February 27, 2008 in Food

A Demand for Lamb

Carolyn Lamberson Correspondent
Kathy Plonka photo

Carolyn Lamberson puts the finishing touch on her Citrus-Braised Lamb Shanks.
(Full-size photo)

Is it done?

» For safety, the USDA recommends cooking lamb patties and ground lamb mixtures such as meat loaf to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature.

» Whole muscle meats such as roasts, steaks, and chops may be cooked to 145 degrees for medium rare, 160 degrees for medium, or 170 degrees for well-done lamb, according to the USDA.

» However, most people prefer their lamb to be cooked to a lower temperature. Editors from Cook’s Illustrated suggest cooking lamb roasts, steaks and chops to 125 degrees for medium-rare, or 130 to 135 degrees for medium to medium-well.

Spring is around the corner. Ambitious home cooks already may be thinking about the menus for Easter and Passover feasts. Ham might be on that menu. Or a rib roast. Or maybe lamb.

Lamb is not a meat that everyone enjoys. Some people can’t get past the fact that lambs are, well, cute. Other people simply don’t like the taste.

But for those who enjoy lamb, spring is a good time. Young lamb is a lean meat that is prized for its mildness and its tenderness.

Leg of lamb makes frequent appearances at spring celebration meals. So does the rack of lamb. But these represent only a small portion of lamb. Lamb shoulder makes an excellent roast. Lamb shanks are great in braised dishes. The loin is good for roasting whole or sliced into chops.

“Lately there’s been a bigger push toward lamb sirloin. Restaurants use it,” said Renea Yamada of Egger’s Meats on Spokane’s South Hill. “It’s lean and tender.”

The American Lamb Board reports that in the past decade, lamb demand has increased nearly 6 percent after years of decline. The board forecasts that as the price of beef continues to rise – as a result of increased corn prices and shipping costs – lamb will become an attractive option for consumers.

Egger’s Yamada said that while the shop sells most of its lamb around the holidays – Christmas, Easter and Passover – they sell a lot year-round.

“There’s definitely a demand in the city for lamb,” she said.

Buying it is one thing. Cooking it successfully can be another.

“We get a lot of phone calls about how to cook lamb,” said Bonners Ferry, Idaho, lamb rancher Marlene Stanley. Stanley runs the Good Shepherd Lamb Co. with her husband, Gordon. They soon will begin their fourth season selling their lamb at the Kootenai County Farmers’ Market.

While lamb is pretty lean, the fat can pose a challenge for some cooks.

“It’s lean, yet the fat that’s there is still greasy,” said Tim Branen, owner of Tim’s Special Cut Meats in Coeur d’Alene. “If you overcook lamb, you’re lost. It’s got to be rare.”

Stanley offers her trick for cooking lamb: “Get rid of the fat before you cook it. That’s the trick to getting past that lamb taste,” she said.

Rosemary, garlic and olive oil are natural, traditional flavors associated with lamb. Mint, either in jelly form or in sauce, also is pretty traditional. Lamb is featured prominently in both Indian and Greek cuisine, so the meat is readily adaptable to those flavors as well.

Both Stanley and Yamada recommend using citrus. Branen’s favorite recipe involves taking a boneless leg or shoulder roast, butterflying it to about an inch thick, then marinating it for as long as possible in a combination of garlic and Bernstein’s Italian Dressing. He then cooks it on the grill until it’s rare inside but crispy outside.

“I think the Italian dressing gives it a little zing,” he said.

Grilling is a fantastic way to cook lamb, Stanley said.

“I cook (lamb) like I cook beef,” she said. “We grill about 95 percent of our lamb.”

The shanks, however, are best braised. Lamb ribs are great smoked, Stanley said. And don’t forget the ground lamb.

“People pass up ground lamb, but it’s excellent if it’s lean,” she said.

Well-stocked grocery stores will have ground lamb on hand, as well as leg roasts, chops and racks, and maybe shanks.

Egger’s on the South Hill keeps a full line of lamb in stock. Tim’s in Coeur d’Alene keeps a lot, too. What he doesn’t carry, he generally can get with a few days notice. Many area lamb growers also will sell direct to consumers.

