When did lamb become the black sheep of the dinner table? In 1912, lamb consumption in the United States was 5 pounds per person per year. Today that number is approximately 0.7 pounds per person, with almost half of Americans admitting they have never even tasted lamb. Compare that to the 55 pounds of beef, 50 pounds of pork, and 108 pounds of poultry consumed per person this past year in this country alone, and it’s apparent that perhaps even Bo Peep isn’t that fond of sheep.
The reasons for lamb’s plummeting popularity are varied, but perhaps a better understanding of what is currently American’s least favorite red meat might help restore it to its former glory. Meat labeled as lamb comes from a sheep less than 1 year of age, has very little fat, and tends to be pink or very pale red in color. Spring lambs are the very youngest of this category; they are less than 3 months of age, extremely tender, and have a milder color and flavor than older lambs.
Although the term hogget is not typically used in American retail, it refers to meat from a young sheep between 1 and 2 years of age. It has a darker color than lamb and is gamier in flavor.
And then there is mutton.
High in fat and intensely red in color, mutton is defined as meat from a sheep 3 to 4 years of age. It has a taste that very few Americans have acquired. While Miracle Max in The Princess Bride might have extolled the virtues of a good M.L.T. – “mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich; where the mutton is nice and lean, and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky. I love that.” – even ranking it slightly above the ecstasies of true love, it would be difficult to find a nonfictional diner who shares Max’s enthusiasm. Most find mutton tough, gamey, and unpleasantly strong in flavor.
Clearly the older the sheep, the less appetizing it will be to the majority of American consumers. This may be one reason why lamb is not a prevalent red meat choice. Once a person is served a more mature lamb, one that is mutton headed if not exactly old, it is difficult to erase that taste from the palate memory, resulting in the temptation to permanently separate lamb from the herd of other dinner time options.
Historical events may have also colored American’s opinion of lamb. In the 1800s, cattle ranchers were opposed to the idea of sharing plain lands with sheep farmers. Sheep had a pesky habit of slipping through their barbed wire fences and grazing at neighboring farms. Since sheep graze closer to the ground than cattle and horses, regrowing pastures that cattle ranchers could use for their own livestock required more time. Cattlemen were significantly more politically established than their sheep rearing counterparts, many of whom were immigrants, and inevitably sheep production gave way to the bovines. The rising cost of lamb, which is still significantly more expensive per pound than beef, pork, or poultry, coincided with American’s declining interest in lamb cuisine.
Lamb did enjoy a comeback in the early 1900s, but GIs returning home from WWII put the kibosh on lamb kabobs, lamb chops, lamb roasts, and any other entree that looked or smelled suspiciously of lamb. Fed a constant diet of mutton dressed in lamb’s clothing, American troops equated their gamey, stringy, almost indigestible rations with real lamb and understandably banned all future sheep-related entrees from their dinner tables. Since then, American lamb consumption has continued to decline.
And that is just too bah bah bad because lamb, real lamb, cooked correctly is utterly amazing.
An excellent source of iron, protein, zinc, vitamin B-12, and niacin, lamb can boost the immune system and promote a healthier nervous system. It meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition for lean meat and provides a higher concentration per ounce of omega-3 fatty acids, those friendly fats that help prevent heart disease and strokes, than beef.
Lamb also conjures images of happy family gatherings because many festive meals feature lamb as part of a religious celebration. The most widely acknowledged symbol of Easter, it is often cooked as part of an Easter banquet. The Pope’s Easter dinner actually features a whole roasted lamb. The Jewish holiday of Passover requires that a lamb shank be placed on the traditional Seder plate, and a lamb dish is frequently incorporated into the Passover meal. Those of the Islamic faith often enjoy lamb as part of their holidays, such as Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, and Ramadan, when it is used to break the daily fast. And, of course, National Lamb Day falls each year on May 7 with many restaurants using that special occasion to experiment with new lamb dishes.
But lamb does not need to meekly await the springtime holidays for a chance to be featured at the dinner table. From chops to shanks to curries, lamb can be a staple in regular rotation at mealtime and is an especially appealing choice for Christmas dinner.
