Loins are the muscles on the sides of the spine. Yes, go ahead, reach around to your back, find your backbone, and feel the muscle on either side. That’s the piece. This is one of the high-end cuts from any mammal. For example, from a pig, it can become a pork chop (if sliced through the bone). In deer, it is often called backstrap. From a goat, we just call it the loin, and in our butchering style, we generally carefully cut it off of the spine, resulting in a nice boneless piece of meat. This a cut that is suitable for quick, high heat cooking. We like to make a point of doing something nice with the loins.
I couldn’t think of a nicer way to feature loin–especially a loin from Crystal, the kid featured in this blog series on cooking goat–than by preparing it according to my family’s Easter meal tradition. Grilled kabobs, a rich rice pilaf, and fresh asparagus are the key components of this meal. Easter in northern Arkansas often corresponds to asparagus season, but we’ve found that Easter in central Missouri often doesn’t. So, instead of being bound to an arbitrary date, we’ve kept the meal tradition but shifted the date to a time when the weather says it is appropriate and our schedules allow a celebration. This year, we celebrated spring on a Monday in early May, just as a pulse of warm weather brought on rapid growth in asparagus.
Two days before the meal, I pulled a 1 lb, 4 oz loin out of the freezer. After defrosting it in the refrigerator for about 24 hours, and while it was still slightly frozen, I cut it into approximately 1 inch cubes, as uniform as I could make them (which is to say not as uniform as a skilled chef would have made them). There were some bits of fat and membrane that I hadn’t trimmed off before freezing this piece, but I was feeling lazy (and busy), and I just let them be.
These pieces went into the following marinade, and back into the refrigerator for about 24 hours:
- ~1/3 cup olive oil
- ~2 Tbl lemon juice (bottled, as that was all we had on hand)
- ~2 Tbl balsamic vinegar
- ~1 tsp salt
- 4 small cloves of last year’s garlic (stored in refrigerator to slow sprouting), peeled & crushed by hand
- fresh herbs: a few sprigs each of thyme, sage, oregano, and chives, gently crushed
Unlike prior marinades that I’ve done for this series, the meat pieces were in a puddle of marinade, not submerged in a pool of it. So, I stirred the meat a couple of times over the next day, prior to grilling, just to ensure good coverage.
The challenge of this meal usually comes in getting the timing of all the components right, such that everything is served warm, especially since grilling often adds an element of uncertainty. We have a tiny little charcoal grill, and it loses heat quickly. So I realized I was best off starting the rice first, since it would both take longer and could hold its temperature longer than anything else.
Easter rice pilaf
Here are the ingredients I used this time:
- 2 large leeks
- butter for sauteing
- 2 cups brown rice (organic Missouri basmati, from McKaskle Farm via HyVee)
- 2 cups really amazing chicken broth (complete with a beautiful yellow fat layer), made a few days prior from frozen fat-old-hen carcasses
- 2 cups water
- 2 tsp salt
Though any allium will do, leeks are especially delicious and at the moment, abundant (as we’ve discovered that Bandit leeks overwinter well here). I used two good-sized leeks, which I cut lengthwise, rinsed to remove dirt from between the layers, then sliced thinly. I sauteed these in butter until they were reasonably limp, then added the rice. This received constant stirring attention for several minutes, until the rice started to brown. I added the liquid and salt, then proceeded with normal rice cooking technique: bring to a boil, stir, turn down to low, lid on, set a timer for 50 minutes. Now the clock was ticking, and the goal was to have everything else ready to eat in about an hour. The aroma coming from the rice was appetite enhancing and became progressively intense with an increase in trips into and out of the kitchen to monitor the grill. (I’m trying not to drool on the keyboard as I think about it.)
Grilling kabobs & asparagus
Eric advised me that it would take 10-15 minutes to get the grill going, so I prepped the kabobs first. I wanted to include some veggies on the skewers, but this is a low time of year as far as skewer-able veggies are concerned. Storage sweet potatoes? Nah, they’d need much longer to cook than the meat. Parsnips? Just didn’t seem to fit the theme. Radishes? Not yet ready for harvest. Onions? Sprouting. Leafy greens? No thanks. Leeks? Okay, why not. So meat and leeks went on the skewers. I was careful to send the skewer though the long axis of the meat chunks, to minimize dangling bits, and to roughly group pieces by size. One skewer received the smaller bits, and I made sure it went to the edge of the grill.
