A Glutton for Mutton Salad
by Ari LeVaux
They say hunger is the best sauce, but imagination, at the very least, is a pretty good seasoning. The famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth used to claim that the brain is the largest sex organ in the body; I’d suggest that the mind is similarly the biggest taste bud. Studies have shown that knowing the value of a bottle of wine will influence how people think it tastes. Children, meanwhile, will fight over certain colors of M&M.
We are wired to appreciate food, in part, based the story attached to it. Whether it’s an egg from a happy hen, or some words on the back of a chocolate bar about the farmers that grew the cacao. Even a name, like Klari Baby Cheese, will make a pepper more interesting.
And then there is my friend Steve, a farmer who can fill himself with literal and existential hunger with a single word: “Mutton.”
Steve makes a point of saying the word at full volume, because it’s more than just a statement. It’s a one word manifesto. “Nobody wants to say ‘mutton’ anymore,” Steve complained to me once. “As a society we’ve shunned the eating of grown-up sheep in favor of young lambs to the point where even saying the word ‘mutton’ is like talking filth in some circles, and that’s a shame.”
Mutton, otherwise known as old sheep, or overgrown lamb, is not what most people would call a delicacy. Sheep is a strong-tasting animal, and this flavor gets stronger with age. A lamb is not only mellower of flavor, but a lot more tender than a full-grown sheep, which can be as tough as an old rooster. Certain measures must be taken so that the flavor is tamed. These steps, and the soft, delicious meat that results, are well-worth the trouble.
Steve and his family enjoy a mutton salad in which the mutton-y flavors are not denied or neutralized, but put to work alongside romaine, onions, cucumbers, dill and shelled peas, with a creamy dressing called “creamy.”
Mutton can be hard to find in stores, and if you can’t find it, lamb shoulder or shank would be an acceptable, if expensive substitute. But I would recommend turkey, or beef shank, which are more affordable, or wild game if you can get it. Any meat that’s tough and flavorful can work here.
Meaty salads are a balancing act. It’s a common in restaurants to witness someone sit down to a salad laden with meat, cheese, egg, croutons and other non-leafy materials. At the end of the meal, the remaining leaves are returned to the kitchen, untouched, while the eater walks out feeling like a health hero for having ordered a salad.
This mutton salad is not like that. The braised mutton meat is teased apart like pulled pork and tossed in, where its greasy flavorful richness adds delicious contrast to the crunchy romaine and sharp onions.
Pea Mutton Salad
1 pound of MUTTON, or other tough, gamey meat
2 heads romaine, washed and chopped
1 sweet onion, sliced thinly
1 large or two medium cucumbers, sliced thinly
1/2 cup of fresh dill, chopped
1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen (optional. I know it’s in the name of the salad, but optional nonetheless)
2/3 cup mayo or Vegenaise (which is better, though I’m obviously not vegan)
1/3 cup yogurt
3-6 cloves shredded garlic
1 Tablespoon horseradish
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 cup grated cheddar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Braise the meat. First, brown it under the broiler without any oil, then transfer it to a covered baking dish half-filled with water, with a cup or two of wine, and salt, garlic powder and a few bay leaves. Braise at 300 for a few hours, however long it takes for the meat to soften completely (it could take four or more hours). Replace fluids as necessary so it mostly, but not totally, covers the meat. When soft, remove the meat from the oven and allow it to cool.
Meanwhile, make the salad and dressing. Toss them together, along with braised, pulled meat.
Optional but recommended: Before eating, climb to the closest hilltop and yell MUTTON! Then, go eat some greasy, gamey, creamy leaves.