Despite the title, it didn’t start out with lamb chops or potatoes at all – it started off with a wonderful roast duck I made last week. Duck is one of my favorite things to make, with its rich, flavorful meat and all that crispy skin. At first glance, duck seems to be an expensive bird to make; they’re no bigger than a chicken and about double the cost. But despite the regular things one can make to stretch a roasted bird into more than one meal (duck salad sandwiches are wonderful), a roasted duck is also good for something I consider pure gold in the kitchen: its rendered fat. Ducks are water birds, and as such they have a thick layer of insulating fat between the skin and muscle. It is this fat that crisps the skin so nicely as it melts and renders during roasting, and it is this fat that I keep to make one of our favorite treats of all time: cottage potatoes.
We render our fat two ways: the first is by pricking our duck all over with a fork (into the fat layer only, not the muscle) and roasting it on a rack over a drip pan. What winds up in the drip pan is the oily fat and liquid drippings – be sure to use a fat separator to get rid of all that juice because it can spoil your rendered fat quickly. The second way we get our duck fat is to render it from the extra skin we trim from the duck before cooking as well as from the fatty deposits we remove from the inside of the duck. By simmering these with a few tablespoons of water in a sauce pan, we’re eventually left with pure oil and few duck “cracklings” – just run the contents through a strainer and keep the oil. This also works with chicken fat, (this is known as schmaltz). We use this stuff sparingly, but it’s always good to have some in the freezer for a special treat.
For our potatoes, tonight I used the Yukon Gold variety because I love the balance of sweet and salty that Yukon Golds cooked this way have, but I’ve done these with russet potatoes, red potatoes, and several varieties of the “fingerling” potatoes and they all turn out tasty. Take your potatoes and slice them into small cubes, and try to keep the size relatively the same size – smaller cubes cook faster, so you don’t want to have some pieces burning while others are only just now getting crisp. Heat your duck fat up in a cast iron skillet until it shimmers and is close to smoking, and toss your potatoes in (being aware that they are GOING to pop and sizzle). Fry until golden brown with a crispy outside and a tender, almost creamy middle; limp potatoes with no crispiness aren’t done enough while potatoes that are all crunch are overcooked. Drain them on paper towels and season liberally with sea salt. You can let your fat cool, strain, and save it for another use as long as it still has a good color and smell.
These potatoes are good with burgers or roast chicken (or as a snack by themselves), but tonight we decided to serve them with a couple of simple broiled lamb chops. I love the flavor of lamb, and I don’t really care for any heavy seasonings with my chops, so these were seasoned with a sprinkle of kosher salt and a dusting of black pepper, although a bit of fresh thyme or rosemary goes well with the flavor of the lamb, too. A few minutes under the broiler (until medium-rare), and we had a delicious and simple meal, thanks in part to “leftovers” from a meal I made last week.
Of course, if you really want to stretch ingredients, you can do what I’m doing now: save your lamb bones and simmer them with some shallots and white wine in a few cups of that homemade chicken stock you’ve had in the freezer forever. Skim the fat and foam that forms from the top and in an hour or two you’ve got a respectable cheat for lamb stock. Refreeze the stock and use for a rich sauce the next time you make leg of lamb. Doing things like this takes a bit more time, but I feel like I get more for my money from the ingredients I buy; I also enjoy having these interesting sorts of things you can’t necessarily buy at the store kicking around in the freezer. In the end, though, it’s all about taste, and this shows that being thrifty can also be delicious. Happy cooking!