Edible Traditions: Lamb
Words by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Julia Rothman
On Springdell Farm in Littleton, Paula Cruz takes care of the sheep. Lambing season begins in January or February and goes through March or April when her flock of about 30 breeding ewes will give birth to perhaps 35 lambs before Easter. This land, farmed since the 1700s, was bought in 1931 by her grandparents, named Theodoros, who came from Greece. They raised sheep and goats, animals that have been the principal source of meat and milk in Greece since ancient times.
Cruz’s sheep are of mixed breed, chosen for their meat and wool production. Besides the ewes, she has one ram that is sold or swapped each year, “to keep the lambs healthy,” she says. “The younger ewes have a single lamb, and in the second year may have twins.” Male lambs are usually culled for meat, perhaps some females too. She keeps close track of their growth rates and conformation, also their wool quality. Ewes might reach an age of 10 years, she says, “as long as they are productive.”
In a New England winter the sheep are kept in a protected area rather than on pasture, so you probably won’t see the new lambs gamboling and capering about; leaping high on the green grass comes later in this climate. The sheep eat hay and grain, also minerals in the form of salt and molasses, nutritionally important when they are carrying lambs. No hormones on this farm: “they’re not necessary,” Cruz says. In warm weather they feed on good grass and clean water, with sun and shade and space. As the year continues, although spring is traditionally the height of the season, some animals are kept for the fall market when their meat is firmer and darker.
The term lamb in the United States usually means any sheep under a year of age, but usually well younger. Domestic “genuine spring lamb,” sometimes called early lamb or summer lamb, is between five to seven months old and strictly a seasonal meat. In this country, milk-fed baby lamb and mutton are seldom available. Abbacchio (suckling lamb), meltingly tender, succulent, pale in color, is a gastronomic highpoint of spring in Italy and other Mediterranean countries. True mutton, a tradition lost and misunderstood by Americans, is bred for slaughter at over a year in age. This meat is not just tired old ewe. Its flesh has darker, stronger flavor and is prized, but the cost of raising it properly has made it rare even in Britain.
Springdell is lucky to have a small family-owned slaughterhouse nearby, Blood Farm, one of only two inspected by the USDA in Massachusetts. The meat is prepared there for Springdell’s meat CSA share sold at the farm, including beef, pigs, and poultry, as well as lamb. (The farm also has a vegetable CSA, for summer and winter, overseen by one of Cruz’s daughters, representing the fourth generation; they sell yarn as well.) They have the standard cuts, Cruz says, and “when they’re gone, they’re gone.” Those interested in special cuts and whole lambs should order ahead.
Domestic sheep, Ovis aries, closely related to goats, originated in what is now Northern Iraq. They were first domesticated in about 9,000 BC, helped by their “sheepish” trait of not wandering astray on their own. Because they provided meat, milk, hide, and horns to ancient man, they were extremely useful and gradually spread all around the Mediterranean basin, from Northern Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia and the Mongolian steppes, as well as into Europe and thence to North America.
There are still many breeds of wild sheep in the world, sometimes large and with great curling horns, habituated to mountainous regions such as the Bighorns of the Canadian Rockies or rough terrain as for the Barbary sheep of the Saharan mountains. The Middle East has its fat-tailed sheep, whose fat (allyah) is prized in Arab cooking. Remote craggy islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides are home to the small, primitive Soay breed, little changed in thousands of years, whose diet of seaweed imparts a distinctive flavor to their flesh.
As sheep were introduced to Europe, breeds as always were selected to suit particular climates, terrains, and needs. We tend to think of a farm idealistically, as back to nature. But, in truth, farming—humans selectively breeding animals and plants—is a manipulation or management of “nature” to presumably good ends that provide a stable and healthy food supply. That is agriculture: husbandry.
In New England, the first sheep were brought in the 1630s by colonists from England, France, and the Netherlands. Those breeds tended to prefer grassy leas and smooth pasture to rugged wild land. They were harder to keep than other farm animals with fiercer defenses. Wolves in particular preyed on docile sheep, so the colonists often put them on coastal islands like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where the geography protected them.
Essex, north of Boston, the Connecticut River Valley, and Narragansett Country in Rhode Island, were early centers of sheep farming. In 1643 weavers in the town of Rowley, near Essex, produced the first bolt of woolen cloth in the fledgling colonies, but American weavers could not begin to compete with English textile manufacturing. In New England during the 17th century, sheep farming never became a major industry either for meat or wool. Instead it proved important for subsistence farming, the meat for the family table, the wool for homespun yarn.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wars and political embargoes stimulated domestic demand so sheep farming became profitable, either the meat or wool in demand at any given time. But gradually this declined, and when large tracts opened up in the West, sheep farming followed and remains there today. By the mid-20th century, most Yankee farmers had turned to the greater, if relative, stability of dairy farming. In recent years, family farms, like Springdell, have benefitted from the increasing interest in organic farming and locally grown produce, even as it remains precarious. Indeed, we all benefit: people, animals, land.
