A person’s first taste of lamb can be one of those great palate-changers, a moment when you realize there is a lot more for dinner than the same old steak. Fresh lamb shank, leg or loin has an earthy richness and complexity that can make a lot of beef and pork seem ho-hum by comparison.
Some rookies are introduced to lamb in the form of a rack or chop at white tablecloth establishments. Others have devoured a gyro with Feta or a curry dish at an Indian eatery without ever noticing that the craveable meat is lamb.
The thing is, the vast majority of Americans have never actually tasted lamb. It wasn’t served as the Sunday roast so we don’t know how to cook lamb, much less how to “French” a rib. That unfamiliarity is a bit mystifying since lamb plays such a central role in Christian, Jewish and Islamic celebrations where spring lamb is a centerpiece symbolic dish.
Sheep arrived in the Americas in 1493 on Columbus’s second voyage and leg of lamb was served shortly thereafter. Thomas Jefferson kept a small herd at Monticello and it was on the menu at Mount Vernon where Martha Washington’s celebratory Grand Leg of Lamb was stuffed with a laundry list of ingredients including anchovies, lemon and capers. The mysterious bright green mint jelly came later.
Lamb’s climb to popularity has changed as well-traveled diners have tasted it overseas and Millennials have grown up eating food from across the globe and sometimes all at the same meal. Ground lamb is showing up on menus in meatloaf and meatballs, on flatbreads and in grilled, finger-thick merguez sausage. In other words, lamb deniers — even noted chefs — are being won over by the original red meat.
Chef Hosea Rosenberg never encountered or tasted lamb at all when he was growing up. “I finally tried it at a Moroccan restaurant I worked at in college, a lamb tagine, and I loved the flavor,” he says. Rosenberg won season five of Bravo’s “Top Chef” series and now operates Blackbelly, a hoof-to-plate Colorado eatery with a newly opened artisan butcher shop on the premises.
“Lamb had a reputation for being gamey tasting but what that says is that people haven’t had good lamb,” he says. Many in the World War II generation tended to reject lamb because they were served mutton — meat from older and larger animals.
Rosenberg is a diehard believer in the superiority of American lamb despite the fact Australian and New Zealand lamb is typically lower-priced at supermarkets. “The imported lamb just doesn’t taste as mild, he says.
Blackbelly’s menu includes lamb with braised fennel, wild mushrooms, spiced carrot puree and chickpeas, a family-style meal built around a roast leg and wood-grilled lamb steaks.
Thinking About Muscles
While there are different taste characteristics to various lamb breeds the meat is not typically sold by breed except when buying from a farmer or small butcher. There is no “Angus” or “Kobe” of lamb that are widely available. Ultimately age is the most important factor in how lamb tastes.
Matching the right cut with the best cooking technique is essential, as it is for pork and beef. “Think of it like this: If a muscle is used a lot like a leg, shank or shoulder, it needs to cook low and slow to soften all that connective tissue. Ribs and loins don’t get flexed and are tender. They cook very fast,” he says.
So treat a boneless lamb loin as you would a New York strip — it’s the same cut but smaller. For best results, simply season and sear the loin on both sides on top of the stove in a cast iron pan and then transfer the pan to the oven to finish. It should be served no more than medium rare otherwise the meat can get dry and tough.
In fairly recent cookbooks the directions for cooking lamb often tell cooks to trim off all visible fat. With fresh young lamb you should leave a little fat on for flavor as well as moistness.
Lamb chops need only about two to four minutes on a grill or in a pan. The thickness of the chops determines the cooking time. Salting lamb chops an hour before grilling helps to keep them moist. Cook those tender little “lollipop” chops carefully at the very last minute so they can be served hot straight to the plate from the pan.
Lamb And Cheese
Lamb shoulder and leg need to be prepared low and slow and must be set on a rack above the bottom of the pan so the meat cooks evenly and doesn’t sit in and reabsorb the fat. For a change of taste, shanks are an ideal candidate to be marinated, coated in spices and cooked slowly in a wood smoker.
Lamb adjusts to almost any seasoning scheme but the best flavors seem to come from the places where it has been served the longest, around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East and in India. In other words, lamb works well with olives, sea salt, black pepper, garlic, olive oil, lemon and rosemary and the region’s cheeses from Pecorino Romano and Chevre to a dozen variations on a Feta theme.
It is that flavorful shoulder, shank and leg meat that pairs well with cheeses, especially in sandwiches and salads and with thick tangy yogurt sauces like Greek tzatziki and Indian raita. Lamb and dairy show up on bistro menus as lamb shank ragout with fresh Ricotta, lamb leg French dip sandwiches with Emmentaler, or grilled yogurt-marinated lamb loin chops. Upscale burger chains are popularizing lamb burgers, often seasoned like gyros and served with Feta or Chevre.
Lamb also has a natural compatibility with red wines, and is often paired with Pinot Noir. Tuscan wines and reds with some acidity, tannins and fruit to balance the rich earthy notes in roast leg or lamb sirloin steak with a highly hopped and aromatic India pale ale (IPA), are particularly good pairings.
The final step is to NOT mess with the perfection that is a well-cooked piece of mild lamb by serving it with that truly horrific fluorescent green mint jelly. Try a fresh pico de gallo with chilies, an herbaceous chimichurri sauce or a tart gremolata. Save the sweet sauces and chutneys for meats that have a natural affinity for sweetness: pork, goose and venison.
To get you started on the path to lamb, the American Lamb Board offers recipes for roasted leg of lamb and pulled lamb sandwiches with goat cheese, arugula and caramelized onions.
Pulled Lamb Sandwiches with Goat Cheese, Arugula and Caramelized Onions
2-3 American lamb shanks (about 3 pounds)
1 qt chicken broth
2 tsp chili powder
2 medium onions
2 Tbsp olive oil
8 slices rustic bread, toasted, or 4 crisped tortillas
5-6 oz Chèvre
2 cups arugula or baby spinach leaves
2 tomatoes, sliced, or 4 bottled roasted red bell peppers, drained
In a kettle, combine lamb shanks with broth, chili powder and 1 onion, sliced. Cover; bring to a boil. Simmer 2 hours or until lamb is tender. Remove shanks from broth and when cool enough to handle, pull meat off bones into shredded pieces. Slice remaining onion; gently sauté in oil over medium heat until sweet and caramelized.
Spread bread with goat cheese. Stack 4 slices with arugula, tomatoes, shredded lamb and caramelized onions. Close sandwiches. If preferred, stack all ingredients on tortillas.
Roasted Leg of American Lamb with Feta Vinaigrette
Serves: About 8
1 American lamb leg, boneless (6 to 7 pounds)
1 pt plain Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp curry powder
4 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
½ cup juice from 2 lemons
2 oz red wine vinegar
½ bunch parsley, chopped
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
½ lb Feta cheese, coarsely crumbled
Mix yogurt, curry, garlic and salt; rub over lamb. Refrigerate; marinate overnight. Place lamb on roasting rack in a roasting pan.
Roast at 375°F for approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches desired doneness. Remove from oven; let rest for 15 minutes. Slice to desired thickness; top with Feta vinaigrette. Serve with roasted fingerling potatoes and green beans.
To make vinaigrette, mix lemon juice, vinegar, parsley, oil, salt and pepper and then add the cheese.CC
John Lehndorff is a Colorado food journalist and host of Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM. Read his culinary blog Nibbles at johnlehndorff.wordpress.com.