Some simple directions should be followed in order to avoid becoming a lamb fool in the kitchen and inadvertently turning off future generations to the goodness of lamb. For example, always bring lamb to room temperature before cooking. Be sure to use a meat thermometer to make sure that the lamb is not undercooked or overcooked. When it has achieved the proper temperature, let it rest before slicing, and cut against the grain. Cutting lamb with the grain, meaning in the same direction as the muscle fibers, will make the meat chewier, which will cause it to lose much of its desired tenderness.
Choosing whether to serve lamb with or without mint jelly is a sticky dilemma. Some lamb lovers adamantly insist that mint jelly and lamb belong together while others just as firmly believe that mint jelly belongs absolutely nowhere. To avoid getting in a jam, serve mint jelly on the side and let the guests decide.
If mint jelly is an unwelcome addition at the table, consider serving a side dish that uses a few sprigs of mint, such as a minted couscous salad or steamed rice with mint. Depending on the type of lamb being served, other dishes that pair nicely are glazed carrots, carrot souffle, roasted potatoes, or steamed asparagus. Red wines, such as a cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, are typically the best choice when serving lamb. For those who don’t imbibe, stick with red or pink beverages, such as pomegranate juice, cranberry juice and soda, or sparkling water with raspberries.
With choices ranging from elegant, soiree-worthy dishes to fun, kid-friendly tidbits, lamb should no longer be put on the back burner. The recipes below are some truly delicious lamb dishes that should have friends and family flocking to the table.
Aunt Kathryn’s White Bean and Roast Leg of Lamb Supper
This is a wonderful winter and early spring dish that will make the house smell amazing. Ask the butcher to trim the lamb of any skin and remove most of the fat. Always bring lamb to room temperature prior to cooking. And do not forget to soak the beans the night before making this dish. Nothing is worse than preparing an evening meal only to discover that one step should have been done the day before!
2 1/2 cups dried white beans
3 sprigs of parsley
1 sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 stalk of celery
1 whole onion
3 whole cloves
3 tablespoons of butter
2 additional onions, finely chopped
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 (4 to 5 pound) leg of lamb
3 garlic cloves, cut into slivers
4 sprigs fresh thyme, cut into1/4 inch pieces
4 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoon additional butter
2/3 additional cups dry white wine
2 cups beef broth
Cover beans with cold water and soak overnight. Drain and place in large saucepan. Tie parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and celery into a bunch using kitchen twine and place in saucepan with beans. Puncture onion with knife or fork and push whole cloves into resulting crevices. Place clove-studded onion in with beans, then top with at least 1 1/2 inches of water over the beans. Bring to a boil, cover, and put heat on low. Cook until very tender, approximately 2 hours to 2 1/2 hours. Halfway through cooking time, season with salt and pepper and add more water to the pot if the beans are still not covered. When finished, beans should be moist but not too soupy. If too much liquid is still in the pot, remove the lid and cook for 10 to 25 minutes until the liquid evaporates. Remove and discard the parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and celery bunch, as well as the clove studded onion.
While beans are cooking, heat oven to 450 degrees F. In a small pan over medium high heat, melt butter and add chopped onions. Cook until translucent but not brown, approximately 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in wine, garlic, and tomatoes. Stirring frequently, cook until most of the liquid is gone, approximately 20 minutes. Put this tomato mixture in with the beans and stir.
Stick the lamb with a knife or fork and insert sliced garlic pieces and fresh thyme sprigs into resulting holes. Place the leg into a large roasting pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and pat top with the 2 tablespoons of additional butter. Put meat in hot oven until it begins to brown, approximately 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees F and baste frequently while continuing to roast for approximately 40 minutes, adding more broth to the pan if the bottom begins to scorch. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness: 140 degrees F for medium rare and 160 degrees F for well done.
Remove meat and place on carving board but keep the fat in the bottom of the roasting pan. Cover lamb loosely with foil, and let it rest. Stir parsley into beans and rewarm if cooled.