Lamb is a red meat less likely to be treated with steroids or hormones, and it tends to be more forgiving than beef to cook. With leftovers from your roast, or starting with secondary cuts or ground meat, lamb is delicious in many different ways. Think of Greek moussaka, Indian curry, Moroccan tagine, Middle Eastern kebabs and lamejun, Irish stew and shepherd’s pie. These are a few popular dishes which show the wide range of lamb across the culinary and geographic landscape.
Boned Leg of Lamb Filled with Spinach
This stuffed leg of lamb is practical for a festive occasion, as it can be stuffed and rolled ahead of time, ready to roast when the guests arrive. There is no waste and leftovers are delicious. Be sure to ask the butcher for the bone which you can use for Scotch Broth (see recipe below).
Makes 6 or more servings.
3 pound leg of lamb (weighed without the bone), boned and butterflied
3 tablespoons olive oil + more for surface of lamb
2 ounces mushrooms, chopped
6 ounces spinach, trimmed
2 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Open up the leg of lamb on a cutting board; if necessary remove any lumps of fat. Cut slashes in the thick part of the meat, if needed, to make it fairly even.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and add the mushrooms over medium heat, stirring to soften, then let them color a bit, about 5 minutes. Lower the heat, add the shallots and garlic, and stir until translucent. Toss in the spinach and turn the leaves in the juices, cooking them just until wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
As soon as the spinach cools a bit, spread it over the opened lamb. Roll the meat back up, enclosing the stuffing and tucking in the ends as best you can. Tie the meat with string at three or so intervals. You can wrap and chill the meat at this point before proceeding. (Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before roasting.)
Preheat the oven to 450° F and set the oven rack in the center. Put the meat seam side down on a rack in a roasting pan. Rub the surface of the lamb with a little olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Pour a cup of water in the bottom of the pan. Put the lamb in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 350° F. Roast until the internal temperature is 125° F on an instant-read thermometer for rare, or 130° F to 135° F for medium-rare (if you like well-done lamb, better to look for another recipe). Check after one hour. The meat should be brown, juicy, and crisp on the outside, still pink on the inside. Let the meat rest in a warm place for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the strings and carve the meat across into rounds and serve on warm plates. The green spinach center will contrast beautifully with the pink meat.
These meatballs of ground lamb, spelled variously, can be found all over the Middle East, from Morocco (kefta) to Turkey (köfta) and India (kofta). They make a healthy and delicious change from beef. Here they are fragrant with cinnamon and mint, spicy with cumin and chili; bulgur lightens and moistens the texture. Use a pair of skewers to keep the balls from rotating, or make them double-sized for lamb burgers.
Makes 4 servings.
¼ cup dried bulgur
1 pound ground lamb
¼ cup scallions, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne or other dried hot chili pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the bulgur in a small bowl and add ½ cup of water. Let it sit for half an hour or so, then drain off any unabsorbed water.
Preheat the grill. Put the lamb in a medium-size bowl. Add the softened bulgur, herbs, and spices. Mix it all up well with your hands and, without compacting it, shape into 8 balls (or 4 burgers). You can shape them right onto the skewers if you wish, using two in parallel for each ball. Brush with a little olive oil and grill for a few minutes on each side, until brown and crisp outside but pink and juicy on the inside. Yogurt and cucumbers with pita go well on the side.
Scotch Lamb and Barley Soup
Don’t throw out your lamb bone! This soup-stew is an excellent way to turn any bone and bits of meat and juice left from a roast into a nourishing and satisfying dish, perfect for an early spring day. Quantities are deliberately vague: use what you have on hand, adding additional vegetables as you wish, such as that half-can of plum tomatoes at the back of the fridge. This soup needs to be made a day or more ahead, so the barley thickens the broth and flavors meld together.
Makes approximately 8 servings.
To make your stock:
Leftover lamb bones and any juices and pan scrapings
Onion, celery stalk, carrot, bay leaf etc.
Take all the meat off the lamb bone, trim any fat or gristle, wrap and set aside, chilled. Put the lamb bones into a large pot with any juices and scrapings from the bottom of the roasting pan. Cover generously with cold water, put the lid on and bring to a boil; simmer for an hour. You can add an onion, celery stalk, carrot, bay leaf etc., but you’ll also be adding these later, so don’t worry if you omit them now. Simmer another hour. Let the stock cool, strain to remove the solids (save any bits of meat from the bone), and chill the stock. When cold, remove the solidified fat on top. This can be done ahead, the stock can be frozen to use later.
