no post ready. What to do?? I know: mooch off the kids. Here is a journal sent by Frugal Son recounting his experience with lamb necks. He got these from the campus Dairy Store, which sells meat raised and butchered in the Ag School. This is Part 1; Part 2 will follow.

Here is my journal about cooking the braised lamb necks provençal from a few weeks ago. What do you think?

1) Flour and pretty!
2) Beautiful lamb necks waiting to get dredged in some flour.
3) Me dredging the necks.
4) Necks browning.
5) With the liquid and vegetables getting ready for the oven.
6) The provençal blend
7) Removing the warm plates.
8) Ready to eat!
9) Lemon zest garnish adds some color.
10) Reggie.
11) I look pleased with myself.


One of my latest obsessions in cooking is the LSU Dairy Store. Ask most people on campus what the Dairy Store is and they only know it as "that place where you can get ice cream and milk shakes." Perhaps it is no surprise that the Dairy Store is such a well-hidden secret; the meat coolers are as far away from the door as is possible and, more importantly, well beyond the brightly lit glass fronted drawers that showcase the dozens of flavors of ice cream in five-gallon tubs. Even those who do know about the meat for sale at the Dairy Store look on it as either an amusing curiosity or, in many cases, with some level of apprehension as if only industrially produced meat that comes from thousands of miles away is clean enough or normal enough to merit eating. For me, however, the Dairy Store is a treasure trove of hard-to-find cuts of meat that are reasonably (even cheaply) priced and come entirely from local, free-range animals.

Since it is a small scale operation, the supply of meat depends on what animals the Meat Science students are working with—another thing I like about meat from the Dairy Store is that it serves an educational purpose before serving its final, gustatory purpose—so I never know what will be in the two freezers pushed up against the far wall of the small store. Everyday after class lets out I walk to the Dairy Store; I feel almost like a hunter on the prowl trying to find a particularly tasty or rare cut. I feel slightly embarrassed when I go in and I'm afraid I'll earn a reputation as "that weird boy who comes everyday but never buys anything." Most days, only a few lonely gravy steaks rest on the shelves beneath a single, buzzing fluorescent light. On those days, I don't linger. But some days, the coolers are stuffed with whole beef arm roasts, goat's meat, lamb riblets, whole hog's head, and on those days, I stand in front of the freezers, hands and nose pressed up against the glass, dreaming of all the things I could cook if only I had the time, the technical know-how, the money… Those days, when the freezers are so full it seems as though they will burst at any moment, make my daily trips, so often filled with disappointment, worth it.

One particularly good day, when the freezers were newly stocked with meat, I noticed a cylindrical package of meat wrapped in white butcher's paper. Curious, I peered at the label and was surprised to see it said lamb's necks. Intrigued but unfamiliar with lamb's necks, I went back to my dorm and started to do some internet sleuthing on the culinary applications of lamb's necks. My immediate thought was that, like oxtails, they could be used to make a broth but would not have much actual meat on them. After a little research, however, I found many people who were passionate about the wonderful uses of lamb's neck as a cheaper and more flavorful alternative to other cuts of lamb and specifically as a replacement for lamb shank.

After reading an article my mom found on the Amateur Gourmet blog about making Lamb's Necks Provençal, I decided to prepare my lamb's necks in the same method. The article mentioned using, but did not have a copy of, a recipe from Molly Steven's book All About Braising. With a few Google searches, I found a copy of the recipe and scanned over it to see what items I'd need to buy. The bold flavors of the dish come from the lemon, garlic and olives added to the braise while the more subtle but equally important foundation flavors of the dish come from the tomatoes and onions. According to my dear mom, the combination of garlic, tomatoes, onions, and olives is the classic Provençal mélange or a sort of template which can be applied to other dishes. Though I had many of the ingredients, I was missing a few key ones (olives, parsley, lemon) so I needed to go buy them.

