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January, 2010

Guest Chef Gretchen Shultz

By Dennis Linden

This month’s featured recipe, a warming Braised Baby Lamb Ragout served by Chef Gretchen Schultz of Aramark at Honda Center, is the perfect dish for a chilly January evening
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Ragout (pronounced ragoo) requires a slow cook over low heat. The word is of French derivation, meaning “to revive the taste” or “bring back one's appetite”, which certainly sums up the sensation that this scrumptiously seasoned stew evokes from first bite. This recipe should be enjoyed for its process as well as the flavorful end results, so prepare it when you have the time to savor each of its stages. Ingredients are stacked in a purposeful order, like building blocks, each adding a new smell and taste to the whole of the braising liquid. Then, after baking slowly under parchment paper for two hours, the lamb is removed so the braising liquid can be puréed and strained into a thick, well-seasoned sauce. This is the soul of a successful ragout.

One prep note, speaking of sauce essence: the veal stock called for in Gretchen’s recipe is essential. I was surprised to find a concentrated form of this ingredient quite easily in the refrigerated rack of a small neighborhood gourmet food shop. The flavor payoff is well worth the effort. Besides, using another kind of stock would make another kind of ragout! The other wow factor of this dish is the amazing polenta that the chef plates her ragout over. Though polenta is a traditional accompaniment to lamb in Italian cooking, it’s the chef’s touch of blending in a mascarpone cheese as the polenta is being formed that makes it memorable. The mascarpone lightens it noticeably, adding a slightly creamy texture to the granular qualities of the corn grits that soften it nicely. Of course, there is a readymade alternative to standing at the stove for 40 minutes tending to a hot pot of corn meal with Melissa’s Organic Polenta, without the mascarpone. This ragout is so steeped in flavor that it works very well with the precooked polenta, which really is as tasty as it is convenient on its own!

Actually, to appreciate just how convenient precooked polenta can be when preparation time may be limited, you should prepare polenta from scratch at least once. So try both for this dish! Make and use up the mascarpone blend on the first dinner service and then try the readymade polenta for a quick reheating of the leftovers at lunch the next day. A cautionary note: tantalizing aromas will emanate from the kitchen during the entire baking process of this dish. True to the definition of its name, these smells become a very pleasant two-hour attack on the senses that definitely arouse the appetite. Serve with a warm crusty bread to sop up every drop of the truly savory braising sauce! Chef Gretchen Schultz approaches her kitchen at the Honda Center, a premiere entertainment and sports venue in Anaheim, California, no differently than she would if she were still opening new restaurants for Wolfgang Puck, which is where she honed her cooking and kitchen management skills before jumping into the culinary world of large stadiums, arenas and special event theaters.

“To be honest, when I saw my first 30-gallon vat of chicken stock, especially considering my background with Wolfgang, I did not foresee this kind of cooking in my future,” recalled Gretchen of her youthful beginnings with Aramark Corporation. “So, with all the idealistic fervor and boldness that comes with being a young confident chef, I told them [Aramark] that I would only consider a position with the company if I were allowed to continue cooking with the same freedom of style and attention to individual service that had always been my way. Without blinking, the executives at Aramark responded that my creativity and independence were exactly the attributes they felt were needed at another Aramark-serviced dinner theater venue called, The Grove. In the five years since, I have never been asked or found it necessary to compromise my approach to cooking in any way. It’s been a wonderful relationship.” Gretchen’s kitchen caters to the eighty-four luxury suites in the Center as well as the members-only Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Club that seats two-hundred. There are a few culinary challenges that come with the Sports and Entertainment sector of foodservice that does differ greatly from a private restaurant kitchen. For one, everything on the menu must be served in a relatively short amount of time; Gretchen’s flavors may linger on the palate for longer, but the fact is that her service takes place within the window of the two or three hour event that is happening in the Center.

Also, the chef’s menus must be as creative and as varied as any restaurant, maybe even more so, because many of Gretchen’s clientele are season ticket regulars who should be offered variety. The variety of events held at the Center also present an equal variety of culinary tastes that also drive the chef’s menus. Each service takes a very special teamwork that Chef Gretchen and her crew, Genaro Garcia, Eladio Ruiz, and Omar Almaraz, have perfected to a science. “As you can imagine, Andrea BocelIi, Metallica and a Ducks hockey game each draw a different audience with very different cuisine needs. I work with three amazing professionals who are key to this nightly challenge. These guys have been with me for years; together we are as much a well-honed team as any appearing at this arena,” Chef Gretchen stated with obvious professional pride. “It’s a fascinating culinary environment and I have to admit that it’s really a pleasure to come to work each day, and who can ask for more than that?”

Braised Baby Lamb Ragout
Braised Baby Lamb Ragout
Created by Chef Gretchen Schultz

Ingredients
Ragout:

Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
10 lbs. lamb shoulder, carved into small chunks
1 cup shallots, minced
1 cup organic celery, small dice
1 cup organic carrots, small dice
4 organic garlic cloves, minced
4 oz. tomato paste
2 qts. veal stock
1 Tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 Tbsp rosemary, chopped

Polenta:
2 cups polenta meal (option: Melissa’s Organic Polenta)
4 cups chicken stock
6 oz. butter Salt to taste
6 oz. Mascarpone cheese

Accompanying Garnishments:
1 pint red pear tomatoes, roasted
1 pint yellow pear tomatoes, roasted
Several sprigs of fresh arugula
1 Tbsp. salt 1 tsp. black pepper
½ cup Kalamata olives, halved
8 oz. butter

Preparation
Ragout
:
In a hot braiser, heat the olive oil. Season lamb with salt and pepper. Place lamb in the pan and sear all sides on high heat. When lamb is brown, remove from pan. Add shallot, carrot and celery, sauté until tender. Add garlic and cook until soft. Add tomato paste and cook to bring out sugars. Add lamb meat back to the vegetables, along with the veal stock, thyme and rosemary. Place a piece of parchment on top of the stock and cover the pan with foil or a lid. Place the pan in a 350 degree oven and bake 2 hours. Remove pan and cool. Remove the meat from the liquid. In a food processor, purée the braising liquid, then strain the purée through a fine mesh sieve. Return the lamb to the braising liquid. Finish with the cold butter. Season if needed.

Polenta:
Bring chicken stock to a boil in a wide-bottomed pot, add the salt and butter. Pour in the corn meal in a very slow stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Mix in mascarpone, stirring in the same direction for about a half-hour as the mush thickens. Finished polenta should have the consistency of very firm mashed potatoes and peel easily off the sides of the pot.

Plating:
Ladle the lamb ragout on top of the polenta. Then, garnish with the roasted tomatoes, olives, a few leaves of fresh arugula and braising liquid.