Lamb connoisseurs seek good shepherds. Cleveland chef Parker Bosley buys meat from farmers who "raise their sheep with care, so you know the animal has grazed outdoors on fresh grass. If the soil is alive with minerals, the meat takes on a wonderful, herbaceous taste."
Breeding goes a long way, too. Bosley favors purebred lamb for its consistency of flavor through generations. Breeds such as Tunis, Navajo-Churro, Katahdin and St. Croix hair sheep are raised on a small scale and offer superior taste because their wool contains low levels of lanolin, which can impart a heavy taste in the meat's fat, according to Don Schrider of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Fat is another key element, according to New York butcher Evan Lobel. He looks for "a thick, creamy, outer layer of fat—a good indication of well-marbled meat—and a full, stocky haunch with no visible bones." Lobel also advises consumers to seek out lamb that is "rosier" than beef and doesn't smell, well, "lamby." Flavor? "Unique. Stronger in comparison to beef, veal or pork," he says.
For Lobel, the "sweet and expensive" rib rack is the prized piece. Bosley calls it the ideal "date meal." He also touts braised shanks served with root vegetables and slow-roasted shoulder served in a manner similar to pulled pork.
Leg of lamb, always an old Easter favorite, especially among Mediterranean cooks, is now a festive dinner of choice year round. Lobel recommends roasting a leg to between 138 and 142 degrees internal temperature (medium-rare to medium) and serving it au jus with sprigs of fresh thyme. For the trencherman with 20 or so guests, he suggests baron of lamb (the rear and both hind legs). Its 20 pounds of meat crisps up nicely when roasted on a spit, but requires advanced carving skills, Lobel cautions.
Nancy Schmidt tends a flock of red-coated Tunis sheep on her 60-acre farm in Huron County, Ohio. She sells about 40 lambs each year to a mostly local clientele. Schmidt's sheep graze on grass, which she supplements with a little homegrown corn to tenderize the meat.
Schmidt dispenses with the customary thyme and rosemary. She simply roasts her lamb until it's slightly pink "And you can often cut the meat with a fork," she says.
Visit www.heritagefoodsusa.com and www.lobels.com.
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