By now, Eric had come to offer help in the kitchen. (Ah, the magic of the rice aroma.) I sent him out to pick asparagus, then he gave me a tutorial on getting the grill started. Even though this meal isn’t overly complicated, it is nice to have help in its preparation, especially since the trip from our kitchen to the grill requires an inconveniently large number of steps…around the kitchen peninsula, through the dining area, across the wooden porch, and into mulched area of the herb garden where the grill resides. With two people, it is easier to keep an eye on things going on in the kitchen as well as on the grill. Plus, it is nice to cook together.
We started the grill with a chimney starter, which we filled with purchased hardwood charcoal. On the farm, we make a lot of crude charcoal as a soil amendment, known as biochar, and I cringed heavily upon realizing that we had purchased charred wood from who-knows-where. In any case, we lit some paper & kindling underneath, then gave this about 10 minutes to get going.
While waiting for the grill, I picked out the amount of asparagus I wanted to grill, and I slathered it with the leftover meat marinade, figuring that was as good a way as any to get full use out of the marinade ingredients.
The coals were glowing pretty intensely after about 10 minutes, so I dumped them into the grill and put the grate on. The chimney starter holds about what the grill holds, so there was no need to wait while additional charcoal ignited. I used the crude temperature check of “How long can I hold my hand just above the grill?” The answer was about 2 seconds, about right to start grilling.
I put the kabobs on, put the lid on (with the air vent open), and cooked the kabobs about three minutes per side. At that time, I checked one of the larger chunks of meat, and it was pink but not bloody, so I decided to stop there. They came off the grill onto a clean tray, and the asparagus went on. (The grill isn’t big enough to hold both simultaneously.)
The asparagus took about 7 minutes to cook (a bit longer than my usual indoor steaming method that takes a predictable 5 minutes). Kabobs cool off fast, so Eric put them in the oven to keep them warm while the asparagus cooked. By this point, the rice was done, and during the last few minutes of asparagus cooking, we both hovered over the grill, ravenous.
While the kabobs were cooking, Eric had made strawberry margaritas, using last year’s frozen strawberry ice in a 2:1:1 ratio with tequila and triple sec.
As we ate, lots of cooing over food ensued. Eric pretty much summed it up: “This meal is always extraordinary.” Conversation touched on the fact that this is one of the meals that I most missed during my vegetarian years. And this edition did not disappoint. The meat was tender, richly flavored with marinade, and absurdly delicious in a way that only grilling can produce. The rice lived up to its aroma, especially thanks to rich flavor infused into it by the fat-old-hen broth. And the asparagus was, of course, delightful.
Two tiny criticisms on the kabobs: First, the grilled leeks didn’t cook as fully as we might have liked, and the internal layers had a sharp flavor. Though it looks pretty to have meat and veggies mixed on kabob skewers, I think in practice it might make more sense to separate the two, since veggies often benefit from a longer cooking time than kabob-worthy meat. Second, my minimalist meat-trimming approach did result in some chunks that had a slightly noticeable layer of fat that was just a bit greasy (in a goat fat sort of way). I’m not sure I would have noticed it if I hadn’t made a mental note to do so, but in future I would probably put a bit more work into trimming the meat if we were serving guests. For just us, I would probably repeat the
lazy efficient non-trimming method.
We ate this meal outside on the porch, enjoying a very pleasant spring evening, while migratory birds were singing in the surrounding woods. A Scarlet Tanager was calling “chick-bur” in the trees just off the porch, a Wood Thrush sang distantly in the woods, and various other singing migrants reminded me why this is my favorite time of year.
For dessert, we had hot cross buns, using dough that I had made a couple days prior, refrigerated, then warmed to room temperature, shaped, and baked. These were based on my mom’s recipe, adapted to the ingredients on hand.
This meal illustrates our usual take on food traditions: Many are worth respecting because of how good they are and the fond memories that come with them. The beauty of food traditions is that they are often compatible with seasonal eating and local ingredients. But they’re not so sacred that they can’t be modified to the ingredients that are on hand, or shifted to a time when those ingredients are available if the ingredient is integral to the meal, as asparagus is here. And as far as spring lamb or kid is concerned, thank goodness for freezers, as I’m happy to make use of frozen meat from the previous fall’s butchery, which happened when the animal was at a much more efficient size to turn into meat, not to mention much less cute than a spring newborn.
Happy spring, and what a beautiful one it has been!