With just a tug of your fork, chunks of honey-glazed and wine-braised lamb pull from the bone and descend into a heavenly sauce that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about this dish.
Until recently, I’d never heard of lamb neck. I’ve cooked turkey necks, pork neckbones, and other close-to-the-bone recipes, but not lamb neck. Oh, I’m sure there are some dyed-in-the-wool cooks out there who swear by lamb necks as being the culinary pinnacle of farm-to-table eating, but with over 40 years of consuming Cajun culinary culture, this one has eluded me. Until now.
There are a few lead-ups to this recipe that deserve mention. First, I attended a lamb boucherie a couple of years ago that opened my eyes to the depth of acceptance that Cajuns have for this delicacy. My friends Denny and Katie Culbert launched Runaway Dish with the mission of sharing the mysteries of our colorful foodways with the rest of the world, and their annual gathering of chefs and food writers at a farm in the hills around Grand Coteau has become a mecca for the legions of fans of Cajun and Creole cooking.
During that weekend, a whole hog boucherie was the main event, but it was the slaughter, dismantling, and cooking of a whole lamb that was a unique awakening to many who attended, including me. The variety of dishes that wound up in a Cajun pot or over an open fire was staggering, and I was struck by the role that lamb plays in the culinary culture.
But one chef knew the culinary potential of lamb all along. Acadiana native Chef Isaac Toups from Rayne, Louisiana stormed onto the statewide food scene in Spring of 2012 with his New Orleans’ opening of Toups’ Meatery, a meat-inspired shrine to all things Cajun and Creole. A James Beard nomination, Top Chef television appearance, and several magazine Top 10 lists later, the chef and his wife Amanda opened another eatery Toups South at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in the city. Toups has firmly planted his breed of South Louisiana roots cooking atop the local scene there.
The most talked about dish on his Toups’ Meatery menu is a slow-cooked lamb neck described as “meltingly tender.” Served over a black-eyed pea ragout with mint-mirliton chow chow, local food critic Ian McNulty said of the dish “…the overall experience sticks as fast to your flavor memory as it does to your ribs.” I knew immediately I had to riff on this recipe, and I was set to go with this dish at the top of my culinary to-do list. But, where do I find a lamb neck? I asked around my usual haunts in Lafayette and received an empty stare. I’m sure Chef Toups’ has a reliable wholesale foodservice supplier, but it is my mission to find equally reliable retail or online sources for my recipes.
And now the final intersect to this recipe: a visit to Phoenicia Foods in Houston, Texas, one of my all-time favorite food stores. This 55,000-foot (feels the size of a Costco) food store is focused on foods of the Mediterranean region that Houston counts as one of its largest migrant populations. Shoppers of Greek, Lebanese, Syrian, and other cultures flock to this store for freshly baked bread (a floor to ceiling conveyor belt moves loaves throughout the store), house-made Greek yogurt (my favorite; made daily), and an endless variety of freshly made cheeses and olives.
And Phoenicia also houses a list of hard to find meats, like lamb necks. Yes, there neatly arranged in the meat case were row after row of freshly slaughtered and wrapped lamb necks, as well as every other part including the head (which is a delicacy I’ll save for another post).
My version of lamb neck reaches back into my playbook and is based on a port wine braise that I do with beef short ribs. The key to cooking on the bone is to let time do the work and let the natural flavor of the meat emerge slowly at a low temperature. Braising with wine seasoned with our Cajun trinity along with garlic and rosemary is as simple as it gets. And a quick glaze of Sriracha Honey at the finish seals the deal on this lamb neck. It’s rendered fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sweet morsels of meat are spiked with a touch of heat.
When in New Orleans’ Mid-City area, drop by Toups’ Meatery and sample Chef Toups’ lamb neck. And be sure to try this recipe; you’ll take a deeper dive into our culture with a dish that will surprise you with intense new flavors.
- 2 slices smoked pork jowl bacon or smoked bacon, chopped
- 1 tablespoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 (2 to 2.5-pound) lamb necks
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- ½ cup diced celery
- ½ cup diced red bell pepper
- ½ cup diced green bell pepper
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 3 cups Port wine
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce or hot sauce
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a cast-iron pot with a heavy lid over medium-high heat, add the chopped bacon and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and discard (or eat).
- Sprinkle the Cajun seasoning on all sides of the lamb necks and brown in the hot bacon grease until brown on all sides. Remove and keep warm.
- Add the onion, celery, and bell peppers to the hot grease and cook until the onion just begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer.
- Add 2 cups of the Port wine to the pot (be careful that it doesn’t ignite), and cook until the wine begins to reduce, about 5 minutes.
- Add the lamb necks back to the pot, and pour in the chicken stock. Add the rosemary sprig, lower the heat to low, and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and let braise on the stovetop until tender, 2 to 3 hours, checking every half hour to make sure there is plenty of cooking liquid.
- Turn off the heat under the lamb and make the glaze by combining the honey and Sriracha sauce together in a small mixing bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
- Once done, remove the lid and brush the top and sides of the lamb neck with the glaze, and move the pot to the hot oven. Add the additional 1 cup of Port wine to the pot and let cook uncovered as the glaze sets (watch carefully to prevent the sugar from burning) and the sauce reduces further, 15 to 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the oven and gently move the lamb necks to a platter along with a couple of spoonfuls of the cooking liquid. Strain the remaining liquid into a medium saucepan removing the rosemary stems, and spoon off any surface fat. Place the sauce over medium-high heat, bring to a gentle boil, and reduce further until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Strain the sauce once again and add to a serving bowl.
- With a serving fork and knife, separate the two lamb necks into four servings (the meat will fall off the bone), and spoon some of the sauce over the top. Serve family-style with the remaining sauce on the side.
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