It’s not news that chef Patrick O’Connell is a true culinary pioneer when it comes to American cuisine. At his three-MICHELIN-starred Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, the lauded chef uses classical French techniques to deliver American flavors, like sweet pea panna cotta with baby radishes, snow peas and chilled pea flower consommé; summer vegetable ravioli with roasted sweet corn and chanterelle mushrooms; and cashew-crusted soft-shell crab tempura with a mélange of green papaya, cucumber and bean sprouts. One dish in particular—a starter of lamb carpaccio that’s topped with a silky Parmesan-studded Caesar salad ice cream—has lived on the menu for many years running.
The inspiration came from a trip taken to Italy many years back; O’Connell had never tasted carpaccio before. “I was astonished at how something seemingly so simple could be so incredibly fascinating for the palate and satisfying,” he recalls. And so, the very next night, he returned to the same restaurant and ordered it again.
Carpaccio was on the brain when he returned to Virginia. “We had access to great lamb at the time and I thought we should go for it,” he says. Back then—28 years ago to be precise—O’Connell seasoned his lamb with rosemary and crushed black pepper. “In everything I cook I try to obtain a dual texture so you have something that never bores the palate,” he says. The dish was served with tabbouleh, an item that “was an excellent pairing at a time when tabbouleh was exciting and no one knew what it was.” When chef and the team grew tired of tabbouleh and wanted to give the dish an upgrade, he turned to ice cream, knowing full well that the idea was “wacky” but wanting to push guests.
“We held our breath, put it out there and my goodness—it had universal appeal,” he laughs. “They were fascinated by how well the ice cream complemented the lamb and that it actually provides a sauce . . . and the novelty of it holds their interest. To this day, every single person from children to grandmothers to jaded MICHELIN travelers, they all love it.”
Though intricate, the dish can be replicated at home. At the restaurant, the lamb is seared, sliced paper-thin, laid out in concentric circles on wax paper, stacked and chilled. “It takes no space in the refrigerator,” adds O’Connell. “Then you just turn it upside-down and flop it off the plate and peel the deli paper off and it looks like you’ve spent hours arranging this with tweezers.” The plate is finished with the aforementioned ice cream (which has been molded into individual portions and stored in the freezer), a swoosh of pesto and Caesar dressing not in ice cream form. (“So you have Caesar two ways.”) The meat is brushed with lemon juice, olive oil, a pinch of sugar and some basil leaves that have been freshly-plucked from the garden.
O’Connell does, however, give a cautionary note: “You definitely do not wish to eat the ice cream alone on its own—it’s intended to complement the meat,” he says. Other ice cream tips he has for beginners: always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. “I’m frustrated everyday by the fact that young people, who have access to everything, don’t read anymore,” he says. “I always use the cardinal rule [of] ‘make it as written three times precisely the same way then go riff on it and make it whatever you want.’” O’Connell also suggests using both good quality cream and eggs from a local farmers’ market or a health food store. (The Inn at Little Washington sources its dairy from Trickling Springs.) “It makes a world of difference.”
Here's how to make it at home.
Carpaccio of Herb-Crusted Baby Lamb with Caesar Salad Ice CreamCourtesy of Chef/Owner Patrick O’Connell, The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, preferably grated on a microplane
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sugar, salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a blender or food processor, purée the basil, pine nuts, parsley and garlic until smooth. With the motor running add the olive oil in a thin stream. Add the Parmesan and lemon juice; season with sugar, salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated until ready to use.
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2 cups vegetable or grape seed oil
1 whole garlic clove, peeled
1 sprig fresh rosemary
6 to 8 slices of baguette or French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (approximately 2 cups)
Salt, to taste
1. In a heavy, 1 quart sauce pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil to about 350˚F. Add the garlic clove to season the oil. Once the clove is golden brown but not burned, remove from the oil and discard. Add the rosemary and fry for 30 seconds or so and then discard.
2. Add the croutons in two batches and fry until golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon or spider and drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Set aside until ready to use.
1 to 1 1/2 pounds of lamb loin, off the bone and trimmed of all sinew and fat
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dried oregano
1/2 cup dried thyme
1/2 cup dried basil
1/2 cup dried tarragon
Grape seed or vegetable oil for searing
1. Season the lamb loin with salt and pepper and allow it to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.
2. Combine the herbs in a small bowl and coat the loin with the herb mixture.
3. Fill a heavy-bottomed or cast-iron skillet with 1/8- to 1/4-inch oil and set over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the loin and evenly sear on all sides. Remove from the pan and let cool, preferably on a rack. Once cooled, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze until ready to use. (Freezing allows you to get paper thin slices.)
1 large egg yolk
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 anchovy fillet, minced
Pinch of cayenne
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup salad or vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Combine the yolk, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, Parmesan, garlic, anchovies and cayenne in a food processor or blender. With the motor running, add the oils in a thin stream. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve in the refrigerator until ready to use. (The dressing will keep up to 4 days.)
Caesar Salad Ice Cream
7 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
4 1/3 cups whole milk
3/4 cup powdered milk
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 anchovy fillets, minced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the yolks and sugar. In a large sauce pan over medium heat, combine the milk, powdered milk, Parmesan cheese, anchovies and garlic and bring just to a boil, stirring constantly.
2. Place the egg yolk mixture in the top of a double boiler and slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture and cook, whisking regularly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the mixture from heat and let cool. Whisk in Worcestershire, Dijon and season with salt and pepper.
3. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Keep in the freezer until ready to serve or up to one month.
3 red pearl onions, peeled and sliced in paper-thin rings
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1/2 cup baby arugula leaves
6 leaves from a heart of romaine lettuce
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Scoop the Caesar ice cream into small balls and keep in the freezer until ready to serve.
2. Spread 1 tablespoon of pesto in an arc across the corner of the plate.
3. Remove the lamb from the freezer and cut into paper thin slices. Arrange the slices into 4 or 5 overlapping rows in the center of 6 chilled serving plates.
4. Sprinkle the lamb with the red onion slices, capers, chives, croutons and arugula.
5. In a medium bowl toss the lettuce leaves with enough of the Caesar Dressing to thoroughly coat and place the romaine leaf on the corner opposite the pesto. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese.
6. Scatter 3 to 4 small scoops of Caesar ice cream across the lamb and serve immediately.
Image courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington.