New Ways to Prepare Lamb
Everyone has lamb chops on their menu – let's move beyond that
With their sweet faces and fluffy fur, lambs are cute. But let's be honest: you work in a kitchen and aren't here to play with them. You like to cook them and serve them to your guests. The easiest way to serve lamb is by preparing a rack and cooking the chops, those tender pieces that come from the ribs. But why limit yourself? There are many ways to cook lamb and many parts you can work with so why isn't everyone working with, more sections of the lamb?
"Lamb is a very flexible animal," said Michael Trotta, head butcher at Chicago's Chop Shop. "The only problem is people get scared from the gaminess that comes with lamb."
Trotta explained that a way to get around the often-strong game flavors associated with lamb is to use ingredients that detract from that like lemon, oregano and mint. Those fresh flavors can help counteract the gaminess, he said.
At Chop Shop, Trotta prepares lamb in a variety of ways, including making lamb merguez sausage with cumin, cayenne, vinegar and a lot of garlic. He also likes using the lamb neck. While it has a lot of cartilage, which renders out natural gelatin when cooked to help smooth out sauces and braising liquid, when it's done, he said, it offers up a lot of great flavor.
Up until the last couple of decades, lamb was bred to be older and was gamier, according to Brent Balika, executive chef at Chicago's Margeaux Brasserie. Back then, you almost had to mask the gaminess with mint to mask that mutton-like flavor. These days, farmers are raising lamb to be more tender, which results in an animal you can use almost all of in the kitchen.
"Everything in lamb is edible," Balika said. "I've worked with all the offal and it can be used in French cooking. I've worked with lamb hearts, which are quite delicious. It's lean meat because it's the hardest working muscle in the body and has the purest flavor. Lamb tongue is also delicious."
No matter the cut, one of Balika's favorite ways to prepare lamb is to simply use Provençal flavors: anise, mustard, garlic and, of course, herbs de Provence, which often combine rosemary, lavender, basil, thyme and more. He likes cooking lamb ribs with those flavors where he'll slow cook the ribs until the meat basically falls off the bone. Then he'll shred the meat and pass that into a feuille de brick, a thin pastry-like crepe, which can be pan seared, roasted or fried to give it a "nice crispy package of really aromatic lamb-driven meat inside," he said.
As we move into the colder months, lamb turns into the perfect meat to work with as it offers comfort and warming qualities. You can serve it with big, bold red wines like Barolo or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and it really evokes a feeling of cozying up inside when it's cold outside. Two cuts that add to the comfort level are braised lamb shank and slow-roasted lamb shoulder, according to Alex Pitts, executive chef at Bazaar Meats in Las Vegas.
"Our general philosophy with cooking lamb shoulder is to keep it ultra simple," Pitts said. "The cooking method is simple: We throw it in the wood-fired oven, seasoning it with salt and pepper or lemon and garlic. We shy away from overly creative accompaniments. Our focus is getting amazing ingredients in the first place so then there's no need to embellish."
But if you choose to get more creative with the meat, you have plenty to work with. Middle Eastern flavors like cumin, coriander and, of course, mint all have a place with lamb. Want to add a sauce? You can never go wrong with a tzatziki, which comprises yogurt, garlic, cucumbers and fresh herbs. It's a staple in Greek cooking, where lamb is a main ingredient (i.e. gyros). As for what to serve it with, you can easily do roasted potatoes, spinach, cauliflower, olives, beans, artichokes or a nice vegetable ragout, but nothing overly fatty.
"Since lamb is more delicate and not as bold as beef, you don't want to go with anything too fatty that can overpower the meat," Balika said. "Instead focus on lighter, aromatic vegetable-driven dishes."
That way, you'll remember why you started working with this lovely meat in the first place: because it's delicious.