On The Lamb
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

When I was a kid, my lamb universe consisted of the lamb neck stew and prosaic broiled shoulder chops Mom made. In college, the sliced leg of lamb on the cafeteria steam table smelled like old sneakers. Happily, today’s lamb is a whole new world, one with tremendous diversity and almost endless red-wine matching possibilities.

At Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington DC, chef/owner Ann Cashion prepares braised lamb shanks (a cut you couldn’t give away 20 years ago) in a variety of styles. Sometimes it’s served with couscous and North African seasonings such as cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon, at other times with a kind of Bordelaise sauce (red wine and lamb stock) and cannellini beans. She might also grill a lamb steak to go with wheat berry and porcini risotto. On weekends, she spit roasts legs marinated in garlic, rosemary, marjoram, olive oil, and white wine. Bill Telepan, chef of the Judson Grill in New York, likes to make a cassoulet of braised shanks with white beans combined with a confit of shoulder cooked in duck fat and homemade lamb sausage. At Quilty’s, also in New York, Chef Katy Sparks serves parts from a whole baby lamb—roasted leg slices; braised shoulder; grilled loin and kidneys—on creamy polenta.

Despite its popularity with chefs, however, annual per capita consumption of lamb is still only .7 pounds—this despite the fact that it’s no harder to cook than beef. In New Zealand, people eat almost as much lamb (56.5 pounds per capital each year) as we do beef (66 pounds). We ate a lot more lamb before World War II, says Bill Blake, a consultant to the American lamb industry. “In 1945, lamb was cheap and used a lot in the military where it wasn’t cooked properly and had strong odors,” he says. “When servicemen returned home they told their mothers and wives, ‘No lamb!’” As a result, inventories dwindled and prices rose.

While imports from New Zealand and Australia are on the rise, most lamb eaten in the United States is produced here, largely in Texas, California and Colorado. Big ranches dominate, but small producers dot the landscape. On the rolling hills of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, John Jamison raises free-range lamb that is served at Alain Ducasse restaurant in New York as well as Picholine and the Judson Grill. “It’s perfect, tender and somewhat but not too gamy,” Telepan says.

Cashion uses lamb from Summerfield, a producer in Culpeper Virginia. “It’s younger and sweeter than lamb you get from big purveyors,” she says. She also likes the fact that Summerfield ages its legs from 4 to 6 weeks, quite rare even among artisinal producers. “It’s concentrated and succulent,” she says. Sparks buys entire baby lambs--as small as 20 pounds, 2 to 6 months old--from Vermont Quality Meats, a small cooperative, which only sells to restaurants.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines “lamb” as the meat from sheep less than 12 months old. Most of the fresh lamb we consume falls in this category and is normally closer to 6 to 8 months old, according to the USDA. “Yearling” describes the yield from a one-to-two-year-old sheep. Mutton is lamb that’s more than two years old. Though spring lamb is defined by the USDA as “new-crop lambs” slaughtered from March to early October, Blake says “With modern breeding techniques, you can have spring lamb all year long.” And chefs like Sparks have no compunction about serving it year-round.

Most American lambs are raised in feedlots, where they’re fed a variety of grains for up to a year. As with beef, this treatment makes their meat tender and somewhat fatty. But Jamison sheep, slaughtered between three and six months of age, are entirely range-fed on a mixture of blue grass and white clover. “Lambs were put on this earth to eat grass,”John Jamison says. “Feedlot lamb has more fat but not the texture lamb should have. Our lamb has better muscle development, firm but tender, like a good NY strip steak.” Summerfield lambs, once weaned, are fed corn, but in troughs spread out in pastures that allow the animals to roam before being slaughtered at between six and ten months of age.

I tasted a variety of legs, racks and loins. I purchased fresh cuts from Summerfield and Jamison, plus Texas lamb from Harry G. Och’s butcher shop at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia that was “about 12 months old” according to the broker who buys for Och’s. For a taste of New Zealand lamb, which is only available in this country frozen, I bought some 6-month-old samples from Turner New Zealand Inc., in Newport Beach, California. Among the legs, the larger (just under 7 pounds versus just under 5 pounds for the others), almost veal-pink Och’s leg was my favorite. While mild, it was juicy and succulent. A close second was the deep red leg of Summerfield lamb. It had a robust, slightly gamy flavor akin to that of well-aged beef. The Jamison leg was tender and rich, yet subtle. The smaller, free-range, grass-fed New Zealand leg had good lamb flavor but was chewy and a bit greasy.

The 1.28-pound Summerfield rack, which was not aged, was just right in size with a firm but quite tender texture and a full-bodied flavor. The larger Jamison rack (1.68 pounds) was not trimmed to be oven ready, unlike the Summerfield and New Zealand racks (racks from Och’s were not available). Jamison’s meat was a bit tough but flavorful with a slight earthiness. The 11-ounce New Zealand rack (Turner also has racks up to 22 ounces) was tender but bland.

Loin chops from Jamison and Summerfield were both tender and lean with good flavor, while the Och’s loin chop was a bit too mild and greasy. The tiny New Zealand chop, about the size of Tony Soprano’s pinky ring, was chewy and more distinctly “lamby.”

For the legs, two roasting methods yielded excellent results. The first was a steady 350 degrees in a preheated oven until the internal temperature reads 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare—about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours for a bone-in 6-8 pound leg. I also tried browning at 500 degrees for 25 minutes, then slow-cooking for about 35 minutes more at 250 degrees. I took the meat out of the refrigerator an hour before putting it into the oven and allowed it to rest, loosely covered with foil, for 15 to 20 minutes, after cooking.

Racks should be browned in a cast iron skillet, then placed in a 500-degree oven for 7 to 9 minutes, until the internal temperature reads 130 to 135 degrees. Because most home broilers aren’t hot enough, loin chops (about 1 inch thick) should be cooked on the stove in a very hot cast iron skillet for about 3 minutes on each side.

“Lamb lends itself to a greater variety of seasonings than any other red meat, particularly exotic seasonings from the Middle East and India. You could even do the same kind of seasonings Mexicans use for goat,” says Bruce Aidells, co-author (with Denis (sic)Kelly) of “The Complete Meat Cookbook.” To prove their point, Aidells and Kelly list a United Nations bazaar of lamb dishes from rack of lamb with Chinese black bean and garlic coating to Indian lamb kebabs (seasoned with cumin, turmeric and coriander) with cilantro chutney to fattoush, Lebanese bread and lamb salad with mint, tomatoes, and marjoram. For me, the classic French paste of rosemary, garlic, olive oil and Dijon mustard slathered on a leg or rack is hard to beat.

If I had to choose one grape variety to go with lamb it would be Syrah. The Cote-Rotie I tried matched up beautifully. An Australian Shiraz Cabernet did nicely too, but a California Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based Bordeaux did not. After Syrah, I’d go for Pinot Noir, especially if it’s from France. And because it has similar characteristics, I liked Barbaresco too.

How to Get It

Legs of lamb can range from around $5 a pound at many butcher shops, to around $8 a pound for the Summerfield aged leg. Frenched (bones scraped and cleaned), oven-ready racks of lamb can range from around $16 a pound for the Summerfield to over $30 for the Turner New Zealand.

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