Roast Rack of Lamb with Pumpkin Salad & Hazelnut Capsicum Pesto

Early on in my career I somehow managed to get a job at Logan Brown. I was about two years into working in restaurants and am rather ashamed to admit that I thought I was actually quite good at waiting tables etc. At the initial interview with Steve Logan and the Maitre’d I managed to say all the right things, somehow convincing them to hire someone who, really, didn’t quite have the requisite skill needed to stand tall in a restaurant of the caliber of Logan Brown. But hey, I knew it all remember . . .

I can still starkly remember the service when the realisation hit me that perhaps I was in over my head: a table of 12, ala carte, bread to be silver-served, wines to decant then pour, orders to take, beef medium, beef medium rare, green salad with sauce on the side, can I have the paua ravioli entree sized but served with the main course? I wasn’t so much in the weeds as taking up permanant residence in a jungle of ten foot tall creepers slowly suffocating me. Because that was the thing; it all seemed to happen in slow motion, each painful mistake made another stab to my over-inflated ego. It all ended in the ignominy of having another waiter who started the same time as me take over my section, myself banished to the bar to dry glassware. It was a rather shameful experience to chow down on so much humble pie, but certainly inspired me to never be in that situation again. Lessons were learned my friends, oh yes.

I managed to hold on for another few months before it finally became clear to all involved that perhaps I should move on to something more befitting my experience. But the memories of the awesome dining space, and the sublime cooking skills of co-owner and chef Al Brown, stick with me still.

Saturdays and Sundays at Logan Brown, the restaurant was closed for lunch service. A mid-morning to dinner service shift was available to staff to help fill in your hours. You were required to basically clean the dining space, top to bottom. Mopping floors, cleaning out waiter stations, setting up the tables for what was always a busy Saturday and Sunday night. Even this I struggled with, probably due to the fact I was more often than not extremely hung-over from the night before hand propping up a bar somewhere on Courtney Place. I think I even spent one morning just sleeping on the floor in the upstairs private dining room attempting to placate the demons that had taken up residence in my head, a not too fruitful affair that only resulted in yet another scalding from Steve, yet more marks taken off for me.

But the truly exciting part, even for me back then, was the five to six hours either Al or his senior chefs would get on their own to plow through some prep work. It was the first time I saw the magnitude of work required to place truly amazing dishes in front of equally awed diners. I wish I had taken more notes, asked more questions, and tried to learn as much as I could from these chefs then. Instead I was knocking back paracetamol with wild abandon and praying that the end would come soon. Which never happened sadly, it never does …

One of the more amazing sights I observed was one morning when Al got to work on some capsicums. It truly was a site to behold: Two six-hob burners, gas on high, surrounded with capsicums blistering away. On occasions the smoke detectors would go off, so thick was the smoke pouring off the peppers as they blackened, blistered, then then quietly resigned to a smoky, sweet magnificence. Now that is truly how you roast capsicums, no oven work for these poor veges; it’s full on man time, and no pepper will survive. Brilliant stuff.

Which leads me to another exciting recipe to share. It may be more prudent to fire up the barbecue outside and warn neighbours that some peppers are going to get some medieval witch treatment. Or just fire up the oven on high. Either way, the star of this show is definitely some roasted capsicums. I hope you enjoy this one.

Roast Rack of Lamb with Pumpkin Salad & Hazelnut Capsicum Pesto

Ingredients:

  • Good Quality Rack of Lamb
  • Pumpkin
  • Pine nuts (these are optional, maybe you have some left from the Basil Pesto …?)
  • Baby Spinach Leaves (or just regular spinach leaves, I don’t know, I just like the baby ones)
  • Smoked Paprika (come on, you got a whole expensive tin right?)
  • Cumin Seeds (you could just get ground cumin, but that’s just not gor-met really …)
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Garlic
  • Hazelnuts
  • Coconut Milk (not cream …)
  • Good Quality Olive Oil
  • Capsicums

First … The Hazelnut Capsicum Pesto:

This is the lengthiest part of the whole dish, so best to get it out of the way first.

Now, you could use a barbecue, or the gas hobs, but perhaps the safest way to roast the capsicum is in the oven. So bang that on at 180 fan grill, and make sure you have a shelf ready fairly close to the top of the oven. I use three capsicums for this recipe, so go ahead and place three in an oven proof dish that can handle a bit of abuse, and once the red light is off, place the capsicum in the oven, top shelf.

The whole point here is to blacken the peppers on all sides, really concentrating the natural sugars inside. I find this takes a good half hour or so, but don’t be afraid to let rip and leave them in for longer. I check on them every five minutes or so, and when I see the skins slightly blistering and they have gone extremely black, I rotate them around until its kind of a uniform blistery black all over. And yes, I believe ‘blistery black’ is an actual technical term used in cooking. Look it up. No? Well it should be …

Once you think they’re done, it’s time to get the skins off. Some people say just go for gold straight off the bat, peeling it off. Don’t. You will burn your hands. Still others say to run them over cold water whilst peeling. Don’t. All that flavour you have built up runs down the sink with the water.

Well, what do you do? Easy; get a plate or bowl, place the peppers inside, wrap snugly with some cling film, and leave for a good half hour. The steam created helps lift the skin off slightly from the flesh, and after that good half hour, you should be able to easily strip the blackened skin off.

