It is certainly more common in other parts of the country (and the world) for Easter dinner tables to include a spot for lamb as the centerpiece. It’s a fact the meat is a little harder to find in our Southern grocery stores, and when we do find it the prices seem to be over the top. This may only be so because of a lack of demand.
According to the website www.americanlamb.com, lamb are adaptable to a wide range of climates and are therefore raised in all 50 states. The top five U.S. producers are Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. American lamb is usually grain fed and tends to be less gamey compared to the grass-eating wooly friends from places such as Australia and New Zealand. But that grain-fed meat comes at a cost, with American lamb fetching the highest price. Because of this we usually see New Zealand lamb (the least expensive) in American supermarkets.
Other parts of the world are not as specific regarding what names classify the meats in terms of age, breed and gender. In our society we think of lamb as a sheep under the age of one year. We also call the meat of that animal lamb. Between the ages of 1 and 2 the name changes to yearling. After that the creature becomes a sheep and the meat is referred to as mutton, but be careful. Other parts of the world use mutton as a blanket term that can include goat meat.
The younger lamb is a lean cut of meat with very little fat and a succulent red center. Mutton is considerably fattier and has a heavier flavor many consider an acquired taste. This is where your mint jelly comes in handy, as I would never do anything to mask the flavor of a good cut of lamb, but a hint here and there with a leg is nothing I shy away from.
Leg of lamb is a pretty versatile cut of meat that is often incredibly simple to prepare. Finding a boneless leg is common, and preferred for me, but if you have a bone save it for making stock. Stuffing and roasting is a great way to get over the intimidation factor of investing in a large cut of meat you’ve never prepared before but your guests will enjoy it no matter what, as long as you don’t overcook it. You want to get the internal temp to about 135-140 degrees.
Leg and shoulder can also be cubed for other uses — Irish stew, lamb tacos or for stuffing other legs of lamb. I have an Egyptian/Moroccan cookbook with tons of great recipes that are worth looking into. But one of the most famous ways to cook cubed (or ground) meat of this kind is in shepherd’s pie. Why so many make shepherd’s pie with ground beef (myself as guilty as any) instead of lamb is perplexing. Shepherds herd sheep, not cows. I love an authentic version but rarely find the lamb so cheap I wouldn’t attempt something fancier. With stews and shepherd’s pie I like to throw in a little Guinness stout like they do at Fenian’s Irish Pub in Jackson.
Loin chops and shanks are near the top of my list for lamb cuts. The loin chops look like little T-bone steaks that are overly thick. Although it is hard to resist grilling them like steaks, I occasionally prepare them the same as I do the shanks. They get a light dusting of flour and then are braised first in a bit of olive oil and finished in a sea of veggies (onions, celery, carrots, red bell peppers and potatoes) with red wine and beef stock if no lamb stock is available. The gravy produced is unmatched.
The rack of lamb is my favorite cut of meat. I’ve had some that would gladly be ordered as my last meal. I prefer the rack, or rib roast, if you will, to chops that have already been cut away from each other. Individual chops are too hard for me to get right. I always overcook them, and have often been served overcooked plates of these meatcicles in restaurants. I want the rack all together, and I want the outside dark with the inside bloody as hell. Here’s how I do them.
First, I preheat the oven to the devilish temperature of “wide open.” Next, I heat my cast iron to medium-high heat. To season the racks, including the bones, fat and parts you may not consider eating, I use crushed rosemary, sea salt and cracked black pepper for a standard flavor. I use a tiny bit of oil in the skillet and begin cooking with the fat side down. After two minutes of rendering the fat I flip the rack over to the bones side for another two. With tongs, I hold the rack on its end and cook each side for almost a minute, just searing the outside. With the fat side up, the skillet goes into the oven for a whopping five minutes.
The rack is removed to a cutting board and allowed to rest a few minutes before serving. Cut between the bones after resting and you’ll have chops to die for.
Chef Emeril Lagasse does some great chops with curry and mustard crusts. I’ve had lamb imported from Colorado at one of his restaurants and was blown away. A favorite side for the chops — or any lamb, really — would be red potatoes. A little jus on the side doesn’t hurt.
So this Easter, why not branch out a little? Be on the lookout for lamb the next time you visit one of our local grocery stores or call your butcher. We could use a little more lamb in this town. Supply the demand.
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