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North woods freezers hold food unimaginable to the city slicker

Amy Thielen

Friends from New York City ask me what it's like to live out here and sometimes I don't know where to begin, or how to explain the differences between living inside the buzzing hive of Brooklyn and here, outside, beneath the quiet moon-washed sky of the rural north.

I grew up here, so moving back home was a familiar return. The reasons I love it are understandably dense and infinite, blurred by the intensity of my childhood memories smacking up against the present.

So I might say something like, "It's great. I have a big chest freezer full of local farm-raised chickens and part of a friend's pig. And I just picked up a whole baby lamb. Packaged, I mean, split into roasts and chops. It weighed just 50 pounds at processing!"

Silence. I'm sure they think I've gone a little loopy. I was the girl who, two years ago, was gushing about scoring marked-down boots at the sample sale, and now all I can talk about is a rare adolescent sheep.

But foodwise (and that looms large in my life), the chest freezer signifies a lot of things. For starters, it allows me to select the animals I want to eat all winter. My city friends assume it's all organic, but when I went to pick up my chickens I never even asked the farmer that question. The place looked good, the birds looked clean and fat and they were local. I took it as a matter of course that chicken was her own main protein and that she only fed them things she'd want to eat herself.

Secondly, keeping everything frozen requires some planning, especially as I like to defrost meat slowly in the refrigerator or a bath of ice cold water. But even this feels right, like working here in the kitchen is supposed to involve planning and slow processes. Maybe until now I've been craving the space and time for my intentions to unfurl, to stretch out and find their necessary shapes.

But symbols aside, the chest freezer is also practical and economical. I've stocked it with heirloom pork, pastured chickens, plenty of venison, occasional game birds and the aforementioned lamb. That really was a score, let me tell you.

This year I knew I wanted some lamb in the freezer, but I didn't want a mature one; I wanted a baby, 60 pounds or less.

Back in New York, I worked in a restaurant where we cooked an entire baby lamb every night for dinner service. It was a true milkfed baby and weighed just thirty-five pounds dressed. It was fork-tender, pale and tasted so unlike the ruddy full-grown Colorado chops I knew that I would have sworn it was veal if not for the quarter-sized lamb chops.

Other cultures, like the Greeks, like their lamb young, too. I think that at a certain age, lamb begins to take on the muskiness of mutton. Some people like the flavor but I usually find that lambs processed at a weight of 125 taste too strong for me. The fifty-pounder still tastes like lamb, but calmer, sweeter and more delicate.

I called my cousins. They have a butcher shop in Pierz and they're accustomed to my picky requests (and my mother's picky requests, and my grandmother's picky requests . . . .)

They called the next day with good news: the farmer said he'd bring in a 50-pounder. A few days later I drove down to pick up my lamb and ever since I've been defrosting a package a week, plodding through my delicious, clean-tasting stash.

I may not be able to buy my favorite freshly baked baguettes here as I did in New York, but the custom meat in my freezer more than makes up for it.

P.S., If you have local lamb for sale, please post in the Web comments space. Thanks!

Norwegian lamb and cabbage stew

Serves 4

This traditional recipe - a boiled dinner of lamb and cabbage - has simple spicing but no garlic. It relies on the spiciness of the peppercorns and onion, and the earthiness of the lamb. Lamb neck works well here, but so does lamb shoulder.

Serve with boiled potatoes (mashed a bit on the plate to soak up the juices) and green beans.

3 pounds lamb shoulder or neck, cut into 3-inch cubes, preferably on the bone (ask your butcher to saw for you)

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided, plus to taste

1 sweet onion

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 large sprigs rosemary

10 allspice berries

1/4 head green cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares

1 medium rutabaga

9 cups water

Heat a heavy soup pot over high heat and add the canola oil. Season the bones and neck with 1/2 teapoon salt and brown the meat on all sides; remove.

Peel the onion carefully, keeping the root end intact. Cut in half lengthwise and add to the hot oil in the pot. Brown deeply, and remove. Pour out the oil, and add the meat and onion back to the pot. Cover with the 9 cups of water.

Make a sachet out of a square of wet and wrung-out cheesecloth: put the peppercorns, rosemary and allspice in the center and tie up the corners into a tight package. Add the sachet to the pot and bring to a simmer. Skim off any foam and excess fat and cover the contents of the stew with an offset lid.

Bring the liquid in the pot to a soft, inaudible simmer and cook for 3 hours, or until the lamb tests almost fully tender when poked with a thin fork. Skim off excess fat from time to time.

Season the broth with the remaining salt to taste.

Add the rutabaga and cabbage and simmer very slowly for one more hour, or until the vegetables are fully tender.

Serve the stew with boiled, buttered potatoes.