Once again, I say the world is different currently. The holidays for me usually means a big buffet party after church services on Christmas Eve, and a smaller family and friends buffet brunch on Christmas morning. That isn’t going to happen this year. All the recipes I prepared last year and ideas I developed during most of this year aren’t practical. I haven’t completely figured out how I am going to celebrate this year, but as I thought through the new normal, it occurred to me that a smaller celebration – just one household, or maybe a few extra family members – it’s the perfect time to go all out with an elegant feast. Crack out the holiday china, silver, crystal and linen – fewer people mean fewer dishes to do! Dress up – an evening gown that didn’t get worn this year, the Christmas tie with no place to go. It may be small scale, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be grand.
As a centerpiece to this meal, I present Lamb Guards of Honor. This is an old-school presentation of tender, flavorful racks of lamb. It seems to me like something the butlers and footmen would carry in on massive silver trays to the damask lined dining room of a regal stately home or castle. Let’s imagine the Queen is having this for Christmas!
At this time of year, I readily find frenched racks of lamb. Frenched means the racks have been cleaned between the bones. Check ahead that they are available and ask a butcher if they need to be frenched. Mint sauce is the classic accompaniment for lamb, and I love my summertime mint dressing, which is so easy to make.
Lamb Guards of Honor with Hazelnut Mint Crust
- For the Lamb
1 cup hazelnuts
2 ounces rustic bread, like an artisan boule or baguette, to make 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 Tablespoons loosely packed mint leaves
Salt and pepper
¼ cup Dijon mustard
2 frenched lamb racks, about 8 bones each
Microgreens, watercress or arugula for serving
- For the Mint Sauce
3 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup firmly packed mint leaves
- For the Lamb
- Put the nuts in a small dry skillet and heat over medium heat until they are warmed through, about 3 minutes. Turn them out onto a clean tea towel, the fold the towel over the nuts and gently roll them around to remove the skins. They don’t have to be completely denuded, just as much as possible. Cool completely. Pick out the nuts and put them in the bowl of a food processor (a small one is fine). Pulse a few times to break up. Tear the bread into small pieces and add to the processor and pulse a few times. Tear the mint leaves and add, along with a generous pinch of salt and many grinds of black pepper. Pulse until you have an evenly combined crumb mixture.
- Pat the lamb racks dry with paper towels and place on a plate or tray. Evenly spread a generous layer of mustard over the back (flatter, bone side) of each rack. Press a generous even layer of bread crumb mixture on top of the mustard, pressing to adhere the crumbs to the mustard. At this point, you can cook immediately or keep the racks in the fridge for several hours before cooking. Take the lamb out of the fridge to come to room temperature before cooking.
- When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the lamb racks crust side up on the roasting rack. Don’t connect the bones, you will only do that for serving. Gently wrap the exposed bones with two sheets of foil to prevent burning. Roast for 10 minutes to start browning, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees to finish cooking. It should take 20 – 30 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees for rare or 135 degrees for medium rare. I highly recommend a probe thermometer that stays in the meat while it cooks. Remove the pan from the oven and cover the racks with foil. Let rest for 15 minutes. Remove the foil from the bones.
- The lamb is ready to be carved, but for the impressive guards of honor presentation, cover a plate or cutting board with microgreens and prop the lamb racks against each other, fitting the bones together like clasped fingers. Serve to oohs and ahhs, then lift to a carving board and carve between the bones to separate into lamb chops. Serve with the mint sauce.
- For the Mint Sauce
- While the lamb is cooking, place all the ingredients in the carafe of a blender and puree until smooth. Pour into a sauceboat or bowl, scraping the sides of the blender down to get out all of the mint.