I had to skip lunch so that I would have enough time to go food shopping and get all the cooking done, but fortunately I went to Whole Foods for the shopping, which means…SAMPLES! Because I was going shopping so early in the afternoon, well before the peak shopping hours, there was almost no one in the store and all of the sample dishes were in pristine condition. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by a large mound of Louisiana Clementine slices followed shortly by navel orange slices, grapefruit, cherry tomatoes, and a fruit salad complete with raspberries, blueberries, and pineapples. After these little sweet treats whet my appetite, I moved on to the more savory dishes. I sampled a seafood spread, a sharp and dry cheddar, cheese and herb bread, and seven grain crackers. All this salt was making me thirsty, but fortunately there was a sample of açai juice. Interesting digression: the açai juice sample cup was probably held about a half-ounce and you could refill your cup from the cooler as many times as you wanted. The bottle of juice held 24oz and cost $24! So, every sample I had was "worth" about $0.50! In spite of all the samples I managed to stay focused enough to remember the task at hand, so as I grazed, I also grabbed the few ingredients I needed. It killed me to buy a lemon (even though it was only $0.79) because I knew there were so many lemons on the tree at home but since I was cooking for four people I felt OK about buying it.

My main reason for shopping at Whole Foods, however, was because of the olives. I only needed about 10 olives for the dish so rather than buy a whole jar of low quality olives that would sit unused in the back of the fridge for months, I bought only as many olives as I needed from the olive bar at Whole Foods. While a jar of olives might be much cheaper per ounce at Wal-Mart, by buying only as much as I needed at—the admittedly more expensive—Whole Foods I got a better quality product and spent less money. This is actually an important lesson in frugality: sometimes the cheapest option is not always the best. For example, I COULD buy the bulk packs of 2½ dozen eggs and save a few cents per egg but if I don't use them fast enough and they go bad, all that money I "saved" is now wasted on rotten eggs. Back to the narrative. At the olive bar, I sampled the olives, looking for some that were preserved in oil and had a firm texture and strong flavor--basically the antithesis of your typical canned or jarred kalamata olives. I bought twelve olives so even though they cost $15 / pound I ended up paying less than $2 for all the olives I needed. With ingredients in hand I drove back to campus to begin cooking. Even though it was only two in the afternoon, I am was well aware of how much longer cooking takes when confined to using an apartment kitchen and a hodge-podge of only marginally functional cookware.


Funny about Money said...

What a hoot!

I love lamb necks. Sometimes even the Safeway practically gives them away. The meat's wonderful.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said... I'm not sure if I could eat the lamb necks. I know me and al that I would be able to think of is "Mary had a little lame, little lamb, little lamb". But I could and would gladly scarf down those sweet Louisiana Clementimes my friend. In short order too :)
And I can't get that song outta my head!!
Have a joyous day in the beautiful sunshine today and.......

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Duchesse said...

Good for you, your sense of adventure and research skills created a feast! For those who are not sure they can eat lamb's necks, you are eating a lot 'worse' in a hot dog!

Frugal Son, do you not have a market other than Whole Foods where you can buy good olives in bulk? Also, if you really good olives will keep a very long time in their brine.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--I will take the liberty of answering for FS. You live in cosmopolitan Toronto, where ethnic groceries carry items that here are classed as gourmet food, with prices to match.

SLF said...

@Funny: That's fantastic that you can get them so cheap! I am really interested in the uses of all the pieces of meat that are considered "undesirable." Maybe as the cost of food starts to rise people will rediscover the lost art of using animals nose to tail.

@Midlife: I bet if you smelled it you'd try them but if not, the couscous is still good! Soon it will be spring and fruit will be bountiful...

@Duchesse: Sadly, I think Whole Foods has a monopoly on the bulk olive market. I could probably buy a big jar and just keep it but I use olives so infrequently that they'd probably disappear (due to my penchant for salty snacks) long before I needed to use them again in a dish.

@All: Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading!

--Frugal Son

navierstokes said...

Hey, you should post more recipes and stories about your LSU Dairy Store adventures.

I live on campus at LSU and I like to hear good ideas about what to buy/cook next.