Molasses Cookies and a Lamb's Heart: a Reflection and a Sweet Treat
Before settling into real work this morning at the restaurant, I made a fresh batch of molasses-chocolate chip cookies for my co-workers, who couldn’t pronounce “chocolate chip cookies” if their lives had depended on it.
Then I put a skinned lamb on a cutting board and chopped its head off with a hatchet. It took two of three strikes to get through, and I’ll admit that I let out a stifled scream with the first blow. Skinning a deer outside in a south Georgia winter is one thing, but being handed a small young lamb and knowing that no one is going to deal with it for you is another matter entirely. By the end of the process my hands were splattered with lamb’s blood, and I mean that literally, not in the biblical sense that people love to wax poetic about.
The lamb was brought to the kitchen by one of the countless purveyors that pass through every day, and it came from the slaughterhouse in a clear plastic bag with another small bag secured around the head with a rubber band (to catch all the blood, natch). Eyes, teeth, tongue: it’s all there. The chef, Fede, called me over after the chocolate chip cookies went into the oven and told me he wanted me to learn to break down a lamb. Um, ok.
It comes with the skin and feet removed, as well as the stomach, intestines, and other lower innards. (Please, feel free to stop reading here, I’m not going to spare details.) The caul fat - that lovely protein web that holds all those guts together - is removed and put in the bag with the lamb, since it’s used in a variety of culinary applications. The rest is there, ready and waiting. After gathering together a hatchet, a boning knife, a metal skewer, and a cuchillo pescadero, I reached for a small plastic bucket which I assumed I would need for the other guts…”Tsk tsk tsk, Katareeen, no tiramos nada” (Katharine, we don’t throw any of it away).
After the traumatic head-chop, I had to turn the lamb on its back and cut from the bottom of the rib cage straight up through the sternum to the throat, cutting through bone and cartilage surprisingly easily (easily because its bones aren’t yet fully formed). All of the cardiovascular and some ‘filter’ organs are there, neatly divided and ranging from light pink to deep brownish-red. First comes the liver, floppy and split in several places; then the kidneys, firm and partially covered with thick pinkish-white fat; and above those, the diaphragm that stretches from one side to the other. The organs inside the ribcage are hard to get to, even with the sternum split down the middle. Using one hand to hold the ribs apart, I had to use the other to pull everything out, using my terrifically short nails to cut through various membranes and attachments. The lungs are soft and bright pink and feel like smooth sponges. The trachea looks like one of those whirly tube noisemakers that you swing around in circles. The heart, well, it looks just like you think it will. I’d accidentally cut part of it with my knife, and could thus see the insides of it, chambers and all. It was smaller than a lemon and just made me so sad. A Nicaraguan cook assured me it’s delicious on the grill with a little salt.
The next step was a two-person job. The chef held up the two back legs with the back of the lamb facing him. After cutting off the tail, I had to insert a metal skewer into the spinal column and using it as a guide, split the lamb straight down the spine with a knife. Ever wonder how your rack of lamb looks so perfectly even?..well… Off came the front shoulders, then the hind legs, and finally the ribs that I separated three-by-three. I was asked to put the head and the organs in a pan and save them for tomorrow…for our lunch tomorrow, more precisely. The rest of the lamb will be braised and delicious. I’m going to suppose that most people who will eat said lamb don’t want to think about what it looked like a few hours before, just like I don’t want to think about what it looked like a few hours before it came to the restaurant (note to self: DO NOT Google “cute baby lamb”).
Grilling a piece of meat is one thing. Breaking down a large piece of meat-and-bones is another (ok, splitting ribs with a hatchet: so fun). I’ve been taking increasingly large steps backwards towards the source since I’ve been at this restaurant: cutting off heads and feet of quail and chickens; removing organs and cutting the head off a lamb; some fairly serious butchery on quarters and halves of cows. There’s no pre-packaged business here. Buying meat in a grocery store, or even in a butcher shop, is so many steps removed from the actual dirty work, and even what I’ve been learning recently is far removed from actually killing the animals. The chef’s brother raises chickens, and if I’m still at the restaurant (I’ll be there until April) when there’s another chicken-killing day, I’m invited, under the condition that I participate in the killing-defeathering-gutting process. These things aren’t necessary to be able to cook, but I think they’re important: in dealing with the entrails and the head and the heart and learning to separate muscles from tendons from ligaments from bones, I’m gaining a greater appreciation for the processes that bring food to my plate. I doubt that I’ll ever kill a lamb or goat or cow (nor do I want to), but I have to realize that someone did, for each and every one of them (for the record, the meat and poultry used in this particular restaurant is nearly all locally and ecologically raised. The chef has a great affinity for meat, but also for the animals’ welfare. Ok in my book). It’s messy and bloody and really, really cool and sometimes a little gross and it occasionally makes me a little sad and queasy, but I feel good about what I’m learning.
