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On the Lamb: Classic holiday dish easier than you think

By Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

If pork is the other white meat, lamb is perhaps the other red meat.

Like pork, lamb once had something of an image problem.

Lamb became the black sheep of meat proteins after returning World War II GIs, fed up after being fed rations of gamey mutton labeled as “lamb,” reviled it. Cheap, plentiful beef was what they craved in the post-war boom. Over time, prep knowledge faded and many home cooks only prepared it for Easter and Passover.

“A large portion of consumers say, ‘I love lamb, but I only eat it at restaurants,’” says Megan Wortman, Executive Director of the Denver-based American Lamb Board. “For many, preparing it is intimidating.”

But, thanks to an influx of immigrants for whom lamb is a dietary staple and adventurous younger generations who crave bigger,   global flavors, things have changed.

So has lamb itself.

Breaking baa-d stereotypes

“Today’s lamb is not your grandfather’s lamb,” says Nicholas Ponte, Head Butcher at Marrow Detroit.

Lamb chops

“There was strong bias among older generations,” Wortman says. “Some had legitimate bad-eating experiences from lamb that was overcooked or overseasoned or because of how the lamb was sourced. Genetics and feeding have improved tremendously. If you’re sourcing really good lamb, you’re not getting a bad flavor.”

Thanks to the use of flavorful meat breeds, improved animal-husbandry practices and, especially, pasturing, lamb is now lean without being mean.

“Grains cause the meat to be fattier, and the gamey flavors are in the fat,” Ponte explains. “When lambs are eating grass, fat doesn’t build up.”

That makes lamb a great choice for those seeking food with a health halo.

“There are misperceptions that lamb is fattier or higher in calories than it is,” Wortman notes. “The nutrients and protein you get from lamb are nearly identical to beef. Lamb is ideal for people who want a lean protein.”

Bringing creativity into the fold

Some of today’s most popular lamb dishes are innovative riffs on beef or pork items. Examples: “pulled” sandwiches, chili, Bolognese sauce, burgers, meatballs, poutine, tacos, lamb bacon, pancetta and sausage.

There’s a steady stream of lamb coming into the marketplace as lambs are grown out to a year or less. Consumers have more options for fresh and frozen lamb than ever before. Inherenty rich, lamb’s pricier than beef, but small portions satisfy.

With its robust flavor, lamb is an excellent carrier for seasonings such as coriander and cumin. When preparing pulled lamb, for example, Ponte suggests using Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor profiles — mint, oregano, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, sumac, paprika, etc. Avoid sweet wines or barbecue sauces. Instead, braise lamb shoulder in stout or porter. Pull the meat and refrigerate separately from the cooking liquid. Refrigerate and defat the cooking liquid overnight. Recombine and reheat next day.

New to cooking with lamb?

“Treat lamb just like any beef cut,” Ponte says. “Start with an easier cut like lamb shoulder so you don’t have to worry about precise temperatures.”

The bottom line?

“Lamb shouldn’t be something people are scared to cook,” says Matthew McGrail, co-owner and Executive Chef at Detroit-based Cork and Gabel.

Making the cut

Chops. Braise shoulder chops; grill loin chops. “If you know how to cook a great steak, you know how to cook lamb chops,” Wortman says. For medium-rare,McGail suggests 120-135 degrees F; for medium, 130 to 135 degrees F. For well-done? Don’t go there.

Leg. De-bone, flatten, return the bone to the meat, roll up, tie, top with oregano and thyme, then roast over a mirepoix. To serve, untie, remove the bone (save it for lamb stock) and slice. Serve with defatted, strained cooking juices. For grilling, de-bone, butterfly and marinate.

Ground. Typically, ground lamb is leaner than ground beef with a protein-to-fat ratio of 85/15 (though sometimes 90/10 or 95/5). Add ground beef or pork if it needs more fat.

Ribs. Grill or cook low and slow.

Shanks. Slow-braise and serve over mashed roasted root vegetables or cannellini beans.

Shoulder roast. Treat this like pork shoulder and slow roast. Use for lamb ragú, tacos or pulled-lamb sandwiches. Or, cut into cubes for kebabs, stews and tagines.

Sirloin. Grill over indirect heat until medium-rare and served sliced thin.

