From Robert Farrar Capon’s “The Supper of the Lamb”

1 L / 8 X 4 V: Night IV report, aka “Original Thinking Is Lonely”

“Original Thinking Is Lonely.” That’s what the message board on the Baptist church here in Truth or Consequences, NM, says. Hideous, no?

I really don’t think Robert Farrar Capon would approve. But he would love me!

Night IV of the lamb was all about original thinking, as in: Uh, wait, Tamara and Karl are here already? And we don’t have any barley? Or turnips? Oh well.

The base recipe is Lamb Soup with Barley, which he says is sort of like a Scotch broth. Never having made or tasted a Scotch broth (does it go with martinis to make a perfect diet?), I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not making it. Capon suggests a different option–a little chickpeas, some pasta, some garlic, some tomatoes…and then you’ve got something sort of resembling minestrone. Scotch-flavored minestrone.

Anyway, that’s the route I opted for. And then I saw we didn’t have any canned tomatoes in our larder/bathroom (it looks very survivalist in there, with all the canned goods stashed under the towels). So there was this tube of tomato paste that I squeezed in. And we didn’t have any chunky pasta, so I just broke up some fettucine. And we had some cabbage left over from the fried rice the night before, so I put some of that in. Voila-ish.

And you’d be surprised how much meat was still left on that leg of lamb. I’d been hacking very generously the previous three nights, and there was still substantial chunks floating around in every serving of soup.

I also whipped up a little parsley and garlic pesto/pistou to dab on top, and grated some random hard Greek cheese that was sitting in the back of the cheese drawer, and, hey, look, those bread ends have been sitting around since Night II–croutons!

So we ate the soup, and it was good and very, very filling. (It helped that Tamara had cooked up some artichokes beforehand, and I made a teensy-tinesy salad out of leftover radishes, mushrooms and scallions–I think we used everything in the vegetable bin that night, except for the Thai chilis.)

Everyone was tucking in enthusiastically, but I had a brief moment of lamb overload on my first bite. I pushed through.

To be clear, Capon doesn’t suggest you eat all this lamb four nights in a row. He envisions the soup as something you make and freeze for later–you serve it the same day “only in desperation.” Desperation like your friends are coming over, and you’ve only just changed out of your bathrobe, and there’s nothing else to eat–I can relate.

Although I did not at all hew closely to the last recipe, I do feel like I was working in the spirit of it. I respect Capon more than ever because he led me from rigorous browning and stewing and formal technique to random freeform soup that I pulled out of relative thin air. That’s original thinking, and if those Baptists don’t like it, well, I’ve got a book they need to read.

Previously in the series:
Live coverage: Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times
1L/8X4: The Prologue
1L/8X4: Prep for Night 1
1L/8X4 II(a): Night I Report
1L/8X4 II(b): The Freakin’ Spaetzle
1L/8X4 III: Night II Report
1L/8X4 IV: Night III Report

1 L / 8 X 4 IV: Night III report

This is getting just a little dull because everything went so swimmingly. Night 3 was the night of the Lamb Fried Rice, again using a portion of the already-braised lamb.

Night II’s Lamb-Spinach Casserole (with mayonnaise) is pretty damn Sixties, but something about Lamb Fried Rice is equally throwback. As Peter said, “It’s like eating at Dragon Cantonese on Highway 86,” and for all I know he was referring to a real place from his childhood, but it sounds so archetypal that it doesn’t really matter.

To his credit, Capon does use this recipe as the jumping-off point for nearly eight pages of detail on the art of stir-frying with the proper Chinese technique, as well as where and how to buy a wok (which is italicized, like a foreign word, which is kind of cute). He dispenses such wisdom as “When the dish looks good, it is good” (w/r/t vegetable doneness) and that “if someone comes along and tells you cleanliness is next to godliness, the proper answer is, ‘Yes–next. Right now I’m working on godliness.’” (w/r/t not scrubbing down iron cookware).

He develops this latter theme nicely, suggesting that you can loosen up your family on the cleanliness issue by “accustom[ing] them to a little harmess but definite untidiness in their food. An occasional burned paper match dropped into the gravy will help them relax a bit….A sense of proportion is a saving grace.”

So with this lax attitude, I took a closer look at the recipe, but immediately got all uptight again. I hadn’t realized what preconceptions I had about fried rice. “What, no garlic?” said Peter. “Of course no garlic!” I gasped. Some weird animal part of my brain that hardened at age 10 says no garlic in fried rice. I refused to let Peter tinker, even though he’d been granted cooking rights because stir-frying is his specialty. He got to make some green beans for the side dish, and they were all garlicky, gingery, Sichuan-peppery–all the pent-up flavor that was stymied by retro-bland fried rice.

