By Sanford D’Amato | Photograph © Kevin J. Miyazaki, courtesy of Agate Publishing
Easter lamb was never on my radar as a child. We were a Midwest three-meat family—beef, chicken, and pork—with a once-yearly turkey fly-by. In the pork arena my mother was a superstar, as anyone who had partaken of her crackling, crispy pork roast or stuffed double chops would attest to. But her baked ham was just wrong. Dry and two steps away from a salt lick, it was by far the worst thing that ever came out of her kitchen. For many years, I never looked forward to Easter dinner as I thought ham was my only option. That only changed when I went off to cooking school.
In the early days of the Culinary Institute of America, my alma mater, it was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. I think this had to do with the fact that the school had just made a huge move from New Haven, where it was on Yale’s campus, to a stand-alone compound in Hyde Park, New York.
Everyone, students and instructors alike, had to get used to new digs, which came with a learning curve and a strict budget to make sure they could pay for those digs. One of the most notable areas of frugality came in the butchery class. We would start with a couple days of theory as a master butcher would explain the intricacies of breaking down an entire pig, steer, or lamb into primal cuts, then into portions that would be familiar to most folks in a supermarket situation. Most of this was done with large flip charts but we were all waiting for the actual beast to appear. I understood it probably was not feasible for every one of the 20-such students to have their personal side of beef to whale on, but we expected a bit more than was delivered.
On our first cutting day, we had all sharpened our boning knives for the 16th time that morning. All these anxious students in their matching white uniforms wielding razor-sharp blades—it was like a scene out of West Side Story. We were the “Sharks,” and as the butcher turned over the box of “Jets” (actually 20 whole chickens), the jabbing and slicing went into such high gear that even “Maria” wouldn’t have been able to stop us.
That was a good start, but we implored “Officer Krupke” (played by the butcher) that we needed to see and learn on larger cuts. On the next day he delivered, as a whole spring lamb appeared. Everyone gathered around the table as he deftly cut through the lamb with a master’s touch, showing us just where to separate for the primal cuts: the legs, shoulder, loins, etc. Then he gave each one of us the primal cuts to bone out. He would appear between us with the speed and grace of a Ninja as he kept control of the whole group.
I had a shoulder, the perfect cut for the French spring favorite Navarin d’Agneau, or lamb stew infused with a mélange of spring vegetables. This is a dish that I made regularly years later at Le Veau d’Or in New York; the whole baby lambs appeared along with the first asparagus, peas, and radishes and signaled the return of spring.
We are fortunate in the Pioneer Valley as you can butcher lamb yourself by getting it directly from multiple farmers’ market purveyors or, more conveniently, freshly slaughtered then butchered at Sutter Meats. However you go, be sure to look for the shoulder—it was born to be braised.
So that’s how I went from ham to lamb. I know I’ll be celebrating Easter preparing this quintessential dish with an appropriate melody running through my head… “Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night…”
Enjoy Sandy's Navarin of Lamb on your table this spring.