The only thing that rivals my love of food is my deep love for—and interest in—the history that has come before us.
Inspired by an old Fanny Farmer cookbook given to me by my great-aunt, the idea of delving into the world of historic recipes struck me as, quite literally, fascinating.
Who better encompasses the elegance and charm of historic Long Island than the Vanderbilts themselves? I am invited to enter through the back gates to the Spanish-style home the family called Eagle’s Nest atop a cliff in Centerport. My car pulls in slowly and is surrounded by grandeur in the courtyard and fills me with wistfullness.
The Vanderbilts are considered the “last generation of old world elegance,” says the Vanderbilt Museum‘s Director of Curatorial Affairs, Stephanie Gress, and I would have to wholeheartedly agree. I am delighted with Gress’s generosity when she shares with me a viewing of William K. Vanderbilt II’s menu from his bachelor party from March 24, 1899. There are no words to describe the privilege of seeing something so coveted by Vanderbilt that he kept it with his personal belongings.
The style and magnificence of this historical piece of culinary history is quite evident as seen in its sophisticated lines and carefully chosen details. It is preciously handled with white gloves to preserve it from outside elements. The Vanderbilts had a high regard for French food and refinement and this menu reflects this. Mr. Vanderbilt’s monogram adorns the bottom and a picture of the gloriously set dining room was saved to remember the night.
My quest to discover historic recipes naturally leads to my actually trying to recreate them, too. Without having the actual recipes Vanderbilt enjoyed preserved, I choose to create just one dish in its classic style. Because this is a classic French recipe we’re talking about, I turn to none other than the goddess herself: Mrs. Julia Child.
I choose Selle d’Agneau which translates to Saddle of Lamb. According to Child, in her second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “A saddle of lamb is one of the most luxurious and attractive roasts you could pick to serve at a small, elegant dinner party.”* It seems as though Willie K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Child were kindred spirits in their adoration of this dish.
Choosing the dish was easy, but finding this type of cut proves to be somewhat more difficult. My local butcher George at The Meat Grinder in Wantagh seems perplexed at my request. He loves lamb himself but admits that this cut of lamb isn’t something that very many people order in this current chicken-and-beef-loving society; nor has it been ordered very much over the last decade. This is definitely a special order.
George is a seasoned butcher and painstakingly uses his skills to prepare the loin. I bring it home and prepare the recipe. It calls to marinate the meat in butter every seven minutes. It is a labor of love that is rewarded by the smells of roasting and rosemary that fill our home. We are further compensated by the delicious roast which comes out of the oven perfectly browned and dripping with goodness. It is worth every minute of the wait and we dine in style as we sip our wine and eat our selle d’agneau and think of that long ago meal and how wonderful it must have been with this treat.
Julia Child’s Selle d’Agneau
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume II
For the lamb:
- A saddle of lamb trimmed (approximately 4-5 lbs)
- A heavy, shallow baking dish just large enough to hold the saddle comfortably
- 4 Tb melted butter in a pan and a basting brush
- ½ cup each, sliced carrots and onions
- 2 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
For the sauce:
- ⅓ cup dry white wine or dry white French vermouth
- 1 cup beef stock or bouillon
- Optional: 1 medium tomato, chopped (not peeled)
- Salt and pepper
- A sieve
- A small saucepan
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Season the underside of the loin with salt, pepper and rosemary and tress the loin to close.
- Place the saddle right side up in the roasting pan and paint exposed ends of meat with melted butter, reserving rest for later. If you are using a meat thermometer, insert it at a long, slanting angle into the thickest part of one of the loin strips. Be sure point of thermometer reaches middle of meat and does not touch bone. Prepare the vegetables and garlic, and reserve in a bowl
- ROASTING START. Set lamb in upper-middle level of preheated oven for 15 minutes.
- 15-MINUTE MARK. Turn thermostat down to 425 degrees. Working quickly, baste 2 ends of saddle with melted butter, and strew the vegetables and garlic around the meat. Baste vegetables with fat in baking dish, or with butter.
- 22-MINUTE MARK. Rapidly baste meat and vegetables again, with fat in dish.
- 30-MINUTE MARK. Baste again rapidly. If vegetables are blackening, turn thermostat down to 400 degrees.
- 37-MINUTE MARK. Baste again. If you are using a meat thermometer, it should be at 125 to 130 degrees for rare meat. Meat should feel springy rather than squashy and raw, and the first juices should be exuding from the meat into the pan. Roast a few minutes longer if necessary; if you wish your meat medium rare and pink rather than red, roast to 140 degrees. (Note that if meat was chilled when it went into the oven, it may take a few minutes longer to roast. A heavier saddle will take 50 to 55 minutes in all. Baste every 4 to 5 minutes when roasting longer.)
- WHEN DONE. Turn off oven and set lamb on a platter near outside end of open oven door; a rest of 10 to 15 minutes before carving will permit juices to retreat back into meat tissues. Discard trussing strings after the rest period. Meanwhile, make the sauce, next step.
- THE SAUCE. Spoon all but a tablespoon of fat out of roasting dish, pour in wine and stock, and add optional tomato. Set over high heat and boil, scraping up coagulated roasting juices with a wooden spoon; mash cooking vegetables into liquid as it boils. Reduce liquid by about half, correct seasoning, strain into saucepan, and keep warm. You will have only enough sauce to moisten each serving of meat.
- In the glorious words of Julia Child, “Bon Appetit”!
*Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume Two (as well as Volume One) is a wonderful additional to your recipe library and is chock full of French dishes explain with the most minute details. Unless you are a meat carving aficionado, I recommend having your local butcher doing it for you. If you choose, Child’s husband Paul created wonderful illustrations throughout the book that explain the recipe from conception through to the end.