Scoop up 4 teaspoons of fat from the roasting pan, and discard the rest of the fat. Put the 4 teaspoons of fat back in pan, add the additional wine, place on stovetop, stir, and bring to a boil. Add beef broth and continue boiling to reduce gravy, approximately 7 minutes. Strain into a smaller pan.
Carve the lamb, against the grain, into thin slices. Place sliced lamb on large platter, spoon beans around the meat, and drizzle a little gravy over the top. Serve the rest of the gravy with the lamb. Enjoy!
Luscious Lamb Lollipops
Lollipops require a stick; otherwise they are just jawbreakers. The same is true for lamb lollipops, so ask the butcher to cut up and clean up a rack of lamb and “french” the bones, which is a fancy way of saying that a clean “stick” is required for each chop. If desired, have the top layer of fat removed as well. These lollipops are great for kids and adults alike. Just keep some paper towels handy!
1 cup plain yogurt
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Juice from one lime
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Dash of cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
8 lamb chops, frenched and cleaned
Put yogurt, garlic, and lime juice in a blender, and blend on high for 30 seconds. Add mint, salt, paprika, cumin, and cayenne pepper, and blend until fully combined. Set aside. Heat olive oil over medium high heat. When hot, add lamb chops and cook 4 minutes; then flip and cook 4 minutes more. Remove chops. Let rest for about 7 minutes; serve with yogurt sauce.
Hot Lamb! Lamb Curry with Spinach
A bit spicy and packed with flavor, this curry is delicious served over rice.
5 tablespoons canola oil
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green chilies, seeded and finely chopped
1 small tomato, finely chopped
1 1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/4 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
2 1/2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1 inch chunks
8 cups baby spinach leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh chopped mint
Pour the oil in large pan and set over medium heat. When warm, add onion and cook, stirring until golden, approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, green chilies, tomato, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring for one more minute. Pour in the chicken broth and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan, and then bring mixture to a boil. Remove pan from heat.
Put lamb in large pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion and broth mixture. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and cook until lamb is tender, approximately 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Add spinach and garam masala, and stir until spinach has wilted, approximately 7 to 8 minutes.
Dish curry onto individual plates or bowls, top each with some plain yogurt, and sprinkle with mint.
Bold Lamb Burgers
Tired of humdrum old hamburgers? With red peppers, garlic, and cilantro, these lamb burgers are anything but boring, and they would never be described as mild!
1 1/4 pounds ground lamb
3 green onions, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 hamburger buns
Burger additions of choice: mayonnaise, sliced red onion, lettuce, and tomato.
Preheat grill to medium high heat. Mix the lamb, onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, cumin, salt, black pepper, and red pepper in a large bowl, and form into four burger patties. Brush grill grate with oil. Grill burgers for 5 minutes per side or until done. Serve on buns with any additional vegetables or condiments.
Honey and Herb Encrusted Rack of Lamb
This is a classic, French-inspired lamb dish. Have the butcher french the racks of lamb and trim off as much fat as possible. This particular recipe involves making homemade lavender honey and herbes de Provence from scratch. If those are already available, substitute the honey and lavender with 3/4 cup lavender honey and the dried herbs with 2 1/2 tablespoons of herbes de Provence.
3/4 cup honey
4 tablespoons fresh or dried lavender
1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
2 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 trimmed and frenched racks of lamb
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Put honey in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in lavender, reduce heat to low and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and cool. Once cooled to almost room temperature, strain into a bowl through a fine sieve and discard the lavender.
In large bowl, combine the bread crumbs, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, tarragon, basil, fennel seed, parsley and oregano (or combine bread crumbs and 2 1/2 tablespoons of herbes de Provence). Slowly drizzle olive oil into bread crumb and herb mixture and gently mix.
Line a shallow baking dish with heavy duty aluminum foil and set lamb racks inside, meat side up. Season lamb with salt and pepper. Coat the meat side with the lavender honey, and then sprinkle with breadcrumb mixture, pressing gently into the honey. For medium rare meat, cook until meat thermometer registers 135 degrees F, approximately 25 minutes.
Transfer lamb to cutting board, and let rest for 15 minutes. Cut the racks into chops and serve.