When you cut into a grilled lamb chop, the first thing you notice is the way the knife slips through the meat, almost as if it were butter. Now, take a bite and savor the lamb’s mild sweetness, its succulence and earthy flavor.
This is contemporary American lamb at its best: Raised on pasture grasses, harvested young and enjoyed fresh, not frozen. No other meat accepts the diverse seasonings that lamb welcomes, and no other meat is as compatible with as wide a range of wines. A lush California Syrah, a precious old Cab, even a dry rosé can be served with lamb, provided the herbs, spices and technique engage the variety. Serve rack of lamb neat, with nothing more than salt and pepper and a delicate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Add a rich reduction sauce finished with butter and you have a perfect pairing with a well-aged Bordeaux. A slow-cooked lamb stew with dried apricots or fresh quince served over creamy polenta is a perfect canvas for your favorite Chardonnay.
Yet, as good as it is, lamb has not always been popular in the United States. Indeed, even today there are people who wrinkle their noses, turn away and refuse to try a nibble. We consume barely a pound per person per year. To understand our disdain for lamb, we must explore lamb’s recent history.
Lamb’s History since WWII
During the 1930s and 40s, because of the privations of World War II, wool was a valuable commodity. By 1951, it was fetching $1.25 a pound, or about $9.36 in 2005 dollars. In those days, lamb meat was a byproduct. Today, ranchers get about forty cents a pound for wool; most don’t bother with it. Sheep raised for wool have a flavor different from sheep raised for meat, a difference that cannot be explained by breed. By the time a sheep’s wool-producing career is complete, it is well past the yearling stage that defines it as lamb. Mutton, as meat from older sheep is known, is purplish red instead of pale pink; it is tougher and more gamy than lamb; the fat, where strong flavors concentrate, is yellow instead of white.
The older the sheep, the more intense its flavor becomes. Americans tend to find these strong flavors offensive. Bruce Campbell, whose C. K. Lamb of Sonoma County is served in top restaurants, including Spago in Beverly Hills and Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, likes to tell a story he heard from a WWII veteran. When American battleships in the Pacific pulled up to Australian supply ships, soldiers formed a human chain to facilitate transfer of hundreds of boxes of tomatoes, onions and other foods, including lamb. The soldiers knew that when it was time to offload the meat, they needed another dozen or so men because they passed the lamb (mutton, really, and part of the deal—they had to take it) from one side of the ship to the other, where the last soldier dumped it into the ocean. These men returned to civilian life with a profound dislike of what they had come to know as lamb but that was really Australian mutton, much of it from three and four-year-old sheep.
As the price of wool fell and American palates grew more adventurous, the lamb in the United States improved. Lamb has always been popular with immigrants from Greece, the Middle East, North Africa, India, Italy and Ireland, but as its quality improved, mainstream America began to appreciate it. Today, you find everything from juicy gyros and lamb burgers to lamb stew and roast leg of lamb on menus throughout the country.
You’ll see the term "spring lamb" on menus and in advertisements, and it means about as much as sea salt, which is to say, not much. Both are generic terms. Spring lamb once indicated sheep born in the spring, but ewes are now bred year-round. Today, the designation is often used to indicate very young lamb, such as those harvested at two, three or four months.
For home cooks, lamb is easy to prepare, versatile and forgiving. Even inexpensive cuts, such as shanks, riblets, shoulder roasts and necks, are delicious braised slowly in water, wine or stock. Premium cuts—legs, racks, rib chops and loin chops—need nothing more than salt and pepper, though if you are inclined to attempt more elaborate preparations, lamb will reward you for your efforts.
Slow-cooked Rack of Lamb
So traditional it is almost a cliché on restaurant menus, rack of lamb deserves its lofty status for one reason: it is delicious. Yet it is also very easy to prepare at home. Lowering the temperature and cooking it more slowly than is traditional results in juicy, succulent meat. Although lamb is best served rare or medium-rare, the lower temperature ensures moistness even if you cook it all the way to medium. If you prefer well-done meat, select a less expensive cut. This dish is best served on warm plates.
1 rack of lamb, trimmed and frenched
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine
1 fresh thyme sprig
1 small sprig rosemary
1 cup meat stock (lamb, beef or duck)
2 tablespoons butter, chilled
Small rosemary or thyme sprigs, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 300Â°F. Season the rack of lamb all over with salt and pepper. Set a small roasting rack over a heavy pan, set the lamb on the rack and place on the middle rack of the oven. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the temperature in the center of the middle rib reaches 125Â°F for rare, 130Â°F for medium-rare or 140Â°F for medium. Transfer the roasting rack to a work surface and cover loosely with foil.
Set the roasting pan over a high flame on top of the stove, add the wine and herbs and cook, stirring to loosen any bits of meat, until the wine is reduced to about 3 tablespoons. Add the meat stock and cook until rich and thick. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Remove the sauce from the heat and discard the herb sprigs.
Warm dinner plates. Whisk half the butter into the sauce and when it is completely incorporated, whisk in the remaining butter. Taste and correct the seasoning. Cover the pan and set aside briefly. Carve the rack of lamb between the rib bones. Spoon pools of sauce in the center of each warm plate, set the lamb on top, garnish with herb sprigs and serve immediately.
