Flash in the Pan 

Mimicking El Jefe’s mutton (salad) chops

“Nobody wants to say ‘mutton’ anymore,” lamented my friend, the farmer known as El Jefe. “Saying ‘mutton’ (aka grown-up sheep) is like talking filth in some circles, and that’s a shame.”

He was explaining the significance of a special salad of peas, romaine and mutton that El Jefe and his family like to eat in summer.

“There are lots of reasons to love this salad,” he continued. “And they all are enhanced by the fact that you get to say ‘mutton.’”

“Mutton,” he repeated.

El Jefe’s wife, Tough Love, who calls him “El Hefty,” said “I like the salad because it’s quick—provided you get the kids to pick and shell the peas, and you make the Special Crème the night before.”

Special Crème, to a certain tribe of hard-cores, is mayonnaise. We generally agree that the best Special Crème can only be homemade, but if you have to use store-bought, Mystic Lakes Creamery is the best option I know. Under extenuating circumstances, Best Foods will perform admirably in a pinch—the flavor is totally in place, but the ingredients are total schwag.

I’m giving you this information because Special Crème is the backbone of the dressing for pea mutton salad. They call this dressing “Creamy.”

Pea mutton salad, which marks the fleeting peak of summertime and embodies the farmer’s privilege of eating the freshest food in the world, is a salad I had to wait two years to try. Two years of El Jefe and Tough Love telling me about the salad after the fact at the farmers’ market. Two years of “Oh, hi Ari! We made The Salad again last Wednesday. It was fantastic like always, we should have called you.”

Yes, that’s correct, they should have called me. I would have been there in a heartbeat. Instead, a heartbeat later summer’s gone for another year, and with it goes another chance for pea mutton salad.

The brief availability window of this salad is defined by pea season—and not just any pea, but shelling peas, which El Jefe defines as “real peas.” Ideally, the peas should be young and sweet. If so, they are used raw.

Now it might be dawning on some of you, since pea season is already over, that I’m telling you how you could have made an awesome salad last month. If you feel scandalized, toughen up. I had to wait two years for this salad, and it was worth the wait. Plus, I’ve got a trick that could help you to make the salad tonight. So hang on.

While the peas are sweet and raw in this salad, the mutton is old, tough, and well cooked. This raises a question: Why don’t they use lamb, which is famously tastier and more tender than mutton?

“We sell our lamb and eat the aged critters,” Tough Love explains, “and boy are they yummy.”

She says if you trim the fat carefully when you butcher the sheep, the flavor is excellent. And the toughness just means you have to adjust the cooking procedure. “We cook it long and slow,” she says, “in a covered skillet, with plenty of water or juice or wine and a dollop of Special Crème. After a few hours, it’s so soft you can drink it with a straw.”

After two years of missing the pea mutton salad party, my lucky day finally came the other week at the market. Tough Love shouted, “Hey Ari, tonight’s the night!”

As promised, I was there in a heartbeat.

In summertime, farmers don’t seem to eat dinner until dark—even if dark is 10:30. I arrived at dusk and my timing was perfect. We sat around the table with their kids and made slow but deliberate work of the enormous bowl of salad in the middle. It truly ate like a meal, with an amazing combination of crisp romaine, rich mutton, creamy “Creamy,” the bite of onions and flavor of dill. As amazing as the flavor was, the best part was to simply be included in the center of their universe, relaxing around the table while crickets and frogs filled the outside darkness with real country music.

That night, the Creamy contained a 4:1 ratio of mayo and yogurt to fresh garlic, horseradish, curry powder, shredded cheddar and salt and pepper. But remember, this is a recipe that’s meant to be improvised with what’s available.

The romaine is chopped and tossed with the peas and mutton, fresh dill, thin-sliced cucumbers and Walla Walla onions, and decked out in Creamy.

And while you missed the height of pea season, here’s my trick: This time of year, pea processors large and small are flooded with frozen peas. Last year’s model, now obsolete, can be bought cheaply, while this year’s crop abounds in the freezer aisle of your local store. Just remember, since they might not have been picked at the perfect height of sweetness, store-bought peas should be lightly steamed.

It pays to learn how to make the salad now, so you’re prepared when next season comes.

If for no other reason than to say the word “mutton.”

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Get your morels all wet

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

My brother gave me a bag of dried morels, but I’m not sure how best to make use of them. I know he likes to sauté them with elk meat, but that’s in short supply here in Massachusetts. I tried using them to make a cream sauce for some cod, but the results were less than stellar. How can I unlock the flavors within?

—Wanting More From Morels

A: Dear WMFM,

I get this question a lot. I guess it’s indicative of the fact that many people out there don’t know what to do with their dried morels, and are often disappointed when they try to use them. They too want more from their morels.

The most important step, by far, is the rehydration of the morels, which is best done overnight. Dissolve a cube of good quality chicken bullion in about two cups of boiling water. Put dry morels in a lidded container and pour hot stock over them, stirring until the morels are drenched, then pour a bit more. You want enough liquid that when the morels have soaked up all they need, just a tad remains. This liquid should be used later on in your cooking.

While they’re rehydrating, check often on their progress, adding more stock to keep a little on the bottom.

After at least an hour, add them to butter and chopped shallots in a pan, keeping it nice and wet with sherry and seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg (yes, nutmeg). Instead of sherry, you can also use wine. In your case, going with fish, conventional wisdom would suggest white. Another good option would be lime. Heavy cream is always nice in there too, if you have it.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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