Seasons by the Sea: Lamb on a Winter’s Day

Enhancing special occasions and cold weather
The lamb in winter, served with carrot salad and couscous, is smelly but satisfying. Laura Donnelly

I love lamb but seldom cook it at home. It’s expensive and kind of smelly. But of all meat and fowl, lamb and duck are my favorites. I have never cooked a rack of lamb and have probably roasted a leg only once or twice in my life. About once a year I’ll fry up some chops. This time of year, however, the idea of slow-cooked stews with shanks and legs is very appealing. 

One of my favorite recipes is from Patricia Wells’s “Bistro Cookbook,” a seven-hour leg of lamb cooked with a bottle of dry white wine, thyme, garlic, carrots, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. It is a foolproof crowd-pleaser. 

From the 1600s to the 1960s, most farm families on Long Island raised all their own livestock. But real estate became too valuable and farms shrank. Nowadays, with the rise of “locavorism,” you can find pastured lamb on the North Fork at 8 Hands in Cutchogue and Golden Earthworm in Jamesport. 

American lamb is pretty good, but if you want to splurge and try truly tasty lamb, you should buy Australian or New Zealand lamb.

Lamb production and consumption is much higher in countries like Greece, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, and the aforementioned Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, roast leg of lamb (prepared with butter and rosemary) is considered a national dish and is consumed almost every Sunday. Lamb is also very popular in certain regions of China, but is rarely seen in Japan. In the United States, according to a BBC News report in 2015, only 14 ounces are consumed per year per person, and half the population has never tried it. Oddly enough, there is a part of Kentucky that is fond of mutton, fully grown sheep, seldom eaten outside of Scotland.

Lamb is full of protein, but can also be high in saturated fat, so leaner cuts are better for you. It is also full of Vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, niacin, phosphorus, and iron.

Lamb terminology can be confusing. “Baby lamb” is redundant, like “shrimp scampi.” Lamb already means baby and scampi means shrimp. Lamb is a young sheep, under 12 months old, a hogget is slightly older, and mutton is an adult ewe (female) or wether (male). Milk-fed lamb is meat from an unweaned lamb, four to six weeks old. Young lamb is between six and eight weeks old, and spring lamb is a term that is fairly meaningless today, but used to mean three to five months old, born in late winter. Salt marsh and salt grass lamb are those that fed on samphire, sparta grass, and other marsh grasses throughout Europe, and it is believed to be a bit saltier and more flavorful than pasture-raised.

Because lamb is a fatty meat, many cultures use an acidic element or strong aromatics to temper it. In England, a vinegary mint sauce is served alongside; in Spain, wine or vinegar is popular, and lemon juice beaten with egg yolks is used in Greece. In North Africa, apricots and quince are stewed with lamb. Garlic, rosemary, thyme, and oregano are common accompaniments in France and the U.S., paprika in Spain and Portugal, and anchovies, garlic, and rosemary in Italy. Mint is also popular in India and the Middle East. 

Vegetables with some sweetness, like turnips, parsnips, and carrots, pair well in a stew, and potatoes, rice, and couscous do a fine job of absorbing some of the fat and flavor of the lamb.

So, yeah, lamb is expensive and rich in fat, but it can enhance special occasions. As the days get shorter and colder, working on a seven-hour leg of lamb stew is a nice weekend project. Or try my friend Stephanie Reiner’s lamb tagine cooked in a pressure cooker — delicious and done much faster. As an occasional treat, it can’t be beat.

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