This past week I walked away from the fish counter of my natural grocer feeling a little disoriented. My hands held four neatly wrapped salmon fillets, but its hefty price seemed to suggest a larger purchase, like perhaps a whole 40 pound chinook salmon. Jees, I thought, I know food prices are going through the roof these days, but this is ridiculous.
I hesitated before placing the package in my cart. I considered whether this was a responsible purchase, given that my husband Erik and I have two girls both in line for braces, college and – years and years and years from now – dating and presumably a wedding thereafter. I eyed the chicken display nearby and saw a much more moderately priced package of chicken breasts that could feed us more than satisfactorily for a fraction of the cost.
As often happens in moments when I am processing food-related thoughts, my mom popped in my head. I remembered how, during her last visit a few months ago, she had eyed a beckoning leg of lamb as we perused the meat section of my local supermarket for dinner ideas.
‘That’s a nice-looking leg,’ she said. ‘Let’s buy it and have your dad grill it.’ Her eyes shone bright with possibilities.
I looked down at the $57 price sticker. My indelible poker face, the same one that would find me homeless and hungry if I were to rely on playing cards as a profession, must have given me away. ‘I know it seems like an awful lot of money,’ she said as she looked at me knowingly. After all, this was the lady who figured out how to clothe and amply feed us on my dad’s solid but far from lavish engineer’s salary.
What she added next has stuck with me ever since: ‘But if the six of us were to go out to eat leg of lamb at a restaurant that was skilled enough at preparing it properly, we’d end up paying close to $30 a person. Instead, we make it ourselves for far less than that. Besides, leg of lamb is an every once in a while treat. It’s not as though we eat it every day.’ With those words, she pinched my cheek before lovingly slapping it, grabbed the leg of lamb and triumphantly placed it in our cart.
We ended up reveling in that succulently grilled leg of lamb, clearly, and I was glad I once again followed my mom’s judicious council. More importantly, her advice has continued to frame my perspective on these sort of ‘big ticket’ grocery items because it is founded on several principles to which I closely adhere.
First and foremost, I believe we are all worthy of splurging on ourselves occasionally. I find it’s easier to slog through life’s difficult days when I have an edible vice to look forward to on the horizon. Most of the time these treats are rather small. A cup of BurgerFi vanilla custard. A slowly savored Bit-O-Honey candy. Shoot…sometimes all it takes is a spoonful of Nutella (well, ok…3 spoonfuls). Occasionally, the treats are bigger. Filet mignon. Rack of lamb. A Gigi’s cupcake, complete with its 7 inches of deliciously rich icing. That seems about right to me. Apparently it was fine with actress Elizabeth Taylor too, who once said ‘the problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.’
Secondly, big ticket grocery items usually involve precious resources, like animals, fish and rare fungi such as truffles or porcini mushrooms. With over seven billion of us sharing this planet, curtailing our pleasures ensures everyone can occasionally enjoy the spoils.
Finally, and not insignificantly, it encourages us to cook. Buying something pricey at the market and then preparing it at home is still a less expensive way to enjoy it than to order it out at a restaurant. As an added bonus, it’s generally known that home cooking is healthier and more wholesome than most restaurant fare.
So occasionally relish that indulgent filet mignon or lobster tail. As American writer Richard Bach once said, ‘the best way to pay for a moment is to enjoy it.’
making baked lamb & orzo
Preheat the oven to 375 °F.
Carefully plunge 2 lbs. of ripe plum tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Remove immediately and let cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove skin. Slice each tomato open to remove seeds and then chop. Set aside. See how to peel tomatoes here.
Separate the leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh oregano, reserving the stems. Chop up the leaves slightly. Peel and halve 5 garlic cloves and remove their internal green sprout, which is bitter. Thinly slice up all garlic.
Rinse 3 lbs. of lamb shoulder round bone chops under cold water (helpful in removing any potential bone splinters from the chopping) and pat dry with paper towels. As you can see I left the ribs on these chops. Most recipes I’ve seen remove them, making the dish look a bit like ossobuco. I kept them because I thought of all that delicious connective tissue that would lend its flavor to the meat and sauce. Plus, aesthetically I liked how they looked.
Oh, and make sure chops are at room temperature for at least an hour. They brown better when they are not cold out of the fridge.
Heat a shallow skillet on medium flame for a minute and then add 4 TBSPs of olive oil. Raise heat to medium-high and wait until the oil begins to swirl on the surface but is not yet smoking.
(Note: You may need to work in two batches when cooking the lamb in order to ensure that each chop browns properly.) Add a pinch of salt and pepper to each lamb chop immediately before placing it in the skillet.
Let chops brown for 2 minutes without moving them.
Turn over and brown for another 2 minutes.
If necessary, use kitchen tongs to stand the chops on their side so the sides can brown as well.
Once fully browned, transfer the chops to a baking dish.
Before we add the chopped tomatoes, I wanted to point out the crispy bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. They are called fond and will add exceptional flavor to the dish.
Now add the tomatoes and salt to taste to the skillet and mix well with the condiment left over in the pan.
Be sure to scrape the crispy bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, as they REALLY are full of flavor. See how they have already disappeared? But don’t be fooled…the flavor is in there.
Add the garlic and oregano stems and cook for another minute. Carefully pour tomato mixture over lamb chops.
With kitchen tongs rearrange the chops so that some of the tomato mixture in on the bottom of the baking dish and some on top of the chops.
Place in the middle rack of the preheated oven and lower the temperature to 350°F. Bake for 1 hour, occasionally basting the meat and turning it over twice in the baking process.
As lamb cooks, bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil. Add 2 optional bouillon cubes and 1 optional TBSP tomato paste, mix well, and then add 8 oz.orzo.
Cook following the directions on the pasta packaging. Drain well once orzo is cooked through but still firm.
Transfer orzo to a serving bowl. If not serving right away, add 1 TBSP of olive oil and mix well. Doing this prevents the orzo from sticking together as it cools.
Remove the baking dish from the oven (lamb should be measuring an internal temperature of 170°F). Transfer the chops on a warmed plate. Add half of the juices from the baking dish, including some of the cooked tomatoes, to the orzo and mix well. Arrange the lamb chops on top and pour the rest of the sauce from the baking dish. Serve piping hot sprinkled with fresh oregano leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano or Kefalotiri. Makes 6 servings.