I don’t like the look of them, what with their freakish “wings” and huge bulging eyes; their swimming in one direction and lunging in the other to attack; their color-changing skin and whippy tentacles; their ridiculous attitude that makes them, oh, attack whales. Their ways of communicating with each other are sneaky and scary—I’m actually afraid that if I go swimming in squid-territory, they’ll know that I’ve eaten some of their kin…they’lljust know. Humbolt squid in the Sea of Cortez have RINGS OF RAZOR-SHARP TEETH on each and every suction cup on each and every tentacle and colossal squid can reach up to FORTY-THREE feet. Not cool, man.
What pleasure, then, when I arrived here more than two years ago and have faced looking at squid in some form at nearly every single restaurant and bar on a nearly daily basis. Battered and fried rings, squid sandwiches, squid ink in nearly every possible rice-pasta-cracker manifestation, teeny-tiny popcorn-sized whole txopitos that are crunchy and so delicious (and the only acceptable form of consumption, as far as I’m concerned, as one serving contains many, many entire squid, thereby aiding in their population reduction). I don’t particularly like the texture, with its rubbery, gummy, why-won’t-this-break-when-I-bite-it sensation, and the flavor is just “eh” at best (squid ink, however, is a joy and a blessing and its proteins help to make the most luxuriously silky and stretchy pasta dough).
Until recently, I’d thus far managed to limit my squid-in-the-kitchen exposure to two scenarios: in a restaurant here last year, every Friday I was presented with boxes of white, sterile-looking frozen squid tubes (that is, the bodies) that I then thawed and sliced into unthreatening rings; and in the Georgian Room last summer there was a tasting menu dish that called for small, risotto-stuffed squid tubes and tempura-fried tentacles. The squid blessedly arrived clean and neatly arranged in plastic containers and physical contact was limited to rinsing and sorting (although, the purple-hued blanching water with its rising foam and squidy stench was enough to make even the boys think twice about lending a hand).
You can imagine my joy yesterday, then, when I was schooled in the art of cleaning squid. A very popular dish here is txipirones en su tinta, which is squid parts simmered for a loooong time in a sauce made primarily from onions, garlic, and a generous heap of ink. Fishing for squid is a popular Basque tradition, and customers here pay top dollar for the privilege of feasting upon those wretched little cephalopods. That is to say, if I’m planning to stick around here for a while, I’d better get used to their presence.
To begin: I put the entire frozen mass of about seventy or eighty squid in a pan under a running faucet to set them free in a pool of tap water. (A note: this week has brought freezing temperatures to San Sebastian, and the restaurant kitchen is open to the back courtyard. Snow was falling inside the kitchen and we were attempting to skin barely-thawed squid.) Each squid body is about six inches long, and the tentacles, eyes, and “other” just kind of dangle helplessly. First, I had to pinch the squid in front of its eyes (which sometimes popped) and pull the entire, um, organ cluster(?), head, and tentacles away from the body and toss the whole mess back into the pan. From there, I had to peel off the skin and throw it away. Imagine Saran Wrap that’s purplish with minuscule polka dots and you’ll know what squid skin is like. Tear off the wings, turn the tube inside out and scrape off any remaining guts, remove the transparent and plastic-looking feather, turn the tube right-side-out, and save it along with the wings.
Now the gross part: the tentacles need to be separated from the rest of the stuff, which looks like a mix between snot and wet cotton plus two gigantic eyes. You have to pinch behind the eyes this time and pull them, along with the soggy-cotton guts, away from the tentacles. Throw it away fast enough and you’ll thwart the inevitable gag reflex. Flip the tentacles over and separate them out so you can see the center. Carefully remove the fierce and angry-looking beak. Yes, squid have beaks. They will tear you up and then not spit you out, those evil SOB’s.
After this trauma, I took great pleasure in slicing them all up into harmless bite-sized pieces and spreading them out on smoking-hot sauté pans. Into the sauce they went to stew away for a couple of hours before being served up to grateful customers who had no idea what I’d just suffered.