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Crowning touch Creating an eye-catching roast of lamb centerpiece isn't as hard as it may seem

April 12, 2006

TASTE - The Baltimore Sun
By Kate Shatzkin

The Gourmet Cookbook calls crown roast of lamb "so sophisticated and fancy that it has come to be virtually synonymous with luxurious eating."

The 2004 cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl, also calls the crown roast something more surprising: "easy."

A show-stopping centerpiece dish with a price tag to match, the crown roast -- two racks tied together to form a circle with stuffing mounded in the middle, the rib bones perfectly white and perky, perhaps dressed in little paper frills -- is a special-occasion dish often reserved for holidays such as Easter, Christmas or Passover, which begins tonight.

But with lamb becoming more popular and available in the United States, and cooks more adept at roasting legs, braising shanks and even grilling and roasting single racks, the crown may seem an unnecessary, insurmountable indulgence.

On the other hand, think of the accolades if you can pull it off.

If your butcher has already prepared the racks for you to produce those pristine bones -- a technique called "frenching" -- you can be done with dinner in an hour, says Daniel Wecker, chef-owner of the Elkridge Furnace Inn, who frequently anchors his Easter feast at home with a crown roast.

But trimming the racks yourself saves money and requires only a sharp knife, a little know-how and a cutting board, says Greg Hare, chef instructor at Baltimore International College. "People think it's too hard, but it really isn't," he says.

The sacrificial spring lamb is, of course, a religious symbol at both Easter and Passover. For Christians, the crown roast also echoes Christ's crown of thorns.

"My sense is that the crown roast is almost mythological," said Donna Lynes-Miller, whose Atlanta company, GourmetStation, ships racks of lamb that can be ordered over the Internet (gourmet station.com) and tied into a crown. "It's a fantasy dish."

Whether you order the complete crown from your butcher (a few days in advance is best for holiday cooking) or do the work yourself, look for firm and fine-textured meat, the American Lamb Board says. Fat should be firm, white and well-trimmed. Several butchers and chefs said they preferred domestic meat rather than imported for a crown roast because chops tend to be larger.

If you'll be trimming the meat yourself, ask the butcher for a full hotel rack of lamb divided into two sections, with the chine bone removed. The hotel rack should cost about $13.99 a pound, compared with $26.99 a pound for a frenched rack, said Charles Hazard, meat manager at Eddie's of Roland Park. (Keep in mind, Hazard says, that the final difference in cost may be smaller than it sounds, because if you buy the untrimmed racks, you'll also be paying for the weight of the fat and meat you cut away.)

If you're tying your own crown, two racks of about eight chops each will probably form the best circle. If you're cooking for more than six to 10 people, consider constructing two crowns rather than tackling a large one.

Once the crown is formed, the lamb itself needs little enhancement -- a rubbing of olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper (Wecker likes white pepper) and perhaps a few slivers of garlic and a sprinkling of chopped fresh rosemary. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse slathers the meat with a blend of creole mustard, butter, onions, garlic and parsley.

It can be served with or without stuffing, which can be cooked in the center of the crown or in a separate casserole dish, then mounded into the crown just before serving. Hare likes a concoction of black olives, raisins, bread or croutons and marsala wine. Wecker often prepares a pilaf of farro (an Italian grain) or barley with chicken stock, pine nuts, golden raisins or sultanas and fresh thyme.

If you don't want to stuff the middle of your crown, you can use the Gourmet Cookbook's trick of filling the cavity with a ball of foil to help the roast keep its shape. (Wecker prefers to leave his crown cavity empty during roasting, so that the fat on the inside of the crown can cook off cleanly.)

An oven-safe meat thermometer is essential because cooking times can vary. Hare likes his crown roast medium-rare, so he takes it out of the oven between 125 degrees to 135 degrees. Make sure you insert the thermometer into the lamb itself, not the stuffing, the chef says. Keep a close eye on your crown, and be sure to let it rest at least 10 minutes out of the oven before serving; it will continue cooking during that time.

Because the crown roast is so spectacular, Wecker says, accompaniments can be simple. Along with his farro, he might prepare sugar snap peas with julienne carrot. Hazard likes prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears, lightly sauteed.

To drink, a robust red wine is in order. Wecker might open an Australian shiraz or a sangiovese "with a little bit of cabernet in it." Lynes-Miller goes for "something very bold."

And if you still cower in the face of the crown? You also can roast single frenched racks of lamb much the same way, with pan sauce, stuffing or mashed potatoes on the side. They won't look quite as dramatic before carving, but they should taste just as good.


Two more recipes for crown rack of lamb can be found at baltimoresun.com/taste.

Crown Roast of Lamb With Black Olive-and-Raisin Stuffing

Serves 6 to 10

1 hotel rack of lamb, 6 to 10 pounds, in two sections, or one frenched 4-pound crown rack with about 16 ribs (chine bone removed in either case)

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon garlic

1 loaf of bread, cubed and toasted, or 12-ounce box croutons

2 cups chopped black olives

1 cup raisins

2 tablespoons mixture of fresh mint, rosemary and sage (or 1 tablespoon dried)

2 cups marsala wine

Form the hotel rack into a crown according to diagram below. Place crown rack on a jellyroll pan that has been lightly coated with cooking spray. Rub crown with olive oil inside and out and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make stuffing, heat a saute pan over medium heat and add butter. Add celery, onion and garlic and cook until soft. In a bowl, combine bread cubes with olives, raisins, herbs and wine. Add vegetable mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pack stuffing into the center of the crown rack, using it to fill out and shape the crown. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into lamb (not stuffing); set the thermometer for 130 degrees to 135 degrees. Cook lamb to medium-rare or medium doneness, about 20 to 30 minutes or when thermometer reaches desired temperature. Let rest 10 to 15 minutes before carving. Pull off foil coverings, and cover bones with paper frills if desired.

Cut off string and pull out needles. Carve ribs between the bones. Spoon stuffing on the side.\

Courtesy of Baltimore International College chef instructor Greg Hare

Per serving (based on 10 servings): 452 calories, 28 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 611 milligrams sodium


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