But, y’know, it wasn’t all that bad. It did make me a little nostalgic. Though to be my childhood fried rice, there should’ve been more egg (the recipe called for three eggs, for more than three cups of rice), and bean sprouts. Actually, as you’ll see from the original ingredients, bean sprouts are an option “if you have money to burn.” Three decades of Chinese American entrepreneurship has brought the cost of bean sprouts down to the average consumer, apparently, but my corner guy doesn’t have them. I suppose I could’ve gotten canned ones, as suggested in the more detailed recipe on p. 135, but even I have my limits for retro kitsch.

Although I wouldn’t let Peter augment the base recipe (just onions, shredded cabbage, eggs, a drop or two of sherry, cooked rice, the lamb, and soy sauce), we did spice it up with a side of that sweet-hot gooey Korean chili paste–an excellent addition for modern tastes.

We fed four people, rather than eight, but had scads of leftovers, and I hadn’t even used the full complement of rice. Nor did I rely on the plate-of-lettuce trick to fill people up, or dropped any foreign objects in the food to discourage their appetites. And somehow, this preparation was different enough that I wasn’t sick of lamb…yet.

Next post in the series:
1L/8X4 V: Night IV Report, aka “Original Thinking Is Lonely”

Previously in the series:
Live coverage: Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times
1L/8X4: The Prologue
1L/8X4: Prep for Night 1
1L/8X4 II(a): Night I Report
1L/8X4 II(b): The Freakin’ Spaetzle
1L/8X4 III: Night II Report
1L/8X4 IV: Night III Report

1 L / 8 X 4 III: Night II report

Did I say live coverage? Well, when I say “live” I mean with a two-day delay… Not to ruin the ending, but as of Sunday, April 23, 2006 at midnight, the Supper of the Lamb was complete, and completely successful.

But let’s roll back the clock to Friday night: We took a little less than half of the meat that was left on the braised leg of lamb (did I mention the braised leg? Back on Night I, while I was doing the mushroom-wine stew on the stovetop, the whole rest of the leg, bone and all, went in a big pot in the oven with some wine and thyme, then into the fridge) and cut it into pieces to use in a spinach casserole.

The recipe said one pound of lamb, but because I actually had a full eight people to feed that night, I got a little nervous and threw in an extra quarter pound. We certainly had enough to go around, and one person even had seconds.

This spinach casserole recipe was interesting for two reasons. First, the text after says, “Any expert on the subject will quickly recognize it (minus the lamb and, of course, the side order of bread) as a low-carbohydrate spinach thing straight out of one of those drinking-man’s diets.”

OK, so my dad and his girlfriend claim there was knowledge of the evils of carbohydrates way back when, before everyone got obsessed with fat, but I’d never read anything to corroborate that before.

And then, what the hell is a “drinking-man’s diet”? Well, thank you, Google: it was a real diet plan, published in 1964. Wow, one more thing I missed by being born too late.

Capon somehow brings all that around with a short lecture on the merits of having not quite enough food: “It does a family good to see a meal wiped out completely before surfeit has destroyed enthusiasm. One of the commonest graces prays that we may be mindful of the needs of others. But faith without works is dead. An occasional entree in short supply puts a few more teeth into the prayer.”

And it turns out this “puts teeth in the prayer” business is, or was, an established phrase–one of our guests said her grandmother used to say it. I think I’ll practice saying it, so by the time I get old it’ll just roll right off the tongue.

Oh, but back to the second intriguing thing about the recipe. It had a secret, soooo-Sixties ingredient. We had a brief bout of guessing, but the answer was never officially revealed. For those who were still curious:

Mayonnaise.

That, combined with a little cheese, a fair amount of butter, a ton of cooked spinach, and the shredded lamb–well, we didn’t really need those extra teeth at all. Slid right down the gullet. Amen, again.

Next posts in the series:
1L/8X4 IV: Night III Report
1L/8X4 V: Night IV Report, aka “Original Thinking Is Lonely”

Previously in the series:
Live coverage: Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times
1L/8X4: The Prologue
1L/8X4: Prep for Night 1
1L/8X4 II(a): Night I Report
1L/8X4 II(b): The Freakin’ Spaetzle

1 L / 8 X 4 II (b): The freakin’ spaetzle

This stuff is a mess. I see why there are dedicated spaetzle makers. You really can’t just rig up something like, say, a slotted spoon or a Mouli grater. Capon loves spaetzle, and suggests it’s much easier to make than noodles. It’s so not.

Spaetzle is apparently German for “little sparrows” or something. I managed to make two-thirds little sparrows, and then, when my arm got tired from squishing the gluey batter through the bottom of our steamer pot, a whole bunch of giant condors–just big globs of dough hurled impatiently into the pot.

The bird blobs were pretty good, though–they had a lot of butter on them. I kind of wish I hadn’t made them, and had stuck with the most austere starch option that Capon gave: toast.

Next posts in the series:
1L/8X4 III: Night II Report
1L/8X4 IV: Night III Report
1L/8X4 V: Night IV Report, aka “Original Thinking Is Lonely”

Previously in the series:
Live coverage: Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times
1L/8X4: The Prologue
1L/8X4: Prep for Night 1
1L/8X4 II(a): Night I Report