My world of meat is complicated. So complicated that I have three stories for you: a story about my kick-ass butcher; a story about my wishy-washy meat purchases; and a story about a tender, braised lamb’s neck that will hopefully inspire you to find a kick-ass butcher of your own.
Though I hope you stick around for the whole story, please be warned that this post is about butchery and includes photos that may be upsetting to a non-meat eater.
My Kick-Ass Butcher
I want to buy good-quality meat from animals that have been raised and slaughtered responsibly. Meat that is fresh and never frozen. Meat that is sold to me by people who know what they are doing, who do their best to use up an entire animal, and who teach me to think beyond steaks, chops and roasts.
My convictions and my execution are a bit muddy—but more on that later.
I buy a good amount of meat from a butcher that matches, word for word, the description above. They are M.F. Dulock in Somerville, MA, and they are the coolest, hippest, and most knowledgable butchers I have ever met. Their cookbook collection and their artful butchery are always on full display, as are their playlists. Some days there’s Prince, others, the Jackson Five, and sometimes even Bruce Springsteen makes an appearance.
Their meats are raised locally and their butcher case has everything from chops and roasts to heads, feet and offal. There are cuts you might never have heard of, and—on some occasions—beautifully crafted roses, formed from paper-thin shavings of pork fatback.
M.F. Dulock is 2 miles away from my house, which in city life equates to 3 subway stops and a bus; a solid 35-minute walk (unless I stop for donuts); or a 15-minute drive, followed by a quest for street parking. I’m willing to make the trek most of the time, because they’re great people, their meat is fantastic, and because they don’t even own a freezer in their shop. This means that I can depend on fresh meat that is well cared for.
At the risk of coming off like a starstruck fan, I asked the owner, Mike, if I could observe the process of breaking down an animal. We decided on lamb, since it’s a smaller and more manageable process for an afternoon visit. I would be observing Aaron. I was excited for this opportunity, because M.F. Dulock is the main reason why I’m able to put fresh, local lamb on my table without having to use Christmas or Easter as an excuse.
I have to admit that when I first saw Aaron carry the lamb over his shoulder and prop it on the counter, I was a bit uneasy. It’s a big deal to stare a dead, skinless animal in the face, and that’s probably because we now live in a world where meat is most recognizable as an array of round and pointed shapes, configured neatly on a styrofoam tray. A tray, which—as much as I preach against it—still ends up in my refrigerator from time to time. But again, more on that later.
So I stared at this lamb. And I told myself that this was a good thing—to watch an animal that once lived and grazed, become meat. I watched neck, shoulders and ribs become isolated cuts—some by hand, and some on the nearby bandsaw. I watched Aaron make tiny lamb-sized versions of what we know as flap and hanger steaks. They were an adorable way of educating me that lambs are a lot smaller than cows. A lot.
I watched Aaron collect little piles of scraps. One pile for the tiny pieces that would eventually end up in M.F. Dulock’s house-made merguez sausage, and another for the tough sinew that could neither be eaten, nor mashed through the grinder. It was an incredibly small pile and I was amazed that of an entire lamb, such a tiny pile was rendered unusable. I was thankful and honored to be an observer of this process, and I walked away with an even bigger appreciation for the farmers, butchers, and animals that allow me to braise a lamb neck in the first place.
My Wishy-Washy Meat Purchases
But as I mentioned before. Things are muddy. Sometimes I get really busy. And if I get the urge to make burgers on a weeknight, the thought of a 30-to-60-minute round trip is enough to break down my convictions, forget that lamb who stared me in the face, and buy a pound of ground beef from the Whole Foods around the corner. I buy the 85/15 lean meat with an animal welfare rating of 1, because it’s fattier, cheaper and more flavorful than the local, 90/10 grass-fed meat (welfare rating of 4) to its left.
I don’t love that convenience and the thought of saving a couple dollars per pound dissuade me so easily from either (1) skipping the burger altogether or (2) making the trek for a local, humanely raised and slaughtered burger. But I’m not always that strong.
Being a meat eater is a lot of work—physically, morally and financially. It would be a lot easier if humanely raised and slaughtered meat were both affordable and accessible—if it were the norm. But the unfortunate truth is that good meat can be so expensive and hard to find—that a lot of people don’t even have the privilege of being wishy-washy with their meat purchases.
So whenever I am able, I try my best to thank my kick-ass butchers—along with the farmers and animals who make their work possible—by stretching my meat purchases into as many meals as possible. To me, this means using a cut of meat that requires a little extra love and coaxing. This way I’m left with meat, broth, bones and fat for days (and sometimes, weeks) ahead—which is more than I can say for that burger I obsess about!