Half of the lamb sold in the United States is imported, often from New Zealand or Australia. Both Egger’s and Tim’s stock Northwest-grown lamb.

“I think the meat is sweeter on domestic lambs,” Steve Egger said. “I feel that the local lamb is a better product.”

Stanley, the lamb rancher, would agree.

“American lamb is totally handled differently in terms of what it’s grazed on,” she said, adding that her family’s lamb feeds on alfalfa and barley. “That’s what you see at the farmers’ market – people willing to pay a little bit more to have something that’s naturally, organically grown. They know they’re getting something that hasn’t spent its whole life in a feed lot.”

Citrus-Braised Lamb Shanks

From “The River Cottage Meat Book” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 carrot, finely diced

1 onion, finely diced

2 celery ribs, finely diced

3 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 bottle white wine

1 cup lamb stock or water

Juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange

4 lamb shanks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Heat some of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or casserole. Add the carrot, onion and celery and sweat over low heat, without browning, until tender. Add the thyme, bay leaves, garlic, tomato paste, wine and lamb stock or water, along with all but a few pinches of the zests and a tablespoon of each juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a separate large sauté pan and brown the shanks on all sides, seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Add the shanks to the Dutch oven or casserole and cover. Transfer to the oven and cook for about 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is completely tender and falling off the bone.

Remove the shanks from the pan and keep warm while you finish the sauce. Skim off some of the fat from the surface of the sauce, then taste the liquid for seasoning and to assess its intensity. Boil to reduce the sauce if you think it needs it. Stir in the reserved lemon and orange citrus juices to refresh the citrus flavor. Serve the lamb shanks and sauce on warmed plates with a generous amount of sauce spooned over and sprinkled with a little parsley and a pinch of citrus zest. Serve with mashed potatoes, soft polenta or some creamy beans such as butter beans or cannellini.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Skillet-Roasted Lamb Loins with Herbs

By Cathal Amrstrong, Food & Wine Magazine, March 2008

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large shallot, minced

1 teaspoon minced rosemary

1 teaspoon minced sage

1 teaspoon minced marjoram

1 teaspoon minced thyme

2 boneless lamb loins with tenderloins attached (about 3 pounds), thin layer of fat and rib apron left on, at room temperature

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the oil with the garlic, shallot and herbs. Lay the loins on a work surface, fat side down, and season with salt and pepper. Spread the herb paste all over the lamb. Roll each loin over the tenderloin and rib apron to make a neat roulade. With butcher’s twine, tie the meat at 1-inch intervals. Season the lamb with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a 12-inch skillet (preferably cast-iron), heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil until shimmering. Add the lamb loins and cook over moderate heat, turning, until browned all over, about 20 minutes total.

Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast the loins for 10 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 125 degrees. Transfer the loins to a carving board to rest for 10 minutes.

Cut off the strings. Carve the loins into 1-inch-thick slices and serve.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 438 calories, 34 grams fat (14 grams saturated, 73 percent fat calories), 29 grams protein, less than 1 gram carbohydrate, 119 milligrams cholesterol, less than 1 gram dietary fiber, 153 milligrams sodium.

Slow-Cooked Shoulder of Lamb with Roasted Vegetables

5 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, bone in

Olive oil

Sea salt

Fresh ground pepper

A handful of fresh rosemary sprigs

1 head garlic, broken into cloves

2 red onions, peeled and quartered

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, cut into pieces

1 large leek, trimmed and cut

A handful ripe tomatoes, quartered

2 bay leaves

Fresh thyme sprigs

2 (14-ounce) cans plum tomatoes

1 (750 ml) bottle red wine

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rub the lamb with oil, salt and pepper and put into a roasting pan.

Using a sharp knife, make small incisions all over the lamb and poke rosemary leaves and quartered garlic cloves into each one. This will give great flavor to the meat. Add the rest of the garlic cloves, onions, carrots, celery, leeks and fresh tomatoes to the pan, and tuck the remaining herbs under the meat.

Pour the canned tomatoes over the top, followed by the wine. Cover the pan tightly with a double layer of foil and put it into the oven. Turn down the oven temperature to 300 degrees and cook for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, until the lamb is soft, melting and sticky and you can pull it apart with a fork.

