Even though I live mostly on grains and vegetables, sometimes the meaty taste of grilled wild mushrooms or eggplant-tomato casserole isn’t enough. Sometimes I just want meat. If I’m going to treat myself to a succulent piece of red meat, its lamb I choose. Lamb has so much more flavor, bite for bite, than beef that it seems the thriftiest way to spend one’s red-meat allowance. My favorite cuts are thrifty too, and showcase the pleasures of both fast roasting, with no liquid at all, and slow braising, with plentiful liquid.
Most people object strongly to a strong lamb flavor, and fear that anything other than a spring lamb will be mutiny. But a pronounced sleepy flavor is now very rare. Size, the traditional way to identify lambs on the verge of becoming mutton (the official turning point is at twelve months), is today an unreliable guide. New breeds are much fatter at the usual slaughtering age of five to seven months than the old ones were: 80 percent heavier than sheep of the same age were in 1941, according to the American Lamb Council.
“Spring lamb,” in any case, has little culinary meaning. Lamb has always been associated with Easter and Passover, probably both for its symbolism and because of the newborn lambs covering the hillsides when the festivals are celebrated. Although some breeds produce lambs year-round, ewes of standard breeds give birth in the spring in cool climates, and their lambs mature on new grass and fatten on vigorous late-summer grass. Traditional farm-raised lamb, then, is best in the fall and early winter, not in the spring. “Baby lamb,” even if seemingly redundant, does mean something to the cook: low-weight lambs, slaughtered at three to five months, whose meat is especially tender and sweet. Again, the commonest season for these in Europe and America is fall; New Zealand, with its different seasons, can export low-weight lamb in different months.
My Own Path of Discovery
I recently rediscovered the lamb of my childhood, and found that what defined it was not age or season but cut. All of it came from the forequarters only, because I grew up in a kosher house. For years I wondered why the lamb chops I remembered from weekly suppers were so much bigger than the dainty loin ribs at expensive restaurants. They were cut from the shoulder, I learned, not the loin. My lamb cooking as an adult had been confined to the leg. Now that I know how much moister and tastier–and cheaper–the many cuts from lamb shoulder can be, I wonder if I’ll ever bother with leg again, or even with the deluxe loin.
I also found how easy it is to cook falling-off-the-bone, wonderfully flavored lamb shanks, which are always a favorite dish when I travel to Mediterranean countries. Like chops, shanks can be cut from more than one part of the animal–and again the forequarter is best.
Lamb shoulder remains a popular cut in England, where it has been a traditional Sunday joint. Because its bone structure makes it tricky to carve, it long ago fell out of favor here as a roast. Butchers are less willing to bone a shoulder than a leg, because the large amount of bone means a low yield, and the meat is less expensive to begin with. If you ask in advance, your butcher will bone and roll a shoulder. But even with the bone in, the shoulder is both an economical and an excellent roast, and it takes no time to prepare: just rub it with cut garlic, oil, salt and pepper, and chopped rosemary, and stick it in the oven. (The carving will be a challenge, though: aim to do it across the grain, angling the knife to cut parallel to bones rather than straight into them. For a holiday presentation you can bring the roast to the table whole and then whisk it back to the kitchen.) The meat you serve will be as tender as anything from the leg.
Great Memory with the High-heat Method
When roasting all kinds of meat I use the high-heat method practiced by Barbara Kafka, who is writing a book on roasting. The results of straight 500 cooking are so far superior to low-temperature roasting, which is really baking, that I’ve grown accustomed to smoky kitchens and dirty ovens. For a four-pound bone-in shoulder, her technique requires only forty-five minutes in a 500 oven, until the internal temperature just reaches 140. I think lamb is best medium-rare, which is to say between 140 and 150. Roast meat should always wait, covered with aluminum foil, at least twenty minutes before it is carved, so that the muscle can reabsorb liquid and fat; as the meat sits, it will reach the right temperature.
Kafka gave me a recipe from her work in progress for “wintry” lamb stew, which, in a reversal of the usual order, cooks first in the oven and then on the stove. Browning stew meat in a 500 oven for a half hour works remarkably well. You don’t need to flour the meat or keep turning the chunks to get them crusty and brown; the only attention required is a good shake every once in a while. And if you trim as much fat as you can from the pieces, your kitchen won’t even get smoky.
Arm or blade chops–commonly available prepackaged shoulder cuts that are easy to trim and bone–yield superior, if unevenly shaped, stew meat. To make the stew, briefly heat on the stove, in a large roasting pan, three pounds of chunked shoulder meat and a half cup of roughly chopped onions in four tablespoons of butter (you can reduce the fat and substitute oil for the butter) just until the meat and onions are coated with the fat. Transfer the pan to a preheated 500 ovens and cook for half an hour, keeping the chunks as separate as possible and after fifteen minutes shaking them vigorously or turning them with a spoon or tongs. Remove the meat to a pot and roast the onions another fifteen minutes; add them to the pot.
