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A Butcher Butchered My Plan for Lamb

I wanted to make lamb this weekend, and I did. I made a leg of lamb, which would have turned out quite lovely if I hadn't overcooked it.

Overcooking would NOT have been a problem with my original lamb plan: a tagine, or Moroccan lamb stew, recipe courtesy of the now-defunct and much-missed Gourmet Magazine. But I had to change that plan after the butcher talked me out of the cut of meat I wanted.

The dish calls for 2 1/2 pounds of boneless lamb shoulder, cut into cubes.

I was at Fairway, and I asked the guy behind the meat counter -- I won't call him a butcher -- for this. He looked at the shoulder chops stacked in the glass case, and gave me a funny look. I didn't know how to interpret this. Was he sizing up the chops, to see if he could sell me these, instead of having to carve up a whole shoulder? 

"You'd be better off with a leg of lamb," he finally said. "Shoulder has a lot of bone, and you'll have to buy about 4 pounds (a $40 price tag) for 2 1/2 pounds of meat."

Meanwhile, a 2-pound leg, rolled and tied, with a little sprig of parsley stuffed under the string, would cost me about $32.

I hesitated. I ran the numbers in my head. And I kept thinking, "Can I use shoulder for a tagine?" Other customers were waiting. The meat counter man was looking at me. I felt ill at ease, and unsure.

"Okay, give me the leg of lamb," I said.

Now what?

I took it home and consulted Aliza Green's Field Guide to Meat. Yes, shoulder has a lot of bones (the upper part of the front leg, the shoulder blade, and three to seven rib bones), but it's also fatty, and "cooks up moist and succulent" -- just what you'd want in a stew.

Leg of lamb is "generally tender, though it is made up of different muscles." While the Field Guide didn't opine on uses, I think stewing it to smithereens isn't necessary. In fact, the leg of lamb recipe I use, from The Silver Palate Cookbook, calls for the meat to be served rare to medium rare.  

I ended up cooking the leg of lamb the way a leg of lamb asks to be cooked. I marinated it in soy sauce, red wine, crushed garlic cloves, and fresh rosemary and mint, according to my Silver Palate recipe, instead of slow cooking it into a tagine with cinnamon and prunes.

I grumbled the entire time.

"It's not what I wanted to do!" I sighed.

This happens often to me with butchers. I belly up to the counter, asking for one thing, and get told that I really want something else. And I'm left alone in the kitchen, trying to reconcile what I have with what I was supposed to get. What's up with that?

I called The Meat Hook, home of celebrity butchers Tom Mylan, Brent Young and Ben Turley, for advice. They weren't there, but the butcher who answered my call told me I could have used the leg in the tagine.

I remembered something Mylan said to me during a Last Chance Foods interview in March 2010.

"I have to say, 80 percent of the time, the butcher is right," Mylan told me then, "if he tells you that you don't need that cut of meat because it's too expensive for what you're doing."

And then he proceeded to describe a customer who wanted 3 pounds of pork tenderloin for a stew: "Which doesn't make any sense, because it's the most tender, most expensive part of the entire pig. You don't want to stew it at all. In fact, it would fall apart. It's the dumbest thing to stew. It's improper, it's wrong. But a lot of people who write recipes think that if you use a more expensive cut, it's better, and it's not."

The shoulder was $10 per pound. The leg, $16. But the Fairway guy told me I'd get more for less if I used the deboned leg meat.

Maybe everyone's right. But I still feel wronged. 

My first mistake was not sticking up for myself, and what I needed. I WANTED SHOULDER, FOR A TAGINE, DARN IT. The Fairway guy's mistake was not asking me what I wanted to do with the meat. I also suspect he didn't want to haul a 20-pound lamb shoulder out of the walk-in refrigerator and debone 2 1/2 pounds of it, either.    

Next time, along with my shopping list, I'll bring my Field Guide, and my "tough customer" game face, to the meat counter. If I don't get what I want, that butcher is going to get rolled and tied.

UPDATE, October 28, 2011

Fairway's Vice President of Marketing, Jackie Donovan, apologized for my experience at the Red Hook store. She says that, as part of the chain's preparation for Thanksgiving turkey orders, the meat counter staff at all eight metro area Fairways were reminded about the importance of customer service.

"We told them not to judge a person's request," Donovan told me. "We told them, 'If you have a tip, make the suggestion. But don't talk people out of their request, especially if you don't know the recipe.'"

Donovan and Fairway also sent a generous basket of goodies to the station, and a $50 gift card. WNYC sent both to City Harvest.

My thanks to them for their swift response.

Fairway gift basket