“We didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables,” explained Dan Ryan, who sells lamb at the Clark Fork River Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. In front of his cedar-clad refrigerated trailer, Dan elucidated the subtle side of sheep farming: “We’re waiting for them to get big so we can slaughter them,” he said.
The lambs in question comprise his spring herd, which by the time you read this will be available for sale, replacing his sold-out fall lambs, born last December.
In nature, mating in summer and giving birth in autumn is a no-no; the lambs would die. But fall lambing is common on the farm. They eat grain and milk from their grain-fed mamas all winter, but no fresh grass.
Spring lamb, on the other hand…well, if you’ve been caught in the Interstate 90 construction between Orange Street and Reserve lately, you might have seen Dan’s four-legged fuzzballs browsing the green hillside, escorted by two Great Pyrenees sheepdogs.
This pastoral scene on the outskirts of town helps make Dan a poster child of sorts for the Clark Fork Market, also known as the “Meat Market.” One of the market’s goals is to provide local meat producers the opportunity to market directly to customers.
“It’s not just about cutting out the middleman,” Dan explained. “It’s about making people aware of the agriculture going on in their neighborhoods, and keeping the dollars local. Last year I paid $8,000 to my processor, Lolo Locker, and that money stays here. I could just load my lamb on a semi and send it away. That’s less work for me, but then everything’s gone. And,” he adds, “it’s fun to come to market and sell the lamb myself.”
The atmosphere at the meat market is definitely fun. In addition to meat for sale, there are vegetables, baked goods, hot prepared foods, cold lemonade, coffee drinks, handcrafts and tables set up for people to hang out and listen to the live music. It’s a stark contrast to the atmosphere created by the power-tripping managers of the market up the street at the XXXs, where you can’t bring your dog, or your bike, or buy pickles, and the market police enforce their rules by doling out punishment to vendors who violate, by fractions of an inch or fractions of a minute, the size of their stall or the time of their final transaction.
A customer entered Dan’s trailer, gushing about the lamb shank sambuca she likes to make. “We suck the marrow out of those bones,” she said, “and we feel like we’re living.”
Lamb shank sambuca is a wee bit too fancy for the man at the top of the food chain. “I don’t really care what they do with it,” he shrugged. “I’m not really into The Joy of Cooking.”
But despite Dan’s rough and redneck persona, there’s a soft, almost tie-dyed side to the lamb guy. His business, I discovered to my surprise, is officially registered as Montana Sprout Farm. “We used to grow and sell 2,000 pounds of sprouts a week,” he admits, quickly adding, “Just because you grow it doesn’t mean you have to eat it.”
He tossed me a packet of lamb ribs. “Here’s a cut of meat that nobody seems to want,” he said. “But I think they’re great. Parboil them for five minutes to get the fat out, then throw them on the grill.”
I went home and boiled half the rack for 10 minutes. When I put the ribs on the grill, I saw no shortage of fat on them. I let them sizzle and sputter ’til the outside was a crisp brown, seasoned them with salt and pepper and dove in.
If the expression “chewing the fat” has any grounding in a literal act, this could be it. My teeth made little headway. My face got covered in grease. But my mouth couldn’t stop eating. The ribs tasted too damn good.
The next day, intrigued by the challenge of unlocking that flavor without sending my jaws to rehab, or my arteries to Roto-Rooter, I browned the other half-rack of ribs in a cast-iron pan. Then I put the pan in the oven at 350 degrees, where the ribs continued to brown. Once in a while I’d turn the shrinking ribs in the rising lake of grease at the bottom of the pan. After a few hours I poured off the grease, which totaled over half a cup.
Cooked to a crisp but not burned, all the fat and toughness was surely gone. Now I had to replace the juices I’d just cooked off. I added white wine, a little cider vinegar and some special apple cider called “Bitterroot Bitch” that I got from Steve at the stickler market. I tossed in four cloves, three bay leaves and a teaspoon of cumin. I cooked it another hour with the lid on, checking it often and adding more liquid when necessary.
The smell was intoxicating. It tasted like it smelled and shredded like pulled pork. This was the joy of eating at the top of the food chain.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Stirring up a quickie
I want to eat well but I never have much time to cook. Can you offer a quick-and-healthy recipe made with easy-to-have-on-hand stuff for a dude on the go?
I recommend fried rice. Of course it’s hardly a quick meal if you have to wait for the rice to cook—especially when you factor in the time it takes for the rice to cool down. You see, fried rice is best made by cooking cold rice, which means if you have some leftover rice in the fridge then you’re good to fry. You can use most any veggies you might have around: broccoli, peas, chopped greens, carrots.
Start by getting some stuff going in a pan. If you’re into meat, or tofu, or other such proteins, cook it first in oil. Bacon, which supplies its own oil, is also a good option. Whatever it is, make sure it’s in small pieces. When crispy (and if you’re skipping the meat/tofu option, start here) add chopped onions, garlic and peppers to the pan. This stuff should be sautéing nicely before five minutes has passed. If it starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a bit of water or wine to prevent burning. Meanwhile, if you want to scramble an egg in a separate pan, go for it. Then add whatever vegetables you like, adding the ones that take longer to cook first. When the veggies are done, add the rice (and scrambled egg, if you scrambled one) and stir it all around until it’s hot. Then add soy sauce—now, not earlier, because soy sauce will burn in a heartbeat. Garnish with chopped green onions.
If your chopping skills are up to par, this meal should take no more than 15 minutes, tops, to prepare. Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org