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TODAY

Tuesday, July 16

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Now that I'm blessed with a wonderful kitchen, I'm finding that I'm getting out to the neighborhood groceries more. It's delightful to have more than a dozen grocery stores within a few blocks' walk of my house and I also have a selection of butchers within walking distance.

I went to a nearby butcher several weeks ago to purchase the chickens I used in the wonderful chicken soup I made during cold'n'flu season. And since yesterday was the "day of the grill," I decided to make my way to the same butcher to procure some more chicken and see what else they had that looked good.

Since it was such a busy weekend for them, they were almost completely out of chicken. I had the option of either purchasing a whole chicken or purchasing something else entirely. So I began looking in their display cases. They were running many specials on lamb so I decided I would see if they had lamb chops. They did, so I asked for 4 pounds of lamb chops. The butcher cleaned the fell (a papery membrane that covers the surface fat and can be quite tough) for me and sliced the racks into individual pieces.

This particular butcher shop, as are the rest within walking distance of my house, is a zabiha halal butcher. I knew it was the Muslim version of "kosher," but that's all I knew. So I decided to do a little research.

"Halal" means "lawful" and "zabiha" is derived from the word "zabaha" which means that an animal is killed by slitting its throat. The traditional method for butchering used in America is to have the animal stunned with an electroshock so it's unconscious and then its throat is slit and it is drained of blood. However, since its central nervous system is frozen by the shock, its heart doesn't pump, so not all of the blood is removed from the body of the animal.

In Islamic cultures, eating of blood is strictly prohibited, so for zabiha halal meat the animal isn't stunned so that all of the blood can leave the body. The other necessary aspect of a zabiha slaughter is that the name of Allah must be uttered as the animal's throat is slit.

Other restrictions on truly halal meat is that the animal itself cannot consume meat or blood — it must be a herbivore up to the point of slaughter. Many factory farming methods involve turning the blood that is drained from animals into animal feed. It is also not halal for an animal to have consumed hormones. Many animals are given estrogen, which causes them to gain weight over a shorter period of time. And injection of nitrites or nitrates (preservatives) into the meat is prohibited. These keep the meat looking red longer which increases the visual shelf life of meat, but not the flavor.

So essentially, zabiha means that the animal was slaughtered according to Islamic law, but halal means it was raised according to Islamic law before it was sent to slaughter. So meat that is just zabiha is cheaper than meat that is zabiha halal. But, interestingly enough, the prices that I've found on halal meat are just a touch more expensive than the prices I'd find in a large grocery store. The boneless, skinless chicken breast I was hoping to purchase would have been $2.19 per pound. Compare that to what you'd find wrapped in saran wrap and styrofoam.

And the lamb chops I purchased were $4.25 per pound, quite a bargain if it meant I was getting hormone-free meat which hadn't been fed "animal meal." So it isn't quite the same as buying organic, free-range meat, but it is a step closer. And the flavor shows.

Since I had never purchased red meat from this butcher before, and since I was grilling it, I decided I would brine the meat before putting it on the grill just in case it was a little less tender than I would like. A brine is similar to a marinade, but there's just more of it. With a marinade you can have a thin coating of flavor on the meat. With a brine you essentially soak the meat in a mixture of liquid, salt and sugar. Water will work if you'll be adding flavoring to the meat after it is cooked. For example, if you're brining shrimp that will be dipped in cocktail sauce, you don't need a lot of flavor in the liquid.

Since I was hoping that no one would ask me for steak sauce, I decided to make the brine for my lambchops as flavorful as possible.

Brine for 4 pounds of lamb chops:
1/2 bottle of sweet wine (I used a bottle of rhubarb wine we bought in Wisconsin.)
1/2 cup of salt
1/4 cup of sugar (if you use a dry wine, increase the sugar to 1/2 cup)
4-5 cloves of garlic, smashed
5 stalks of rosemary

Mix the above ingredients in a sauce pan and heat over medium high flame until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Try not to bring it to a boil — if you do, throw in a couple handfuls of ice to lower the temperature. Place the meat in a large bowl or container that can be sealed and shaken. Pour the warm mixture over the meat, seal the bowl and place it in the refrigerator for at least two hours and preferably four.

Once the brine has had time to work its magic and once you have hot coals, you're ready to don your apron, grab your tongs and put your dinner to the test. To find out if your grills are hot enough, place an ice cube on the grill and if it melts in 20 seconds, you're ready to begin grilling.

Place the meaty portion of the chop over the hottest part of the grill. Try not to have the chops touch each other. Once all of the meat is on the grill, cover the lid and let it cook for about two minutes. Open the lid and flip the meat, keeping the meaty portion toward the center. Close the lid and let it cook for another two minutes. Open the lid and use a sharp knife and a fork to cut into one of the chops. It should be have a nice brown crust and still be pink in the center. If it isn't, move the chops away from the hottest part of the coals to the outside of the grill, close the lid and check again after another minute or two. By this time they really should be ready to remove from the fire and eat. In less than seven minutes you just made quite a pile of meat.

If you like you're meat more on the rare to medium-rare side, complete the above steps without closing the lid to the grill.

If you have another cut of meat that is 1 inch thick but much bigger in diameter, you'll also want to cook it near the hottest part of the coals for a few minutes on each side to get the nice grill crust, and then you'll want to move it to the edges of the grill where it can get indirect heat until the middle is done. Indirect heat only works if the grill lid is closed, otherwise you're just cooking the meat on one side instead of surrounding it with heat.

I have to admit that I'm slowly overcoming my fear of the grill. I have quite a tendency to burn myself in the kitchen, which is why I have fireproof oven mitts that I use religiously. Flames and hot grills have scared me enough to hand the reins over to someone else, but I've decided that this summer will be the year that I learn to make a variety of things on the grill, so stay tuned.

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