My Greek Easter Soup with Lamb Lungs
Every time I get a lamb from Genevieve et Nathalie (L’Agno et le Lapin in St-Julienne), I break it down and use just about everything nose to tail style. The gigots get separated from the rack, the flanks go to belly/ bacon, the shoulder divided into roasting and braising muscles, the offal put aside for terrines or a mixed grill. The tongue and cheeks and heart are so small, barely more than a snack for the cooks. Bones and miscellaneous bits go into the stock. I even keep some of the fat for sausage or petit sale since this young lamb fat is mild tasting even buttery with the babies. Not crazy about the liver, I still manage to make a decent paté that is quite appreciated by lamb and liver lovers. But I never knew what to do with the lungs. So I vacuum packed and froze them. With a set of lungs per lamb, they have accumulated. Then this week, Genevieve gave me a bag of lungs that she had been collecting for a European customer who disappeared. She didn’t know what to do with them either.
Not particularly inspired by this organ, I now had no choice but to get creative and tackle a recipe or two. With the season starting, I need the freezer space and it just seemed wrong to throw fifteen pounds of protein into the trash.
I remember a fellow cook of Greek heritage telling me they made soup with it on Easter. Makes sense since they like to roast a whole lamb on a spit and historically let nothing go to waste, giving them something to snack on in the meantime.
With Easter around the corner, I looked it up – Mageiritsa; I was feeling gung ho. I liked the idea of onions, lemon and dill (always good), but didn’t want eggs in there. A quick internet search told me that there existed all kinds of lung dishes. In India and Pakistan, they made lung curries. There’s the Scottish haggis, Zuppa du Polmore in Italy, German sour lung soup, spicy Asian noodle dishes. In fact, most countries have a traditional lung recipe; apparently it is only in North America that we shun it, like most offal. Undoubtedly because the average family (or restaurant) here is far down on the food chain, numerous degrees of separation from the animal, nor living any real necessity of frugally making the most of every morsel.
When I think lamb, I think spices – cumin, fennel, mustard, red pepper.. Or herbs like thyme and rosemary, tangy condiments like preserved lemon and olives. This brainstorming had me salivating and eager to get started on my own Easter soup - a mix of the various recipes I had seen, a dash of my own style and a lot of what was in my fridge.
I had already put the lungs in a light brine to degorge (standard procedure for many variety meats), giving me a night to figure out what to do with them. I saw that I had to sous-vide the fresh ones first to rid them of the air so that they wouldn’t float. This turned them from a bright pinkish-red to purple. Hmm.
The next day, I threw them into some boiling water and simmered for 15 minutes to blanch and firm them up so that I could work them. Most of the recipes I had seen started this way, and it seemed right given the spongey texture (think sweetbreads or brains or testicles). Slicing the lobes open, I felt like I should remove the tough looking ducts and vessels, at least in large part. Then I cut them up and threw them into a sauté with onions and bacon fat (when in doubt, add bacon!). I added garlic and spices: thyme, bay, a hot pepper, some panch foran and a lemon wedge. I deglazed with some white wine, added some tomato and lamb stock and put it on a very slow simmer. Meanwhile, I put on some basmati rice to cook on the side with a clove, a bay leave, and black pepper, to add later. I had some crunchy Jerusalem artichoke from a sous-vide experiment that I diced up to mix in near the end. Sea parsley pesto kicking around - perfect. I was psyched.
Soon enough, the kitchen smelled heavenly, but the lung pieces didn’t seem to be changing in the cooking process. Maybe my heat was too low; I wanted them to become tender, but was fearing they would turn to shoe leather. After an hour, even two, I wasn’t thrilled with the texture or the taste of the lung, although the broth was incredible. I reasoned that I should be patient. There was no way I was giving up at this point.
Some time later, the texture had improved, going from tough and springy to tender with bite, like a properly cooked gizzard or heart. But the taste wasn’t going anywhere – it tasted like a washed out lamb heart, with a touch of liver. Discouraged, I started pumping up the mix- adding gremolata, salt, crinkleroot, a pinch of sugar, a touch of good red wine vinegar. The broth tasted kick ass, there was still hope. I sautéed swiss chard with garlic and threw that in with the rice and sunchokes. I was determined to make something good of this. Not to serve at the restaurant or sell, but at least for family and friends, something we would be happy to pull out of the freezer for a quick meal. By now, I was up to 20+ litres of the stuff, not to mention a huge pile of dishes. In the space of 12 hours, my enthusiasm had morphed into tempered frustration, relentless tampering, and a profound need to come out on top.
At 2am, I took it off the stove, finished with a tweak or two, some fresh herbs and called it a night. To my utter disappointment, it was just ok. I mean definitely edible, even surprising maybe for an average taster, but not what I had worked it up to be in my mind, with all the attention and love I invested. I don't remember ever having such a hard time making something delicious. Honestly. Humbling. But also, it makes me wonder about how far I want to push this whole nose to tail thing.
Ordering whole carcasses is better for the producer; it’s the way it should be, and of course, we have to make the most of every ingredient for minimum waste, economically and ethically. But there does seem to be a sensible limit to the nose to tail thing when you aren’t starving to death. I am quite sure that my customers would rather eat just about anything else even if I mastered the lung perfectly. I’ve had a hard enough time getting them to try tongue, cheeks and sweetbreads; even rabbit, not to mention all the wild stuff.
It is natural for me with all of the above ingredients because I love them myself and am confident that anybody reticent would be won over once they tasted. When it comes to lamb liver, kidneys and lung, I am not so sure. I don’t dig lamb organ meats. And in the end, I want to make food that makes people happy, I don’t need to challenge them across the board. I need to more than believe in what I am making and serving – on a hedonistic level.
That said, I have not thrown in the towel. I will treat my next lungs confit style. Gizzards shine this way, and I think the lung once blanched and cut up would work similarly. If confit treatment doesn’t work, then nothing will. And if I ditch the lung thereafter, then so be it. I tell myself that so many other chefs just order loins and chops and bones with no bother. The reality is that most of the time when you work a less noble cut or make use of the ‘scraps’, those transformed scraps end up costing the same as ready filet in labour cost. Which is fine. The tough cuts and most of the bits are better anyway. Although more expensive, ordering whole carcasses from a local producer, you get a fresher, better (and tracible) product. The crazy thing is that these farmers aren’t even charging enough. Because of the industrial system, people unfortunately think that cheap meat is normal.
I wish I could pay my lamb producer more than I do, which is already twice (or more) what most restaurants pay for their meat. But I then, I would have to charge my customers more, and I already don't charge what I should. As they struggle to make a living, I struggle to come into my cost buying their lamb, so I certainly want to make the most of it. Making something spectacular with the lungs would have been a real triumph and added value - for me, for them.
My Easter soup was a work of love, not a total success in my mind, but who knows. I will wait and see what my guinea pigs have to say.
Much to my surprise (and delight), it turns out that most of my peeps loved it, including my 'almost vegetarian' mother, my finnicky father, our well-travelled gourmand neighbour and my brutally honest boyfriend. Only my friend Elsa was not impressed. Like me, she could not get past the strange organ taste that no one else seemed to be detecting. Oh well, whatever. Lungs aren't for everyone. At least, my efforts were not for absolutely nothing. And now a dozen more people know what a lamb lung tastes like.