Serves 2 to 4.
Wine recommendations: This dish represents a superb opportunity to pull an aged Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon from the cellar, one with plush tannins that engage the tender sweetness of the lamb. If you prefer to drink younger wines, consider a classic Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley or Carneros. Lynmar’s 2003 Quail Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir is a fine example of the variety’s potential in Russian River. The wine displays crisp acidity, depth without weight and an ephemeral bouquet that is an ideal complement to both the texture and flavor of the lamb. If you’re serving New Zealand lamb, why not try one of the recommendations from the NZ Pinot Noir story.
Grilled Leg of Lamb with New Olive Oil
Preparing a leg of lamb is simple. You do not need any special skills, especially if you ask your butcher to butterfly it for you. New olive oil—Olio Nuovo—is available from several California producers in December, shortly after the year’s olive harvest is complete. A small amount is also imported from Italy.
10 to 12 large fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 leg of lamb, preferably American, boned and butterflied
Extra virgin olive oil, preferably 2005 Olio Nuovo
Put the crushed garlic into a suribachi or large mortar, add about half the salt and use a wooden pestle to grind into a paste. Mix in the coriander, several generous turns of black pepper and the olive oil. Set the lamb on a clean work surface. Sprinkle the remaining salt over the lamb and then rub the paste over it. Set in a large baking dish or other container, cover and refrigerate at least two hours and as long as overnight.
To cook the lamb, prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. When the coals are evenly covered with ash, set the lamb on a clean grill rack and cook, turning now and then, until the temperature in the thickest part of the muscle reaches about 120Â°F. Time will vary based on the heat of the coals, but it should take about 25 to 30 minutes; begin to test after 20 minutes. Transfer to a platter, cover loosely with a sheet of foil and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Use a very sharp knife to cut the lamb into thin slices. Arrange the sliced lamb on a platter, grouping rare, medium-rare and well-done cuts. Season lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle olive oil over the top. Serve immediately, with more olive oil alongside. Serves 6 to 8.
Wine recommendations: Olio Nuovo is full-bodied, fruity and lively, qualities that can be reflected in a wine served alongside. Radio-Coteau 2003 Von Weidlich Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley is as engaging and appealing match as you can find. The wine is young and fruity, yet with a depth and plushness that suggests maturity. Pretty herbal qualities and subtle threads of spiciness engage beautifully with both the olive oil and the coriander. A Zinfandel such as Quivira 2003 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is also robust enough to match the oil’s fruitiness; elements of tobacco smoke, toasted bread and bacon in the wine engage the smokiness of the grilled lamb and earthiness of the garlic and coriander rub. To approach pairing from a different direction, the fat of the olive oil will soften the young tannins of a California Syrah, such as McDowell 2002 Mendocino County Syrah.
Moroccan-style Lamb Shanks with Olives & Preserved Lemons
Few cuisines have lamb dishes as delicious as that of Morocco. There are dozens of tagines —fragrant slow-cooked stews—that feature lamb. Because nearly all stews improve with time, you can prepare this dish the day before serving it. Traditionally, a tagine is served with steamed couscous, a very good choice with this dish, though it is also excellent with barley, farro and the small round pasta known as acini di pepe.
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
4 lamb shanks, trimmed of outer fat
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 yellow onions, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups water, or more as needed
3/4 cup green olives, pitted and sliced
4 preserved lemon wedges, slivered
4 preserved lemon wedges (for garnish)
Put the garlic in a suribachi or mortar, add a teaspoon of salt and use a wooden pestle to grind the garlic to a paste. Stir in the paprika, cumin, coriander and ginger, and several turns of black pepper. Rub some of the mixture over each lamb shank, set on a baking sheet, cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 300Â°F. Pour the olive oil into a large, deep pan set over medium heat. Add the shanks and brown them evenly all around. Use tongs to transfer the shanks to a plate or baking sheet. Add the onions to the pan, season with several pinches of salt and cook until they are limp and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Do not let the onions brown. Add the minced garlic and sauté 2 minutes more.
Set the browned shanks on top of the onions and garlic, add 2 cups water, cover the pan and set on the middle rack of the oven. Bake the shanks until the lamb falls off the bone, about 2-1/2 hours. Check occasionally and add more water if needed. Uncover the pot for the final 20 minutes of cooking. Remove from the oven and let rest, covered, for up to 30 minutes.
To serve, transfer the lamb shanks to a platter. Set the pan over a burner. If there is a lot of liquid left, cook over medium-high heat until it is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Stir in the sliced olives and slivered lemon wedges and pour the sauce over the shanks. Garnish with the remaining wedges of preserved lemons and serve immediately. Serves 4
Wine recommendation: The olives and preserved lemons in this dish offer an opportunity to break the so-called rules and offer up a dry rosé, such as Iron Horse 2003 Rosato di Sangiovese, the perfect quaffer with this stew. The acidity of the wine engages both the salt and spice of the sauce; ginger in the sauce allows the wine’s fruit—primarily white peaches, strawberries and rhubarb—to flower seductively.