The crown roast of lamb, those delicate chops capped with signature little white paper toques, makes an arresting centerpiece for any holiday table. But keep the guest list short. Alas, while the dish delivers exquisite flavor, it does not yield trenchermen's portions.
"Crown roast rack certainly makes a presentation," declares Terrance Brennan, chef-proprietor of Manhattan restaurants Picholine and Artisanal, specifying that the lamb be grass-fed and dark pink before cooking. While many top chefs choose Australian lambs for those qualities, he has discovered them as close to home as the Keystone State.
On the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Jamison Farm raises Dorset Cross sheep on local grasses. Proprietor John Jamison explains that when lambs are fed corn—as they are in commercial feedlots—they become oversized and the corn permeates their fat, making for greasy meat.
Jamison and his wife, Sukey, raise their flock on bluegrass, which the lambs graze down to the white clover beneath. While USDA regulations specify lambs as under one year old, Jamison Farm typically harvests animals at three to eight months. "We dry-age and custom-cut crown racks," says Sukey. "The rack is cut from right behind the front legs and shoulder." Since the lambs from Jamison Farm are so much smaller than the feedlot variety, it takes three racks to make the classic crown-shaped roast, rather than the two called for in many cookbooks.
Brennan advises cooks (whose butchers haven't already sewn the racks into a crown) to marinate the flat lamb racks for up to 24 hours in a mixture of olive oil, sliced lemon, fresh rosemary, thyme and crushed garlic. No salt. To achieve that classic shape, he instructs: "Tie butcher's twine around the base of the bones and through the meat, stand it up, bend it around and place snug against the sides of the roasting pan with the concave sides of the ribs out." Chef's tip: reinforce the round crown with a few potatoes at the base. Roast until the interior of the meat registers 125 degrees Fahrenheit. His surprise ingredient: bits of anchovy placed into the meat for extra flavor.
Sukey Jamison recommends stuffing the center of a crown with previously cooked ground lamb, couscous or rice.
Brennan, whose restaurant menus prominently feature cheese, proposes following the crown roast with a two-month-old Valencay from central France. That's goat cheese after lamb. Naturally.
Visit picholinenyc.com, artisanalbistro.com and jamisonfarm.com (800-237-5262).