Pour off the fat from the roasting pan, put the pan over a medium flame, and add to it a half cup each of red wine and water. Bring the liquid to a boil, scraping up the browned bits, and then add it to the pot along with three or four cloves of garlic, peeled and halved, a 14-ounce can of chicken stock, an additional cup of red wine, and a quarter cup of veal glaze, if you can find it. (Veal glaze is rich, reduced veal stock–liquid gold, to my mind, and sometimes available in refrigerator and frozen-food cases; substitute chicken or beef stock or a mixture of the two if you can’t find it.) Simmer, covered, for an hour and then skim the liquid carefully. Add a bay leaf and two tablespoons of chopped parsley leaves; a pound of parsnips, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces; a half pound of baby carrots, trimmed and peeled; and a one-pound celery root, trimmed, peeled, and cut into half-inch pieces (omit if you can’t find one). Cover and simmer for twenty minutes more and skim again.
Thicken and finish the stew by whisking a quarter cup of cornstarch into about a cup of the hot liquid until smooth (or, for a cream-sauce consistency rather than that of a thick stew, use only two to three tablespoons of cornstarch). Carefully stir the slurry back into the pot and add to the liquid a tablespoon of anchovy paste and two tablespoons of chopped fresh sage. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes more, until thickened.
Revise to Fit Your Favorite Flavor
Like all stews, this one can be adapted to suit the vegetables you can find and the season you’re in: new potatoes and peas, for instance, will make it spring like. The unusual browning technique, the herbs, and the anchovy paste, which subtly reinforces the flavor, make this stew uncommonly good.
Strong herbs take perfectly to lamb, and cooking from the new Union Square Cafe Cookbook–by Danny Meyer, who opened that popular New York restaurant, and Michael Romano, its gifted chef–uses little more than herbs and stock to show how good and easy lamb shanks are. The long cooking at several heats, both on the stove and in the oven, demonstrates that it’s virtually impossible to cook lamb shanks for too long. (A rival New York restaurant, Campagna, lists on its menu “Overcooked Lamb Shoulder in Red Wine and Herbs.”) Like beef shin, lamb shanks contain sinews and other connective tissue that become soft and gelatinous, adding a buttery texture to the meat and giving sheen to the sauce. I first tasted this dish at Rialto, a new Boston-area restaurant that saluted its New York friends this past winter, and was overwhelmed by how much meat there was on the plate. It looked like half a leg of lamb, and it practically was–the chef, Jody Adams, had used shanks from the hindquarter, which are cut from the lower half of a leg roast. Most restaurants are similarly generous, but at home it’s much better to use forequarter shanks. Each will provide an abundant but not unmanageable serving.
Many Steps for Practicing Cooking
The recipe calls for four lamb shanks; rub each with a cut garlic clove, and set the shanks aside. Sprinkle salt (preferably the sweeter and better-flavored kosher salt) and pepper on the shanks and turn them in two tablespoons of flour spread on a plate. Over a medium flame brown the shanks in two tablespoons of olive oil heated in a wide ovenproof pan that has a cover (you’ll need it later). Or brown the shanks, seasoned and with or without flour, in a 500 oven for twenty to thirty minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. If you’re daring, heat a quarter cup of brandy in a small pan, light it, and pour the flaming liquor over the nearly browned shanks, heating them until all the liquid has evaporated. This dramatic touch will give depth to the sauce.
Remove the shanks from the pan and add one and a half cups of sliced onion and five thinly sliced garlic cloves. Cook the vegetables for about five minutes, until they are softened but not browned. Add two tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary, three tablespoons of chopped fresh mint, and a tablespoon each of fresh thyme leaves and chopped parsley leaves; if you have only dried rosemary, mint, or thyme, use a teaspoon for each tablespoon. Cook for another three or four minutes and then add a cup of white wine, boiling it until it is reduced by half. Add three cups of stock, preferably veal, season with additional salt and pepper, and return the shanks to the pan. Cover and bake in a preheated 325 oven for two hours.
The final step seems merciless, but it makes the dish great: uncover the pan, raise the heat to 500, and brown the shanks for twenty minutes more. They will be crusty and tinged with black. Remove the shanks, cover them, and skim as much fat as possible off the liquid. Boil the liquid hard, scraping the bottom of the pan, until it is reduced by half.
It is indeed possible to undercook shanks, as I discovered when I rushed a dish of shanks braised with a sauce of onion, honey, sherry vinegar, green pepper, saffron, and paprika, from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which is full of homey, simple, and appealing recipes from many countries. I didn’t brown the shanks long enough, and braised them in the cooking liquid (wine and Spanish brandy) at a mild simmer for barely two hours instead of the called-for two and a half. They were tough. I should have put them into a 500 oven, either during browning or at the end, to make them meltingly tender. The shanks rallied after lengthy reheating, proving the notion that long-braised dishes just get better when they’re aged for a day or two. In fact, none of the stews I tried suffered from a cooking time that beforehand I would have gauged far too long.
Never Forget the Necessary Points
You can order true baby lamb from Summerfield Farms, a source of the highest-quality meat, in Culpepper, Virginia (telephone 703-547-9600; they sell veal glaze, too). The meat is dry-aged for several weeks, which the owner, Jamie Nicoll, says greatly improves the flavor without changing its basic nature. You can do this with ordinary lamb by leaving it in your refrigerator, wrapped in wax paper or simply unwrapped, for two to four days–a trick to intensify the flavor of supermarket lamb, which is, odd as it sounds, often too fresh.
I once visited Nicoll and his wife, Rachel, during lambing season, when little lambs really do gambol up and down the dales. The couple’s enlightened management of their flock paradoxically made me better disposed toward eating meat than I am at a distance. Their meat is powerfully flavored and in the tradition of farmers who care deeply about what they raise. It will honor your holiday table.