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A Spring Thing

Americans Love Lamb But They Rarely Eat It At Home

On the Lamb
“It’s a signature dish,” says Gavin Stephenson, executive chef at the Fairmont Hotels and resorts. Most often Stephenson buys lamb from the western states, but in spring he sometimes orders from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. “[The lambs] feed on the salt flats, and they eat sea beans. [The meat] has a wonderful salty taste and is really tender.” Because of high demand and limited supply, this lamb is extremely costly and not always available from his supplier, Interbay Food Co., near Seattle. When he can get it, he wraps the Salt Spring Island lamb loin in prosciutto and basil, sears it, roasts it, and serves it with basil and goat-cheese whipped potatoes and his own heirloom tomato jam.

Stephenson is not alone. At The Inn at Pleasant Lake in New London, New Hampshire, Chef/Owner Brian MacKenzie offers rack of lamb as part of a prix fixe five-course dinner menu. Chef Duane Keller of Walkers Grill Restaurant in Virginia, makes American Lambsickles with Port-Infused Fig and Apricot Chutney. Marc Collins, executive chef at Circa 1886, a four-diamond restaurant in the historic Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina, offers lamb on each season’s menu as either an appetizer or a main course. Even the seafood restaurant Thalassa in Manhattan’s Tribeca keeps lamb on the menu. Why are these chefs and their customers so crazy for lamb? The traditional esteem of this delicious meat adds cachet to their menus, and the meat stores very well. Finally, its versatility allows chefs to experiment with any number of creative preparations.


Where’s the Lamb?
The lamb we love in restaurants comes from an animal that was domesticated 10,000 years ago as a source of food as well as of wool for clothing. It is especially prized in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, where it is eaten on festive occasions. In Western cultures lambs were allowed to age at least one year and were butchered for mutton. The meat lacked the flavor and texture of today’s young lamb, so it was used most often in long-cooking dishes like the humble Irish stew or combined with strong spices for curries. In this country’s past, leg of lamb with mint jelly was a favorite around Easter, but, more recently, Americans have raised their culinary expectations, and the finest restaurants are delivering in high style. Chefs have to know where to get lamb, how to keep it fresh, and how to calculate this slightly expensive meat into their food costs.


Today, lamb is grown all over the United States year-round from small cooperatives to the large ranches in the West. Nearly four million domestic lambs, raised on natural grasses and some seed, end up on the dinner table each year. The largest supply of meat comes from the animals born during the spring lambing season, which may be as early as January in the warm states of the southwest and as late as May in the colder northern areas. These lambs are slaughtered and processed when they are between the ages of six months and one year and weigh about 120 pounds. The average dress weight is nearly 70 pounds. Lambs at this weight have the best flavor and marbling, without a fatty taste.


“Our breeds are 25 to 30 pounds larger than lambs from Australia and New Zealand,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “They have a large rib eye on the rack.” Wortman believes that chefs prefer American-raised lamb for its freshness, adding that many prefer to support American agriculture. According to Wortman, the best-selling cuts of lamb to restaurants are racks, loins, and shanks, in that order. For Keller, the right cut depends on the season and time of day. “I’d say, for dinner, the loin or rack. For brunch, BBQ, or buffets, I’d pick the leg, and for the winter, I’d go with shanks or ground lamb,” he says. “I dig the leg because it will take on a lot of spice, rub, marinade . . . and is something you celebrate around.”


Of all the states that produce lamb, Colorado has the highest reputation, as is cited often on restaurant menus. In fact, “Colorado is only the fourth largest state producer,” Wortman says. (The top three producing states are Texas, California, and Wyoming.) The reason people are more familiar with Colorado lamb likely is due to the fact that much of the lamb raised in other states is processed in Colorado. Wortman’s own American Lamb Board is based there too.

Getting Fresh
Part of lamb’s appeal to chefs is how well it keeps and marinates. “Lamb stores great,” Stephenson points out. “It has 10 to 14 days of age before we get it, and it can take another few days with us before we cook it.” In the fall, lamb can be a bit tougher, so Stephenson marinates it in olive oil and herbs and some acid, but not vinegar. “We Cryovac the meat. It sucks the marinade into the lamb.” Many chefs use a similar technique to keep the meat fresh longer. To maintain freshness, Thalassa’s Executive Chef Ralphael Abrahante vacuum-packs his racks in a marinade of olive oil, oregano, garlic, and thyme, while Collins breaks down and marinates lamb in a light layer of olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary.


Stephenson pays $17 a pound for racks and $7 a pound for shanks. In a busy week, the Georgian Room serves 40 to 80 portions, and menu prices range from the mid $30s to the high $40s. “Price margins are different with lamb than they are for a Caesar salad,” he adds, “so there might be less profit.” Circa 1886’s Collins says a 20-pound case costs about $217 and lasts a week or two, depending upon the season. Spring is the busiest time, when the restaurant serves up to 90 dinners a night. Collins figures his price margin carefully: “I weigh the rack and decide how much is a reasonable order. Once that is done, I factor in the cost of all other ingredients and divide by 29 percent.” The Inn at Pleasant Lake’s five-course dinner is $55, which is what the market will bear, according to the chef. MacKenzie fits lamb into the menu by balancing the cost with the rest of the items he features.


On the Plate
Oregano and rosemary are favorite flavor pairings at Thalassa, where Abrahante serves grilled lamb chops with a rosemary demi-glace, roasted-eggplant mashed potatoes, and haricots verts ($36). “Most important to remember when cooking lamb,” says Abrahante, “is not to overcook it. It has to be pink, pink, pink.” A braised lamb shank entree is served with lemon-roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus ($28). A popular lunch offering is a traditional Greek dish of braised lamb shank meat with orzo, fresh oregano, and feta cheese ($16). This is a favorite of owner Steve Makris, whose Greek family has been in the food business for more than 100 years. In addition, lamb shank ravioli served in a wine sauce is always on the menu. They serve about 200 ravioli a day in portions of three for the appetizer ($15) and five for an entree ($29). Often it is paired with Lafazanis Agiorgitiko, an earthy, robust red that Abrahante uses in he sauce too. Another choice for lamb is Rapsani Reserve 2004, a blend in the style of a Côtes-du-Rhône. Both come from the restaurant’s award-winning international wine cellar, which includes its own boutique Greek wines, many of which pair beautifully with lamb dishes.


On his fall menu Collins featured a rosemary-infused lamb chop with Carolina gold rice puppy with white cheddar sauce as an appetizer for $12. A lamb entree for spring is lavender-honey-glazed chops with white cheddar grits, summer squash, and a blueberry gastrique ($30). Collins likes to pair lamb with a Pinot Noir or Shiraz. “Depending on the cut,” he says, “a Cabernet is sometimes appropriate, if the wine is not too heavy.


Lamb Lingo

1. BRT (Boned, rolled, tied): Leg or shoulder roast completely deboned with internal and excessive outside fat removed. Cylindrical in shape and ideal for a rotisserie or even oven roast.

2. Crown roasts: Two Frenched racks (eight ribs each) curved and tied together to resemble a crown.

3. Denver ribs: Lamb spareribs cut from the breast and trimmed of all fat and connective tissue.

4. Frenching: Removal of at least 11⁄2 inches of meat from the bone ends of a rib roast or rib chops. Also done on shank and leg.

5. Hothouse lamb: Meat from a young lamb that has been entirely milk-fed. Also referred to as baby lamb or milk lamb, it has the most delicate flavor and texture.

6. Lollipop: Chop with Frenched bone.

7. Mutton: Meat from an adult sheep that is more than a year old.

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