Why does mentioning eating lamb get more reactions than any other kind of meat?
When I was in culinary school the run through regional Italian had a host of lamb dishes, each time the chef would tell those that pulled a face, you know the one, rather like a two year old trying their first pea, that this version of lamb would change their opinion. When asked why they disliked lamb their only reaction was to say it tasted gamey. They remained skeptical throughout the creation, but when we all sat down family style to try our spoils there were often one or two in the group who were willingly swayed in favor of lamb.
I just think they grew up eating cuts of lamb that either weren't treated properly or worse, weren't cooked properly. Lamb that has been raised well, slaughtered before they are 1 year old, and properly cleaned of the fell which has the lanolin taste is not gamey at all. Lanolin is the protective coating on a sheep's wool that acts as a waterproofing agent as well as possessing anti fungal and antibacterial properties to protect the sheep. There are even some breeds of sheep like the Katahdin that have a very thin coat that needs no shearing and the breed produces very little lanolin so the meat has a very delicate taste.2
Growing up my Italian father despised lamb above all other foods. In fact, he wouldn't even tolerate it being cooked in the house. My Mom would always wait for him to depart on a business trip and immediately go out and buy lamb chops to grill. We grilled year round on a screened in porch where my Mom had a permanent charcoal grill installed. Rain, snow, cold, hot, it didn't matter.
My husband, though not as bad as my dad, isn't really a lamb fan either, he'll eat it grudgingly, expecting it to be prepared in the oh so British fashion of a well done Sunday Roast with mint sauce, NOT mint jelly I might add, mint sauce.
Me? I adore it. I have lamb at least once a week but I generally have to cook separate meals for me and for him. I routinely try different presentations, convinced that one day I will hit upon the magic bullet where the little light goes off in his head.
A few weeks ago I was reading Fading Feast: A Compendium of disappearing regional foods by Raymond Sokolov (originally published in 1981) and his essay titled Fleece Afoot: Colorado Lamb caught my attention. Sokolov talks about the American sheep farmers disappearing nomadic lifestyle of grazing the sheep by following the mountain trails in summer:
"...utilizing a modern system...Gus Halandras pays $2,700 for grazing rights on 20,000 acres of USDA forestlands in the summer. In the winter he uses 60,000 to 70,000 acres of desert controlled by the Department of the interior's land Management."
In fact "Sheep grazing offers low-cost, natural benefits to the environment and wildlife habitats. Sheep will eat grasses, brush, weeds and other plants, thus controlling undergrowth (and potential spread of fires) in forests and other wooded areas. The U.S. Forest Service has used sheep grazing to decrease soil erosion and to help regenerate tree growth after fires."1
In 1979 when this essay was originally written the amount of American lamb yielded just 1.6 pounds per person, compare that with 120 pounds of beef per person and you can see why the American lamb industry was a dying breed. According to the author, 90% of that lamb came straight here to the East coast bypassing consumers in the South and the so called fly over states completely.
Why don't Americans eat more lamb?
Another quote I came away with from this article was made by sheepherder Gus Halandras:
"What could be more sensible, environmentally, than open-range graising? It takes no grain, no supplementals. We produce prime meat with grass feed. Is this country so affluent it can abandon a renewable resource and keep it just for recreation?"
I recently spoke with Kelvin Whall of Meat and Wool New Zealand Limited and Rachelle Lacroix representing the American Lamb Board and I asked a few questions about domestic vs imported lamb. Currently New Zealand exports approx 22,000 tonnes (metric) of lamb annually to the U.S. this figure only represents 13% of the total US meat market. All of that lamb is 100% grass fed. The U.S. produces approx 207.5 million pounds of lamb/mutton annually, much of this lamb is grain fed. The goal of both of these groups along with the Australian producers is to raise the US consumption of lamb from it's current 1.1 pounds per person a year an amount that is less that 1% of U.S. beef consumption per person. More than 90% of lamb is USDA grade choice or better.
Why are we shipping tons of lamb, and now grass fed beef, here from new Zealand instead of eating lamb from America?
Some have stated that the lamb shipped from Australia and New Zealand is shipped packaged in Cryovac, effectively wet aging it for the 6 weeks or so it takes to come here by boat. According to this author it makes the imported lamb more tender and delicate than the U.S. based lamb. I've had lamb from all three countries and I can assure you that American lamb can be just as tender as the imported. What it will boil down to for most is whether or not to follow the locavore based diet and only eat lamb raised domestically. I think in theory the locavore diet is a good idea, but I would rather see the U.S. lamb producers feeding a grass based diet instead of the grain based diet they currently use.
Recently I received a gorgeous cut of lamb from the American lamb Board and I set about to make something that might, just might, sway my husband into my corner. His love of spices led me upstairs to the library to have a consultation with Madhur Jaffrey, Ana Sortun, Cladia Roden and Marcella Hazan. Ana tempted me with Spoon Lamb from Spice, Claudia showed me some gorgeous Moroccan and Turkish ideas, Marcella just wanted me to roast it, but Madhur, she had so very many ways to tempt me. I was finally swayed by a Korma recipe with almonds, pecans and sour cream in place of the usual yoghurt or cream. I decided on a side of plain basmati and husbands favourite Gujerati sem with some Kentucky Blue beans I picked up at the farmer's market in Nonantum.
The lamb was so tender, so good, a knife was really not required. He licked his plate clean, saved his leftovers and dragged them out of the fridge to have my mom and S.D. taste them as well bragging about how tender the lamb was. He really loved it. I'm so pleased that I'm going to branch out in another direction next time. We didn't eat all that roast you see, I still have a nice piece tucked away in the freezer.
Stay tuned for what I'll do next with lamb.
Lamb Korma with almonds, pecans and sour cream
Slice 5 onions in half moons and saute them until they are nicely browned. Drain on paper towels and reserve.
In a blender (or food processor, but a blender creates a better vortex) puree 1 onion, a peeled 1 inch chunk of ginger and about 5 - 6 peeled cloves of garlic with a little water until it makes a nice paste.
Brown the cubed lamb in the oil the onions were sauteed in. Turn the pieces on all sides and get some good color. Do this in batches and don't crowd the pan.
Remove the lamb to a plate.
Add that lovely ginger/garlic/onion paste and stir. Cook it until it changes colour and looks brown, just a few minutes.
Add 1 TBS coriander, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp turmeric and stir. cook this for about 1 minute.
Add 2 - 3 TBS tomato sauce, 1/4 tsp mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and ground clove.
Cook and stir for 3 - 4 minutes.
Add 1 tsp salt, a few good grindings of black pepper and, if you are us, 1/2 - 1 tsp cayenne, if you are you, adjust accordingly.
Rinse out the blender that had the paste in it with about 1 cup of water and pour that in the pan, toss back in the lamb, stir, cover and cook 25 minutes at a nice simmer.
Meanwhile, add 1/4 cup blanched almonds and 10 pecans along with a little water to the blender and make a nice paste, opening it up and scraping down the sides here and there.
After 25 minutes, add that nut paste and 2 - 3 TBS sour cream. Stir, cook on low heat with the cover on for another 20 mins (depending on the size of your lamb pieces) or until your lamb is nice and tender.
Taste for salt and serve over basmati rice garnished with the fried onions and if you are a fan, some chopped cilantro. Serve with a nice mango pickle or lime pickle on the side, a few papadums or some naan and Bob's your uncle.
1: American Lamb Board
2: Heritage Foods USA