Rack of lamb is a crowd-pleaser; Entertaining: Foolproof recipe is a response to worries about the last-minute preparation and expense of this dish.; SUNDAY GOURMET


For one of my fall cooking classes, I've decided to offer Provencal racks of lamb as the main course. Before each session, I always try out class recipes several times and often invite friends who have a passionate interest in food to share in these testing meals.

Several nights ago, I asked two couples, who are avid cooks, to sample Provencal Herb-and-Bread-Crumb-Crusted Racks of Lamb. As soon as I mentioned the main course, there were squeals of delight. It's my favorite cut of lamb, one guest said. Another man hinted that he would cancel previous plans just to come for such a dish.

It occurred to me that the excitement over the racks of lamb might be because home cooks do not frequently prepare this cut when entertaining because it requires last-minute cooking and is also expensive. For these two reasons, I was determined to create a recipe that would be foolproof and would not be difficult to prepare at the last minute.

My butcher helped with some advance work. I ordered small racks because they cook more quickly and asked that the meat between the tips of the rib bones be trimmed away, a French technique that gives the lamb an attractive appearance. I also requested that all but a thin layer of fat over the top of the racks be removed.

At home, I made fresh bread crumbs in my food processor. Then I used the processor to blend a mixture of olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme and salt. Twenty minutes before cooking the lamb, I preheated the oven. I brushed Dijon mustard over the top surface of the racks, tossed the bread crumbs in the garlic and herb oil, and finally patted the crumb coating onto the meat.

The lamb cooked to medium-rare, which I define as a rich, rosy hue in about 25 minutes. After the first 15 minutes, I covered the racks with some aluminum foil so that the bread crumbs would not brown too much. Ten minutes later, the meat, which I checked with a thermometer, was at the right temperature. (If you don't own a thermometer, you can cut into the meat and look to see if it's done.) I let the lamb cool a few minutes, then sliced it into chops.

The night of my tasting dinner, I roasted three racks of lamb, each with seven ribs, and my guests, true to their previously declared enthusiasm, managed to indulge in three to four chops each.

Quick-cooking couscous and ratatouille prepared earlier in the day made fine accompaniments to the delicious chops.

Provencal Herb-and-Bread-Crumb-Crusted Racks of Lamb

Serves 4 to 5

1/4 cup olive oil

4 medium garlic cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 racks of lamb, trimmed, about 1 1/4 pounds each (see note)

2 to 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 cup fresh bread crumbs, made from best-quality white bread, lightly packed

fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs for garnish, optional

Process olive oil, garlic, thyme, rosemary and salt in food processor, turning machine off and on several seconds, until garlic and herbs are finely minced. Transfer to small mixing bowl. (If not using immediately, cover with plastic wrap and leave at cool room temperature up to 5 hours.)

When ready to roast lamb, place lamb racks in roasting pan large enough to hold them comfortably. Brush enough mustard on top surface of each to coat well. Mix fresh bread crumbs with herb-scented oil until all crumbs are moistened. Pat half of bread crumb mixture over surface of each rack.

Roast lamb on center rack at 425 degrees 15 minutes. Then cover each rack with sheet of aluminum foil so crumbs do not get too brown. Continue to roast about 10 minutes more until meat thermometer inserted in center of each rack registers 125 degrees for medium-rare. (If you do not have thermometer, make small slit with sharp knife in center of racks and check to see if they are pink.) Total roasting time should be about 25 minutes. Remove racks, cool 5 minutes, then slice into individual chops.

Arrange chops on warm serving platter. Sprinkle with any crumbs that fell off while slicing. Garnish platter with fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs.

Note: Ask butcher to prepare racks French style, which means that the meat between tips of rib bones should be trimmed away for a neat appearance. Also ask butcher to trim away all but thin coating of fat on top surface of racks. Trimmed racks should weigh 1 to 1 1/4 pounds each.

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