Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cumin & Mint Marinated Rack of Lamb with Mint Aïoli

In my last post I mentioned that I developed the Bing Cherry & Chocolate Chip Semifreddo for a class I taught a couple of weeks ago.  The class was a dinner menu class filled with foods and flavors of the Mediterranean.  The entrée (and headlining draw) for the class was a roast rack of lamb featuring the Eastern Mediterranean flavor combination of cumin, lemon and mint.  It was particularly delicious...and easy to prepare too.  I don't have a lot of pictures of the process, but I wanted to share it here anyway since it is a perfect entrée for summer entertaining.    

The lamb itself—and the mint aïoli I served with it—were inspired by a couple of recipes from Frank Stitt that ran many years ago in a restaurant issue of Gourmet Magazine.  Instead of rack of lamb, Chef Stitt's recipe was for a leg of lamb.  I chose rack of lamb because it produces such an elegant result...especially when you consider the ease of preparation.  Rack cooks quickly and reheats easily.  Even if it has been cooked an hour or so ahead, just pop it into a hot oven until the surfaces are sizzling hot to the touch (this will take less than five minutes), slice and serve.  Lamb rack slices into beautiful little portions so that people of varied appetites can have as much or as little as they choose.  The marinade that I make is simply an adaptation of Stitt's.  The combination of the mint, cumin and lemon with the lamb is, as I noted at the first, delicious.

Stitt's mint aïoli was delicious too.  Sadly, it has always turned out an unfortunate brownish-green color.  Until now I have overlooked this color because the sauce tasted so good.  Then, as the class was approaching, I happened to run across a recipe for "minted aïoli" in Alfred Portale's  12 Seasons Cookbook.  It was nearly identical to Stitt's except Portale blanches the mint that is puréed into the sauce.  Seeing this caused me to have a bit of a "duh" moment:  Blanching is a standard trick for setting the green color of vegetables and herbs.  I'm not sure why I hadn't thought to do this before. The resulting sauce is a lovely—minty—green.  

I should probably address my use of the word "aïoli" in describing the mint sauce.  I went on at length about the correct usage of the term "aïoli" in my post on the Provençal feast called Le Grand Aïoli.  If you read that post, you will realize that the mint sauce in today's post isn't aïoli.  It is in fact just mayonnaise...flavored with fresh mint and a little garlic.  It is unfortunate, but many Americans seem to feel better about eating "aïoli" than they do about eating "mayonnaise"—even though the quantity of oil and egg yolk used to make them is pretty much the same.  Mayonnaise seems to carry with it a bad connotation....of what, I'm not sure.  Anyway, because both Frank Stitt and Alfred Portale—two chefs that I admire a great deal—call this mint sauce "aïoli," with some reluctance I have given in and called it that too. 

The recipe for the sauce makes a generous quantity, so it is possible that you will have leftovers. But this is not a problem. It is fantastic with vegetables of all kinds...roasted beets, blanched green beans, boiled potatoes, etc....making it an ideal dip for a summer vegetable platter. It would also be wonderful on a sandwich—not only a sandwich of leftover lamb, but perhaps one of thinly sliced leftover steak... or even on a hamburger, hot off the grill. Since the sauce really is just mayonnaise, if you begin to think of it as mayonnaise, all kinds of ideas for its use will occur to you. 

In the class I paired the lamb with a vinaigrette-dressed potato salad from One Good Dish by David Tanis. The potato salad as I taught it is unchanged from the book. In a previous post I sang the praises of this book, so I won't belabor it here. Suffice it to say that I think this is a book everyone who loves to cook and eat should own. Stitt paired his lamb and aïoli with a tasty cornbread version of panzanella. I think it would also be good with a summer white bean salad (spiked with roasted peppers, olives and basil)...or perhaps the potato salad with mint and arugula pesto that I shared in May. Dishes featuring eggplant, tomatoes and/or chickpeas would also be fine. To plump up the plate a bit (if you aren't serving multiple courses) you could add a fluff of arugula—dressed with lemon and olive oil—or some olive oil-dressed green beans.

Leftovers with a chickpea, roasted pepper and green olive salad
and zucchini sautéed with garlic and oregano

If you start out your meal with a simple Meze platter (with perhaps some olives....   maybe some marinated cheese....  and a nice dip/spread featuring eggplant...or chickpeas...     and some warm flatbreads, or even a crusty baguette), and finish up with a Bing Cherry & Chocolate Semifreddo, you will have a delicious menu of Mediterranean foods to share with your friends.  Add a chilled Rosé and you'll be all set to linger on the patio on a warm summer night.  

Cumin & Mint Marinated Rack of Lamb

3 "Frenched" racks of lamb—8 ribs and about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb. each
1 1/2 to 2 t. cumin seed, toasted and finely ground
12 to 16 strips lemon zest, cut finely crosswise
3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
1/2 cup coarsely chopped mint
3 T. olive oil, plus more for searing
kosher salt (about 1/2 to 3/4 t./lb. of lamb)
freshly ground black pepper

Trim the excess fat from the lamb racks.  Combine the next 5 ingredients in a small bowl.  Season the racks with salt and pepper and smear with the marinade.  Place the racks in a non-reactive container, wrap and chill for at least 12 hours and up to 24.

An hour before cooking, take the lamb out of the refrigerator. 

Scrape the marinade off of the racks and discard.  Heat a large sauté pan over moderately high to high heat  and add enough olive oil to lightly coat.  Add the lamb and sear on all sides until beautifully browned (regulating the heat as necessary).  

Transfer the pan to a 375° oven (see note) and roast until the temperature in the center is 120° for medium rare (the temperature will continue to go up as the racks rest), about 15 minutes.  The meat will be slightly springy when pressed.  Remove from oven.  Transfer the racks to a plate or another pan and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.  Slice the lamb into individual chops.  Plan on an average of 3 per person.  Serve with a spoonful of mint aïoli. Serves 8.

  • If your sauté pan isn't ovenproof, place the lamb on a rack set in a roasting pan before placing in the oven.  You will need to add about 5 minutes to the total roasting time.
  • For larger appetites—or smaller racks of lamb—plan on 4 chops per which case the recipe will serve 6.
Mint Aïoli

1 1/2 to 2 c. loosely packed mint leaves (about 1 oz.)
1 large or 2 medium cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk (best quality organic and local)
1 T. lemon juice, plus more to taste
pinch of cayenne
1 c. neutral vegetable oil
1/3 c. olive oil
2 T. (or so) warm water

Plunge 1 c. of the mint (about 1/2 oz.) into boiling water until it wilts—about 10 seconds.  Scoop out and place in ice water to stop the cooking process and set the color.  Squeeze out as much water as possible and mince finely.

Smash the garlic to a purée with a pinch of salt.  Place in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade along with the blanched mint, salt, egg and yolk and the cayenne.  Process until smooth and creamy looking.  With the machine running, add the oil in a slow stream through the feed tube.  A thick emulsion will begin to form. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice and process in.  Taste and adjust the lemon and salt. Adjust the consistency to get a light sauce with a few tablespoons of warm water.

Transfer the mint aïoli to a bowl.  Cut as much of the remaining mint as you like into a fine chiffonade and fold in.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.  The sauce tastes best if made a few hours ahead.

Printable Recipe

With green beans and a Mediterranean potato salad
 with roasted peppers and olives

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