Squeeze the garlic out of the skins and mush it in. Shred the lamb and check the seasoning.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 442 calories, 27 grams fat (12 grams saturated, 56 percent fat calories), 32 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate, 124 milligrams cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams dietary fiber, 116 milligrams sodium.

Mrs. Wheeler’s Irish Stew

From “The River Cottage Meat Book”

4 large lamb sirloin chops (see note)

4 neck chops (optional)

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut in half, or quarters if large

2 large or 4 small onions, peeled and left whole if small, cut in half if large

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2 or 3 pieces

1 medium turnip, peeled and quartered

2 rounded tablespoons pearl barley

About 3 cups water or lamb stock

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Chopped parsley, to garnish

Trim the chops if they are very fatty, and certainly don’t remove all the fat. Put the meat, vegetables and pearl barley in a pot with enough water or stock to just cover them. Season well with salt and pepper and bring to a gentle simmer.

Cook, covered but with the lid slightly ajar, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is completely tender. Check and adjust the seasoning, being generous with the pepper.

Serve in warm bowls or plates with chopped parsley sprinkled over each serving.

Note: Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests using large, meaty chops of mature lamb or even mutton for this dish, not “dainty” cutlets of spring lamb. Mutton will be impossible to find in shops; it may be available directly from area lamb farmers. Judging from other Irish Stew recipes, it seems about 2 pounds of meat – of whichever cut you can find – will suffice.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition per serving (excluding optional neck chops): 287 calories, 8 grams fat (3.6 grams saturated, 26 percent fat calories), 26 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrate, 76 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams dietary fiber, 230 milligrams sodium.

Curried Lamb Balls

From Good Shepherd Lamb Co.

1 pound ground lamb

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pint half and half

4 tablespoons butter

2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder

1 tablespoon cornstarch

4 cups cooked rice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season ground lamb with salt and pepper and mix in chopped garlic. Form meat into 1-inch meatballs and place on a cookie sheet. Bake until they are just pink on the inside, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain off the grease and set the meatballs aside.

In a 2-quart pan, combine half and half, butter and curry powder. Warm the mixture over medium heat until almost boiling. Mix the cornstarch with water to make a slurry, and add to the curry mixture, adding more cornstarch and water if necessary. Continue stirring until the mixture thickens into a gravy.

Place cooked rice in the center of a large platter and place warm meatballs on top. Pour gravy over the dish and serve.

Note: Marlene Stanley and her family refer to this dish as “The Platter.” While she’s cooking the curry, her husband will grill 6 to 8 lamb chops. When they are finished, she’ll place the cooked lamb chops along the edge of the serving dish, alternating them with some candied sweet potatoes.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 357 calories, 20 grams fat (11 grams saturated, 53 percent fat calories), 26 grams carbohydrate, 82 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 140 milligrams sodium.

Roast Lamb

From “The River Cottage Meat Book”

1 bone-in shoulder or leg of lamb, 5 to 8 pounds

2 or 3 large garlic cloves, cut into thick slivers

4 or 5 anchovy fillets, cut into 3 or 4 pieces each

Several sprigs of rosemary, broken in short lengths

Olive oil

1 cup white wine

1 cup water

Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place lamb in a roasting pan. With the tip of a sharp knife, make 12 to 15 slits in the meat 3/4 to 1 1/4 inches deep. Use your finger to push a piece of garlic, a piece of anchovy and a piece of rosemary in each slit. Don’t worry if they stick out a bit.

Rub a little olive oil over the meat and place it in oven. Cook for 30 minutes. Then pour the wine over the meat, reduce heat to 325 degrees and roast for 50 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the size of the meat and the desired internal temperature. (See accompanying factbox for details.)

About 10 minutes before the lamb is done, pour the water into the roasting pan.

When the meat is done, remove it from the pan and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

With the meat drippings, make your favorite traditional gravy, or simply give the roasting pan a good scrape, pour off some of the fat, then taste and adjust the juices with some more wine or seasonings. Keep the roasting pan warm, then carve the meat thickly, laying the slices back in the pan to mingle with the juices.

Yield: 6 to 10 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.

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