Thursday, June 21, 2007

nice rack!

Just in time for the chef's birthday! (Catriona MacInnes turns 23 on the 27th of this month.)

This photo was taken by my friend Catriona, during her final exam this year at NSCC (Nova Scotia Community College), Ackerly Campus (Dartmouth, NS), a month or so ago. Two weeks later, my mother remembered we had a rack of lamb in the freezer, which none of us know how to cook, so we asked Catriona -- home for a break between school and her summer work placement -- to come and do us the honor, not knowing she'd passed with flying colors on the very dish we were asking her to prepare for us. Serendipity in the kitchen - my favorite kind!

Catriona arrived with an industrial-strength briefcase, filled with culinary art supplies: knifes, spatulas, pastry cutters, molds, a scale, squeeze bottles, a handheld mixer, measuring cups and spoons, pliers (removing fish bones, not last minute plumbing repairs), icing tubes, and an assortment of funny-looking metal tools that turned out to be the melon ballers, a butter curler, a lemon zester, and an apple corer. Don't get in this woman's way! Ever the professional, she also changed into her chef's whites, complete with neckerchief and a digital thermometer clipped to her arm, looking like a more svelte version of Gilmore Girls' chef, Sukie: same gorgeous smile and cheery chatter.

My brother Mat became her "apprentice chef" for the afternoon, chopping garlic, mincing rosemary, mixing the rub (garlic, rosemary, dijon mustard, honey and olive oil), as per the chef's instructions. Catriona herself was involved in preparing the meat: cutting the fat cap off, then cutting spaces or "windows" between the ribs, then scraping the rest of the connective tissue, fat and cartilage off the meat. Her joy in her chosen trade was evident: when she she first cut between the rib bones and pulled away the meat to create a neat square space, she exclaimed, "Ah, look at that window!"

This photo is also from Catriona's final exam, and it's the point at which the "windows" have been cut between the ribs, the unwanted tissues removed, and the rub spread on the meat. Our meat looked a little different from this, as it was grown and butchered at a small farm, not prepared for commercial use as her exam-lamb was. Also, because our lamb lived its life free-range and was fed organic feed, its fat, Catriona noted, was less stiff, and actually harder to handle.

After she had braised the meat in two cast-iron pans, and then rubbed them with the prepared mixure and set them to bake in the oven, Catriona prepared the reduction sauce. Her Scottish ancestry was evident: as she hoisted a bottle of Valpolicella, a red wine, to begin, she said enthusiastically, "The best thing about sauces is there's alcohol in them!" Later, I sniffed the pan, in which was simmering red wine, orange zest and juice, and fresh mint, and it smelled like sweet lollipops, Laura Secord orange suckers, only for grown-ups.

While we were waiting for the meal to cook, Mat wheeled into the kitchen on the office chair, and Catriona "knighted" him with the knife sharpener, a long metal dowel: "I knight you the best un-official apprentice chef ... in the world!" I was on the couch -- all the activity had tired me out -- writing notes and laughing. The house smelled divine: roasting lamb, rosemary, garlic, wine, orange zest. At the last minute we pulled together a salad of garden greens (Turkish rocket and dandelion leaves), with some chopped apple and a balsamic vinaigrette. Catriona "presented" the food beautifully, using a squeeze bottle to make a design on the plate using the reduction sauce, and arranging the lamb pieces on the plates much like her final exam. We all sat down, ready to dig in, impressed, excited, happy, and most importantly, hungry.

After our meal, flipping through the textbook she had brought for me to look at, I found a quote that I realized sums up the delight we all shared in this meal. I'll leave you with it. Also: Happy Birthday dear Catriona, on the 27th! Here's to good friends, and good food.

"Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensly to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale." --Elsa Schiaparelli, Italian fashion designer, 1890-1973).

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