I’d recommend  you take the skin off holding the capsicum over the bowl still. You may pierce the skin releasing some of the juices, and you want to keep all that juice for the pesto. Once you have peeled all the skin off you need to get rid of the seeds inside. For the same reason do this over the bowl as well, and try and cut off some of the white membrane inside too; this is slightly bitter, which you really don’t want. Once that’s all done, simply roughly dice the flesh into small cubes and place in another bowl. Using a sieve to catch any seeds that remain in the first bowl, pour the collected juices into the second bowl with the flesh. First step done.

Now, while the capsicum is roasting, take another oven proof tray and place a handful of hazelnuts in. Roast these for 3 – 4 minutes until they get a bit of colour on them. Don’t over-do it. They can become too overpowering for the whole pesto if roasted too much. Just be mindful. Once they are done, let them cool down slightly then try and get rid of as much of the brown outside skin as possible. It sticks to your teeth and may freak out your dinner guests. Roughly pound these in a mortar and pestle, or blitz up in a blender.

While you’ve got the mortar or blender out, add two or three cloves of garlic and blend these too.

Almost there now …

Add all the ingredients together with the capsicum flesh and stir in a good slug of olive oil with about quarter a cup of coconut milk. Season with some salt and pepper, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, and a teaspoon or so of your expensive smoked paprika.

Take a deep breath, dip in a finger, and assess the need for more seasoning, olive oil, coconut milk, or lemon juice. A nutty, slightly tangy, sweet roasted flavour with a bit of bite from the garlic is what you should be looking for. I hope you got there okay. Because now you are the proud owner of a capsicum and hazelnut pesto. Congratulations.

Next … The Pumpkin Salad:

Compared to the pesto, this is a walk in the park.

Cut the pumpkin in half, or quarters, scoop out the seeds, then chop into even cubes. The smaller they are, the faster they’ll cook.

Get the oven back up to 180 degrees, and while this is heating up, toast about a tablespoon of cumin seeds in a pan, being careful not to burn them. With your trusty mortar and pestle (hopefully cleaned and dried out) or blender, pound or blitz up the cumin seeds. Now, you can either pour this into a plastic bag with about a tablespoon of smoked paprika (see, you’re getting a fair bit of use out of that tin now, right) or mix the two up in a bowl. I like the bag. I can pop it loudly afterwards behind my brothers back and laugh as he jumps. I’m easily entertained.

Place the cubed pumpkin into the bag or bowl, add some salt and pepper, and mix it all about. When the pumpkin is evenly coated, pour into an oven proof tray, pop into the oven on the low shelf, and roast away for around half an hour or more. You want it a little smooshy (again, the correct technical term) with a bit of colour on them. Of course it ispossible to burn the pumpkin, but it certainly takes some effort. Remember, it’s all about roasting today.

While the pumpkin is roasting away, get two to three cloves of garlic, wrap them up in some tin foil with a dollop of olive oil, and roast this too. General rule: you smell garlic, wait five, then take them out.

In a bowl pass the roast garlic through a sieve, add a good few tablespoons of olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar, and leave to infuse. You don’t want to emulsify this just yet, it’s a little too early and it will easily separate by the time you want to assemble the whole dish.

Next … Roast Rack of Lamb:

I really hope you can cook a rack of lamb, because I don’t really have the patience to run through every facet of how to cook it. I’ve taken you by the hand this far, I have faith you can do justice to that beautiful rack. However, a few tips:

– Trim the fat off, no one likes a hunk of lamb fat. Plus it might render down quickly in the pan and spit out at you. Believe me, it’s like napalm.

– Season the lamb before cooking! That’s right, salt and pepper, all over!

– Get the pan hot. Scare the fire department I say. Just make sure all the windows and doors are open and gas masks are close by should things get out of hand.

– Sear the lamb on all sides, then straight into the oven to roast. You could be super cool and cover the points with tin foil so the bones don’t go black when cooking. I’m lazy. So I don’t.

– Medium Rare! Undercooked and the lamb flavour is all enveloping. Overcooked and a lamb died for no reason. Respect the lamb. Medium rare. Of course timing all comes down to the size of the rack, the time spent searing, and the idiosyncrasies of your own oven. Download a meat cooking app, search Google, consult one of your many dust-covered cook books; all these resources will lead you to perfectly medium rare racks of lamb far more efficiently than my ramblings could. Have faith.

– For the love of all things great in this universe, rest your meat! Seriously, at the very least rest the racks for half the time it took in total to cook. Then add five minutes. If it comes to carving it up and you’ve got blood and juices all over the chopping board, you haven’t rested the meat long enough. Take notes and remember for next time. Honour the lambs memory, as it gaily jumped from meadow to meadow, lapping water from the lake, nibbling on that fine spring grass, dreaming lamb dreams of lamb stuff. He’s on your plate now, there are no more lamb dreams, no gay meadow jumping. So please, rest your rack of lamb.

Finally … Plating Up:

With a whisk mix together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic until it forms a unified brown vinaigrette. Don’t forget to season. Add the roasted pumpkin and spinach leaves (which you washed and spun dry, right?) and mix it all about. Bang down on the plate, carve the lamb if you wish or leave it as a whole rack, scoop on a generous portion of the pesto, and presto! Dinner’s on the table.

This is another Paleo dish as well, true caveman style with the rack of lamb. It’s a firm favourite at home, and the pumpkin salad is sensational on it’s own. The pesto should keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, so there are plenty of other uses you could find for it. I hope you give it a go; I have faith in you.

M Cameron

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