My Braised Lamb Neck
Since lamb neck was the first cut of meat I ever bought from M.F. Dulock—and because we’ve now all shared the visual experience of breaking down a lamb—I thought it’d be nice to share this braise with you.
All it takes is a lamb neck, a few herbs and spices tied in cheesecloth, some water, and some dry white wine. After a few hours of a soft, gentle braise, the collagen in the neck breaks down, releasing tender and succulent meat that falls right off the bone.
The herbs, water and wine meld with the meaty juices of the lamb neck, into a savory broth for a ribbony pasta dish with frozen sweet peas, fresh parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and black pepper.
Later in the week, I’ll stretch my lamb—and my dollars—by throwing the bones and some water into the crockpot for about 12-18 hours for a simple, rich stock that needs almost no supervision. I’ll use the stock to make beans, rice, chili, soup—whatever I can think of—and soon my lamb neck will have provided a week’s worth of dinners.
And let’s not forget the fat that renders while you’re braising the lamb neck. It’s delicious for roasting potatoes, sautéing greens, and just about any ingredient you’d ever want to cook in a frying pan or your oven.
But before I get carried away, let’s get to the recipe. And if you have a kick-ass butcher who inspires your kitchen, please share your story in the comments below!
This lamb neck is very much a “set-it-and-forget-it” recipe. Store and reheat the tender meat and its juices together to keep the meat moist and flavorful. Once you’ve had your fill of pasta, serve the meat in tacos, sandwiches, salads, or alongside rice and beans.
Braised Lamb Neck:
2 – 3-lb lamb neck
3 cups water
1 cup dry white wine
5-6 sprigs parsley
1 large clove garlic, whole and unpeeled
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp whole coriander seeds
1/4 tsp dry thyme
1/8 tsp whole peppercorns
1/2 bay leaf
Pasta with Lamb Neck & Peas (for one serving):
2 oz dry, long pasta (pappardelle or fettuccine work best)
3-4 oz braised lamb neck meat, shredded
1/2 cup braised lamb neck broth
1/3 cup frozen peas
1 1/2 tbsp grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 1/2 tbsp minced parsley
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt, for the boiling water
Braised Lamb Neck:
Dutch oven with lid
For the Lamb Neck:
Preheat oven to 300°.
Cut and fold a small piece of cheesecloth into a 4 – 5-inch square that is at least 2-plies thick.
Assemble the herb bouquet by layering the parsley, garlic clove, coriander, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf over the square of cheesecloth. Gather the edges of the cheesecloth to form a bundle and secure it by tying a knot with the kitchen twine.
In a large Dutch oven, combine the lamb neck, water, wine, salt and herb bouquet. Cover with the lid, and braise for 3 1/2 – 4 hours, or until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.
Remove the Dutch oven from the oven, remove the lid, and allow the lamb neck to cool in its broth for about 30 minutes.
Remove and shred the meat from the bones. Set the bones aside for stock and return the meat it to its broth.
A considerable amount of fat will have rendered during braising, which can be separated from the broth most easily using a fat separator, or by refrigerating the liquid. The fat will settle and solidify on top, making it easy to scrape off and save in a separate container for frying and roasting.
Store any leftover meat in its broth and reheat gently when ready to use. The broth will become gelatinous when chilled due to the high amount of collagen in the lamb neck.
For the Pasta:
Boil the pasta in salted water until the pasta is within about 3 minutes of al dente. Add the peas to the boiling water, and boil together for another 2 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water in a nearby measuring cup.
Strain the pasta and peas, and combine in a small frying pan with the braised lamb neck broth. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the broth has thickened and the pasta is al dente. Add the reserved pasta water, as needed to keep the pasta from drying out or sticking to the pan.
Remove the pan from the heat, and fold in the shredded lamb neck meat, along with half of the cheese, parsley and pepper. Transfer the pasta to a plate, or leave it right in the pan, if you’d prefer to cut down on dishes. Garnish with the remaining cheese, parsley and pepper, and eat immediately.
For the Stock:
Place the lamb neck bones, along with 4-5 quarts of water in a crockpot. Cook the stock on low for 12-18 hours, checking the water levels occasionally. The bones will appear “dry” and falling apart when the stock is done. Strain the stock and save it for beans, rice, grains, chilis and soups. Freeze the stock if you don’t plan on using it right away.