My first experience with lamb was long ago and quite memorable—but not in a good way. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the imported bone-in leg I had purchased turned out to be mutton, a strongly flavored, somewhat tough piece of meat from a sheep that was more than 2 years old. But I seldom judge a food on first bite. Years later I tried another leg of lamb—this time young, domestic and boneless—and found the meat delicately flavored, quite succulent and surprisingly tender.
Today’s lamb is tender and sweet, and pairs well with a variety of foods and flavors. Progressive breeding programs and aggressive trimming of external fat are also producing considerably leaner cuts of meat. Unlike beef, lamb has very little marbling.
From quick recipes to sophisticated cuisine, lamb can turn any meal into a special event. These days lamb is not only a spring dish we look forward to, but it also has a recurring role in our meals all year through.
Pineapple Lamb Burgers with Cumin-Red Pepper Sauce
2 (8-ounce) cans crushed pineapple, drained (reserve liquid)
1 pound lean ground lamb
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste, divided
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (7-8-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, drained
1/3 cup reserved pineapple juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Preheat broiler or grill. Mix the drained pineapple, ground lamb, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the tomato paste, white pepper and salt in a medium bowl. Shape into six equal patties and place on broiler pan or grill rack. Broil or grill for 3-5 minutes on each side.
Meanwhile, to make sauce: Combine the red peppers, reserved pineapple juice, the remaining 1 tablespoon tomato paste, cumin and oregano and puree in a food processor or with a hand blender until smooth. Pour the sauce into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to a slow boil and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 6 minutes or until the sauce has thickened slightly.
Serve each lamb burger with 3 tablespoons cumin-red pepper sauce. Makes six servings.
Pineapple Glazed Lamb Ribs
1 can (20-ounce) crushed pineapple with juice
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons mustard
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger root
3 pounds spareribs, boneless riblets, or riblets
In a small bowl, mix together the pineapple with juice, brown sugar, mustard and ginger; set aside. Cook the ribs, uncovered, in a 325-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours; drain any excess fat. Coat ribs with the pineapple sauce, and cook another 45 to 60 minutes longer, or until meat is tender; occasionally baste ribs with sauce while cooking. Transfer to a platter and serve with sauce from pan. Makes four to six servings.
Herb-Crusted Lamb & Roasted Beet Romaine Salad
For variety, try substituting pecan meal for the wheat germ, turnips for the fennel root, and dill seed for the fennel seed in the following recipe.
SALAD AND DRESSING
1 pound beets (6 to 8 small), scrubbed and stems trimmed to 1 inch
1 fennel root, scrubbed and stems trimmed to 1 inch
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
8 cups chopped hearts of romaine (about 12 ounces)
3 tablespoons wheat germ
1 tablespoon fresh snipped Italian parsley, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh snipped rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 pound lean lamb (loin or leg), well trimmed and cubed
Position rack in center of oven, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place beets and fennel root in the center of a large piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with 1/2-tablespoon olive oil, then wrap in foil. Bake until the vegetables are easily pierced with a knife, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Carefully unwrap foil, transfer to a cutting board and let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, to make the dressing: whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil with balsamic vinegar, shallots and whole grain mustard until smooth. Set aside to allow flavors to meld.
About 15 minutes before the beets and fennel are ready, combine wheat germ, parsley, rosemary, thyme and fennel seed in a plastic bag; shake until blended. Add lamb cubes and shake to coat with the herb mixture. Heat the remaining 1/2-tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add the lamb and cook, turning often, 6 to 9 minutes for medium. Cover and set aside.
Peel the beets, cut them and the fennel in half and then cut both into 1/4 inch slices. Place romaine in a large serving bowl; top with the beets, fennel and lamb and drizzle with the dressing. Makes six servings.
Oregon-based Kris Wetherbee is an internationally published author, food writer and recipe developer. (kriswetherbee.com)
TIPS TO BUYING LAMB
For convenience and an appetizing versatility, I most always opt for the leg, which is sold whole (bone-in or boneless), as steaks, chops or kebab meat. The more flavorful shoulder is typically sold as roasts, chops or stew meat. The more expensive and very flavorful loin is sold as chops or roasts. Ribs are sold as a rack or as individual rib chops. More than one rack creates a “crown roast.” When buying lamb, keep these pointers in mind:
Meat sold as baby lamb is six to eight weeks old; the age for spring lamb is between three to six months; lamb between 12 to 24 months is called a yearling and is slightly less tender and more flavorful. A sheep more than 2 years old is referred to as mutton.
Look for meat that is fine-textured, firm and light pink in color. An older lamb will be light red.
The fat should be white or creamy in color. Avoid meat with fat that is yellowish.
Look for USDA Prime grade lamb for the most flavorful, tender and juicy cuts. Lower grades of lamb and mutton are seldom marked as such in the retail market.