Where to Buy

Due to changing conditions, check for availability.

·       Argus Farm Stop (Ann Arbor), argusfarmstop.com

·       Costco (multiple locations)

·       Hannewald Lamb Farm Market (Stockbridge), (517) 851-4718

·       Holiday Market (Royal Oak), holiday-market.com

·       Marrow Detroit (Detroit), marrowdetroit.com

·       Meijer (multiple locations)

·       Plum Market (multiple locations)

·       Pure Pastures (Dearborn/Plymouth), purepasturesmi.com

·       Shady Creek Farm (Allegan), farmshadycreek.com

·       Super Greenland (Dearborn), supergreenlandmarket.com

·       Trader Joes (multiple locations)

·       Whitney Farmstead (Ann Arbor), whitneyfarmstead.com

·       Whole Foods (multiple locations)

Cast-Iron American Lamb Chops With Apples, Onions and Herbs

Recipe and photo courtesy of the American Lamb Board        

Cast-Iron American Lamb Chops With Apples, Onions and Herbs.

8 American lamb loin chops

2  cloves fresh garlic, smashed

1 medium red onion, French-cut, thinly sliced

2   tart, firm apples (Pink Lady, Fuji or Granny Smith), cored and thinly sliced

3 to 4 sprigs  lemon thyme (or substitute regular thyme)

3 stems  rosemary

2 tablespoon  butter, divided

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Heat a cast-iron or nonstick heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Melt butter in the pan and sear the lamb chops in 2 batches for 2 minutes per side. Add the herbs and garlic, lower the heat to medium, then baste the chops with herbs and garlic butter. Use a spoon to pour the juices over the chops while the pan is tilted away from you. Do not burn the butter or drippings. Remove the chops to rest, add the onions and apples to the pan, then sauté for 6 to 8 minutes until the apples are tender and translucent and the onions begin to caramelize. Serve the lamb with the apples and onions alongside a green salad or couscous.

Lamb Bolognese

Lamb Bolognese from Cork and Gabel

Recipe from executive chef Matthew McGrail, Cork and Gabel

Olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped carrot (use a food processor)

1 cup finely chopped onion (use a food processor)

1 cup finely chopped celery (use a food processor)

1/4 cup minced fresh garlic

2 pounds ground lamb

4 cups heavy cream or whole milk

28-ounce can good-quality diced tomatoes

15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

To taste salt

To taste black pepper

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a small stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic and saute until the liquid they give off has dried up. Add the ground lamb, breaking it up before it gets too hot. Saute the lamb until it changes to a light gray color, skimming the fat off the top as you go. Once the fat is just about completely skimmed off and the lamb is cooked through, add the cream or milk, reduce the heat to medium and cook until it's  completely incorporated. Add the diced and crushed tomatoes and stir to incorporate. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Lower heat to just above a simmer and cook for about 2 ½ hours — you’re looking for all the liquid cook down and for the sauce to be thick.

To serve, toss with your favorite pasta. Note: thick-cut noodles, such as  pappardelle or fettuccine work best.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Potatoes and Lemon

American Lamb Board        

Roast Leg of Lamb with Potatoes and Lemon

1   bone-in leg of lamb, about 5 pounds

1 teaspoon + 2 tablespoons  extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons  kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

12 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

3 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried rosemary

4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered

2 organic lemons, cut into eighths

3/4 pound shallots, peeled and cut into quarters

2 cups vegetable stock

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¼ cup dry white wine

The night before cooking, use a paring knife to make 24 1-inch punctures around the leg of lamb. Rub it inside and out with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Place ½ clove of garlic inside each puncture. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt with the oregano, rosemary and ½ teaspoon black pepper.

Toss together the potatoes, lemons, shallots, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, and ⅔ of the spice mixture in a large roasting pan.

Rub the leg of lamb with the remaining spice mixture, and place it on top of the veggies in the pan. Pour the vegetable stock, lemon juice, and white wine into the bottom of the pan.

Place in the oven and roast until the internal temperature of the lamb leg reaches 140 degrees F, about 90 minutes, using a metal ladle to spoon the pan juices over the vegetables every 30 minutes.

Remove and allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.