I’m still basking in the glow of a beautiful 4th of July. I was invited back this year to a picnic given by friends who own a ranch in the achingly-beautiful East Rosebud River Valley. It’s actually Poppy and Esmé who earned me the invitation. A great dog pack forms up and runs about throughout the day. Second in importance are the exquisite music and abundant food people bring to share. Making the cut and earning a return invitation is a big deal; people have been uninvited on the basis of dogs who needed to rule the pack, not join it.
Charlie and Carol put up a great big canopy to shade everyone from sun that can fall like a hammer. Carol has a gorgeous collection of tablecloths with which she randomly and artistically drapes tables to be laden with fantastic food. Over a period of hours, we grazed on bison burgers, beans, salads and a groaning board of desserts – handmade pies, deeply dark brownies, cookies studded with cranberries and pecans, and even homemade ice cream.
The bluegrass band, Prairie Grass, plays all afternoon long. One of my favorite Montana artists, Neil Jussila, plays with them. I’d give one of my dogs (well, an arm maybe) to be able to afford one of his paintings; in the meantime, I’m flattered to be among company listening to his sweet harmonica.
This year’s picnic was blessed with approaching thunderstorms whose clouds and breezes cooled things considerably. My one goal for the day was to sit still, eat lots of good food, listen to wonderful music, and gaze out over fields still brilliantly green from late season rains, as swallows vacuumed bugs out of the air. I was so content that I nearly dozed off (and did on the drive home; fortunately I was not driving). But I roused myself for just one more slice of that peach pie.
I’m finally beginning to feel hungry again. A lamb chop was on its way to being last evening’s dinner when a thunderstorm blew in – literally – and pounded us with welcome rain. This chop is just too precious to be cooked in a skillet, even carefully, so I held onto it until tonight, which is looking to be dry.
On a ranch that sits at the base of the stunningly beautiful Crazy Mountains, Harv VanWagoner raises the finest lamb I have ever tasted. Ever. Finest. Absolute best. His is the only leg, or rack or chop I will eat. Even if it means a round-trip of about 150 miles to buy it straight from the source, it’s a gorgeous drive. So when I discovered this treasure in the freezer, it was as good as striking gold.
Lamb needs to be treated carefully. Good lamb needs to handled with reverence. Don’t do a lot to it. Above all, don’t overcook it.
1 chop per person
Salt and pepper
I love quinoa for all its healthful properties. I especially love rainbow quinoa for its bright colors.
Mint and lamb have a lovely affinity for each other, as do mint and peas.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) sugar peas
Greens of 2 scallions, 1/4″ slices
2 teaspoons minced fresh mint
2 teaspoons minced Italian parsley
2 to 3 ounces olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
- Build your fire or light your grill. While either is burning down or warming up, set the chop on a plate. Salt it on both sides (read about how and why here), drape a piece of plastic over it and let it sit at room temperature until your fire is ready.
- At the same time, prepare the quinoa. First rinse it in a sieve held under cold running water. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, then add the quinoa. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Simmer gently for 12 to 14 minutes. Like any grain, if it is overcooked, it will turn mushy. Cook it just until the “thread” appears. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and check the quinoa often after that. When done, set the pot off the heat and remove the lid. If there is some water remaining in the pot, not to worry; much better to pour the quinoa through a strainer than to overcook it for the sake of boiling off the water. Turn the quinoa out into a bowl and fluff it with a fork every now and then as it cools. You won’t serve it cold, but rather at room temperature so as to leave the mint, parsley, and scallion flavors bright.
- You may certainly use frozen peas here (thaw them first, of course), but if you are fortunate enough to be able to get your hands on some fresh ones, do it! Pop them out of their shells and blanch them by dropping them into boiling water (use the same pot in which you cooked the quinoa) for 3 to 4 minutes, then use a slotted spoon or a spider to lift them straight into a bowl of ice water. Once cool, drain them through a colander and add them to the quinoa.
- Slice the scallions, mince the mint and parsley, and add them to the quinoa and peas. Add just enough olive oil to give the mixture some substance. Squeeze the lemon over the top and toss everything together to let the flavors blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Before grilling the chop, season both sides with fresh ground pepper. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees. Scatter the coals out into an even layer and set the grate in place to heat up (any meat will be less liable to stick if the grate is hot – same principal as heating a pan on the stove before cooking anything in it). Set the chop on the grate. Leave the lid open; you want to grill it, not roast it. Sear on each side for about 5 to 6 minutes. When time is up, remove the chop to a clean plate and move it to the oven for about 7 or 8 minutes. Take its temperature at the center; it should read no more than 125 for medium-rare. Remove it from the oven, and drape a kitchen towel over it. Let it rest for 5 minutes so that juices squeezed out of cells by the stress of cooking, even gentle cooking, can reinflate cells and render unto you a perfectly juicy, tender chop.
- Mound some quinoa on a plate and set the chop atop it. Light your favorite candle and open a current book. Settle in for a quiet summer’s eve.