For Thursday Night Kitchen Supper last week, I wanted to cook a rack of lamb. The Australians get a little loopy over a lamb (If I haven't mentioned it before, David is Australian) and I thought it would be fun, so I took two sleeping children to the neighborhood butcher, Oppenheimers. The store is an Upper West Side institution and feels magnificently old school, like supermarkets and malls haven't been invented yet. This is where I have my butcher fetish. Let me explain...
I love the idea of shopping for our food everyday like the Parisians do and picking my meat out of a beautiful case of fresh beef and pork and veal. I love any store where they feel self-righteous enough to charge you top dollar for the stuff they scrape off the slaughterhouse floor. Offal anyone?
I like meat that isn't wrapped in plastic wrap and plopped onto styrofoam. It's so impersonal. I prefer my meat wrapped in thick brown paper and tied with string. I feel special at the butcher shop, like someone is picking a piece of meat out especially for me. The butcher might be thinking, "Kim's a good person. She deserves a special cut of meat - Forget the blade roast. I'll get her a little tenderloin...My wife will never know."
I like making small talk with the butcher, jawing about what selections he has in on any given day. I love the guessing game - when you ask for the meat and then, wonder how much the price will be. Will it be $10 or $29? I love being involved in the process, watching the butcher hoist a slab onto the scale, his masculine blood-stained, lab coat shifting just slightly, his hands coated in entrails holding a massive cleaver. It feels like I am a little closer to the farm and by extension, the whole cycle of life.
And this is what I like about Oppenheimer - The guy who owns this shop is Robert Pence. He's this big, brooding, balding guy. Nice enough-looking, but in a rough, I-could-knife-you-in-the-freezer-if-I-wanted-to kind of way. Bob is the kind of guy that will make you feel like crap about how you prepared the red snapper, but if you are lying in the gutter bleeding, he'll cover you with his coat and give you CPR. He's tough, but he's still a gentleman.
Bob is also a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, so he knows food. If you bring him a recipe, or tell him what you are making for your dinner party, he'll give you some pointers - like why you should oil the fish not the pan and how salting the cast iron skillet makes for better burgers. All stuff you need to know...
Bob has done some favors for me over the years - Like when I wanted to make Lidia Bastianich's "Involtini di Vitello" (which sounds much more exotic than Stuffed Rolls of Veal)for a dinner party and didn't want to pay a squillion dollars for the veal, he subbed out the meat, giving me a less expensive cut of veal that still turned out scrumptious.
Bob is a veritable treasue trove of meat tricks, but he always tells you in this way that makes you feel scolded. "You can't have the oven that high!" or "Cook it fat side down for 2 minutes but anymore and you'll ruin the whole thing!". And then, he slides on to the next customer as if you were a mere peasant and he had better things to do. Years ago, when I had a dog, I used to buy his hand-made dog food, until I told him it was the only food my little darling would eat and he tripled the price on me.
Okay, so he's shady or at the very least, a raging capitalist, good for him, but his meat is always lovely and his cooking advice is right on. So, I went to him with my recipe for Roast Rack of Lamb. I said, "I'd like a two pound rack of lamb, please...but I don't want to pay an arm and a leg because this is a very informal dinner." Bob furrowed his brow. Apparently, the "arm and a leg" part threw him. "Yeah, I can't do that...a rack of lamb that size will run you $80 bucks."
Lucy rolled over in her stroller. I thought I felt my heart stop beating. The sausage racks started spinning. I could have Jean-Georges Vongerichten prepare the lamb and drizzle liquid gold over it for less than that. But I didn't want to sound cheap, so I said casually, "Well, I wasn't planning on doing anything that fancy tonight, let's save that for another dinner party."
But what I was thinking is that if I bought an $80 rack of lamb that would feed four people, I would end up saying things to Lucy like, "Honey, see that piece of meat you spit out on the floor, well that cost Mommy and Daddy 11 dollars and 42 cents...Now, wipe the cat hair off and put it back in your mouth." Or if one of our guests left a hunk of lamb on their plates, I might wind up saying, "Now, you didn't mean to leave that there, did you?"
Bob gave me a nice alternative though. He handed me a lovely mound of pork, which felt a little down market considering our exchange, but came out great after I stuffed it with olives, capers, tomatoes and Provola and drenched it in garlic and olive oil. Dinner turned out great, but everytime I walk into Oppenheimer's these days, I grumble a little under my breath and pine away for the lamb.