Last night was “Lambfest 3.0,” my friends’ third annual lamb-themed potluck party. Two baby lambs, purchased from a local farmer, were divided and delivered amongst invitees, who prepared their cuts and brought their dishes to share.
Spontaneity worked at last year’s “Lambfest 2.0.” I showed up late. Everything went wrong. The propane was empty, and the oven in the kitchen was fully occupied. I had an expensive piece of meat, it was getting late, and I had no place to cook.
There was only one heat source available. I slipped the grate from the cold grill, pushed my way to a fire-pit burning in the center of the patio, and started the lamb. The grate was set up tight to the edge, precariously. It sunk under the weight of the meat and sizzled with the intensity of the blazing fire. I slathered it with marinade, not yet having a plan except, “must cook meat.”
I heaved the barely cooked but near-burnt meat onto a board, sliced the crispy, charred crust thin, tossed it with some fresh marinade, and stuffed it into a pita. The roast, still raw except for the thin layer I had just sliced off, went back into the inferno, then more marinade, bubble bubble, sizzle sizzle, slice thin, toss, more sandwiches. Repeat.
Imagine a roast where everybody gets the good part—smokey, crisp bits of charred lamb mopped with swarthy sauce. By the end of the party, there was a jagged bone, picked clean and crusty. It was authentic, delicious, and primal. I don’t think I could have made a dish like that through careful planning.
This year, the idea came from a stranger at the grocery store, her great cooking technique, and a pan I now lust for.
Yesterday I left the house around noon, starting to get nervous about what I was making for the party, and headed out to pick up Sonia from a birthday party at one of my favorite places on Earth, Chuck E. Cheese’s. I pried her from the pinball machines and headed home with her happily destroying her gift bag of candies and toys in the back seat.
Driving home we passed one of my favorite markets, Burrito Mercado. I pulled in, hoping to find some ideas for the party. Walking up the concrete steps, I saw her. She was shrouded in a halo of greasy smoke, perfect, and inspiring. I never did learn her real name. To me, she is “the taco lady.”
Working over a specialized pan called a “disco pan,” she slow-cooked meats on the flat shallow exterior and dipped tortillas, to order, in the drippings, searing them briefly on the intensely hot domed center. She offered thinly sliced, fatty and chewy pork stomach, chorizo, cubed beef, and crunchy bits of carnitas, along with stewed jalapenos and mini onions, called cebollitas.
The key to these tasty tacos was the disco pan—it enabled her to sear the tortillas in the middle of the pan, and simultaneously braise the meat, chilies, and onions, around the outer ring, while retaining the juices during the process.
Excited and now belly-full of tacos, I headed home, loaded with groceries and ready to cook. Driven to create my own taqueria, I made arrangements to get a fire pit, some landscaping rocks, and a large paella pan.
At the party, with the fire lit, I heard murmurs, a crowd forming around the blaze, and friends brought me wine as I cooked and joked about the “show-off.”
Anticipation mounted, and the first tacos were snatched from my hands, garnished with cilantro, lime, and shredded cabbage. The minced, fat-laden, shoulder-cut lamb, cooked through the night, was served with tortillas heated as necessary, and I even enjoyed a few myself.
Last year, frantically cooking, and hoping to get my piece of lamb cooked—sometimes I tell students, “Go! Make this, not-raw!”—worked in the end. This year’s procrastination led me to an angel at the grocery store. It’s hard to know which lamb dish tasted the best, you’d have to ask one of the guests. To all of you who gave me wine, thanks for the hangover.