As our appetite for all things lamb grows, chops, shanks, sausages and even bellies are ending up on our plates.
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and the chefs have found them. They’re hiding them in their ovens, pots and pans.
Lamb is one of the world’s most popular meats. It’s found everywhere from North African stews to Mongolian hot pots, from kosher delis to halal butchers. In Canada, lamb production has ramped up across the country over the past few years.
Traditional recipes like Sunday-dinner lamb chops still abound but the resurgence has many people preparing the meat in novel ways. With Atlantic Canadian palates sampling new global flavours, lamb is appearing in such diverse dishes as köfte (spiced lamb balls that are a staple of Turkish and Lebanese food), and rogan josh (a spiced Kashmiri curry in Indian and Pakistani cuisine).
One person celebrating the change is Bill Wood, owner of Wood’n Hart Farm in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. Wood has raised lamb since 1967 and his stall at the Halifax Farmers’ Market offers a variety of different cuts. He sells the usual chops, legs, stew and ground meat, as well as prepared foods, such as meat pies, jerky and sausages. He even smokes the legs and makes his own lamb pepperoni.
However, lamb can still be a hard sell for some people. Although Canadians are eating more of it (about a 1.2 kilograms annually, according to the Canadian Sheep Federation) we’re miles away from the lamb-loving and producing country of New Zealand. The average New Zealander consumes 26 kilograms of the stuff annually.
Leaving the cute factor aside, there seems to be a negative culinary memory around lamb that is hard to shake. “Lamb now is different than when our parents ate it,” Wood says. He points out that much of what people used to sell as lamb was often mutton—the tougher meat of older sheep. “To be called lamb, the animal has to be younger than a year,” he says.
Changes in lamb preparation and butchering techniques are making the meat more appealing. “Then, they would just kill and cook it,” says Wood. “Now, it’s hung longer, breaking down the enzymes and the meat really gets tender.” Another problem from the past was butchers getting lanolin on their hands when handling lamb.
Lanolin, sometimes called wool wax or wool grease, is a natural lubricant lambs produce that protects them from the elements. Often, lanolin would rub onto the meat during butchering, leaving an unpleasant flavour. “Then you’ve got the taste of the wool from when their hands touched the wool,” Wood says. Thankfully, those days are over but it can take a while to forget those bad gastronomic memories.
For the novice cook, Wood suggests a boneless shoulder roast. “The shoulders are a pound and a half [about one kilogram], so it’s a nice meal for two people,” he says. “I suggest that to start off with, more than anything else. It’s just a nice,
Wood cooks lamb rather simply, seasoning it with salt and pepper and a bit of store-bought apricot jam on the side. As for cooking instructions, he suggests taking your time. “People need to remember that when you cook lamb, you need to cook it slow,” he says. “Sure, there are chefs who know how to cook it fast but they know what they’re doing.”
He often saves less popular cuts for the pros. “The cuts that nobody else can sell are the cuts that I can,” he says. “Like Craig [Flinn from Chives in Halifax] takes the boned shoulders and he’s won awards with them. It’s a cut that nobody wanted at one time and now people are thinking about it.” Other Halifax restaurants such as Brooklyn Warehouse and Fid Resto also feature Wood’s lamb on their menus.
At Fid Resto, chef and co-owner Dennis Johnston appreciates some of those lesser-known cuts of lamb, including the neck and belly. He has a penchant for finding new ways of cooking lamb.
He serves an Indian-cum-Atlantic-Canadian inspired lamb breakfast using the deliciously fatty belly. “They are brined for four hours and then stuffed with ground lamb, walnuts and cranberries,” Johnston says. He cooks the lamb sous-vide (a process that cooks the meat in a vacuum-sealed pouch in warm water, maintaining a constant temperature for 12 hours) and serves it with two sunny-side-up eggs, smashed potatoes and a drizzle of cold-infused curry oil. The dish is popular among diners. “Personally, I find that Nova Scotians are big lamb consumers—it’s a popular meat,” Johnston says.
He agrees with Wood that slow and low is the way to go when cooking lamb. One of his recipes is a pulled-lamb sandwich, similar to pulled pork. He does a whole leg of lamb at home, first brined and then slow-roasted at 250°F (120°C) for eight hours, usually overnight. “It drives my dogs crazy,” he says with a laugh.
When it comes to pairing lamb with other flavours and ingredients, he has some ideas. “There is a classical Mediterrenean composition of ingredients: rosemary, lemon zest and anchovies,” he says. “Anchovies add a nice sort of round flavour. It’s one of those that sits on the back of the flavour but brings something to the table. It doesn’t step forward and make you say, ‘Oh my God, there’s anchovies in here.’ It’s the sum of the parts, bringing something else.”
But there’s also another side to Mediterranean flavours, via North Africa. Johnston’s partner, Monica Bauché, hails from Tunisia, a land famous for tajine. Tajine is a slow-cooked preparation where meat cooks with heady aromatics and becomes meltingly tender. Johnston prepares a version at his restaurant with cumin, olives and a touch of saffron for extravagance. The dish is simple to prepare, yet complex in flavours and is a favourite for home cooks and chefs alike (see recipe for Lamb Tajine).
Unorthodox ingredients aside, Johnston treats lamb the same way he treats any protein. “It’s like any meat and people can cook it whatever way they want,” he says. “It’s different in the fact that it might not have as much fat. It’s leaner meat. They shouldn’t be afraid of it, it should be treated like any other meat they cook—just like steak.”
It’s those misconceptions about lamb that inspire chef Gordon Bailey to play around with it. Like the other chefs, building relationships with local farmers and producers helps him control the quality of the lamb he uses at Lot 30, his restaurant in Charlottetown. For him, lamb provides a unique flavour. “I think of it as being a hearty cooking animal, almost soulful,” Bailey says. “It has a very deep flavour, a rich and distinct depth of flavour that is different from beef or pork.”
Far from a traditionalist, Bailey is open-minded when he cooks with lamb. “Lamb is like many things,” he says. “It is very versatile. The way I cook, it’s day-by-day, what I have on hand. I often like to pair it with nice seasonal fruits and veggies rather than herbs.” One of his favourite pairings is with a potato and horseradish pavé, a layered vegetable dish (see recipe for Roasted Leg of Lamb). “It’s something a little unique and the horseradish in the dish adds punch,” he says.
Bailey also likes using the entire lamb. He gets them delivered to his restaurant whole and butchers them himself, using everything from the cheeks for slow braises to the bones for making flavourful stock. That sort of nose-to-tail eating appeals to him and he thinks it’s a way of paying respect to the animal. “When I think of lamb, I think of the farm and of utilizing the whole
animal from head to tail,” he says.
That ideology even applies to how he plates his dishes. He serves a lamb duo of grilled lamb loin with a braised lamb leg, showing the differences in flavour and texture in cooking methods. He cooks the leg, which is tougher than the loin, with moist heat, allowing the meat to break down and become rich, while he grills the leaner loin (see recipe for Seared Lamb Loin). “I want to contrast the depth of the braise and the caramelized meat flavour,” he says.
His patrons seem to agree with his choices. “I think I have turned people into lamb lovers,” he says. “Here on the Island there is the misconception that lamb is gamey. With the lambs that I get, they are delicately flavoured.”
If flavour is the major concern of lamb eaters, both novice and seasoned, there is little to worry about. Seasoned simply with salt and pepper or finessed with contrasting aromas and textures, lamb is the dish that begs to be made again and again.