To make your soup:
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
1 fat carrot, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Lamb stock (see above)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
3 sprigs fresh parsley + more for garnish
10 whole black peppercorns
Any leftover lamb, trimmed of fat and gristle, cut into dice
½ cup pearl barley Salt to taste
Pour the oil into the bottom of a large pot. Over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until they give up their juices and start to color, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic, lower the heat slightly, and cook until they soften, about 10 minutes. Add the stock with the herbs and peppercorns. Cook for about 30 minutes, then add the reserved diced lamb and barley. Cook for 30 minutes more, until the barley softens and swells. When the soup is cool, fish out and discard the bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, and parsley. Let the soup mellow for at least a day, chilled. To serve, reheat gently, salt to taste, and scatter chopped parsley on top. Ladle into warm bowls and serve with crusty bread.
Braised Lamb Shanks in the Style of Avignon (Daube d’Agneau A l’Avignonnaise)
This one-dish meal of lamb shanks and vegetables is typical of Provence in southern France. Make it a day or two ahead, so that you can remove the fat, bone, and connective tissue (save the bones for Scotch Broth — see recipe above). The remaining meat, vegetables, and sauce will be richly flavored and elegant enough for your mother-in-law, needing only a slow reheating. You can vary the proportions and, for extra people at table, add more vegetables or stock and a handful of pasta.
Makes about 8 servings.
6 lamb shanks (about 1½ pounds each)
10 ounces mushrooms, halved or quartered according to size
1 large bulb fennel, top removed, quartered, cored, each quarter cut in half and sliced
2 leeks, split nearly to the root end, rinsed, quartered, and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh parsley + more for garnish
1 cup or more red wine, or mushroom or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Film the bottom of a very large pot with olive oil and brown the lamb shanks, three or so at a time, over medium heat, turning to color all sides. As they are done put them in a large bowl. In the fat left in the pot, sauté the mushrooms until browned, about 5 minutes, stirring. With a slotted spoon add them to the lamb shanks. Lower the heat slightly and add to the pot the fennel, leek, and garlic and stir to soften them, adding oil as needed.
Return the lamb shanks to the pot with the mushrooms and any juices. Add the tomatoes, herbs, and enough wine and/or stock to reach the bottom layer of shanks. Cover tightly and simmer slowly for about 2 hours. Halfway through, put the bottom shanks on top and vice versa. Simmer until the meat is falling off the bone, literally (if in doubt simmer longer). Cool uncovered, then chill overnight. Lift off and discard the solidified layer of fat on top.
Although you can serve the shanks as they are, bone and all, for more delicate sensibilities and to serve more people, I prefer to remove the bones from the shanks, leaving the meat in large chunks (save the bones for lamb stock). Pull off and discard any connective tissue and fat. Discard the bay leaf, thyme stems and parsley.
To serve, gently reheat the lamb and vegetables. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley. Accompany the dish with crusty French bread and red Provençal wine.
Middle Eastern Lamb Stew with Rhubarb
This recipe, which I included in a past article on rhubarb, fits here perfectly, as rhubarb is a harbinger of spring. The leafy plant with tart pink edible stems comes from Asia. It is often braised with lamb in Persia, Afghanistan, Iran, the Balkans, and Middle East, seasoned perhaps with saffron, cumin, allspice, or tomato. In this version, just before serving, rhubarb segments are placed on top of the lamb chunks to steam, adding brightness in color and flavor to the rich, dark stew.
Makes 4 or more servings.
About 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, or a combination of oil and butter
2 large onions, chopped
2 pounds lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
About 3 cups vegetable stock or water
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
2 or 3 rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut across in 1 1/2-inch pieces
Heat the oil in a wide pot and over moderate heat cook the onions, stirring, until translucent. Push them to the side and add some of the lamb cubes in one layer, browning and turning them as they color. Depending on the size of your pot, push them to the side or remove them to a bowl to make room for the rest of the lamb. When all the meat is well browned, add the coriander seed and stock or water. Cover the pot loosely and simmer for about an hour, until the lamb is tender. Keep an eye on it to see that the stew doesn’t become dry, adding more liquid as needed.
When the lamb is tender and the sauce reduced, season generously with salt and pepper. Stir in the chopped fresh parsley and mint or coriander (cilantro). Set the rhubarb pieces on top of the lamb, cover closely, and cook over low heat for a few minutes, just until the rhubarb is tender (know that hothouse rhubarb cooks faster than field rhubarb). Serve the stew with the rhubarb pieces intact on top of the chunks of lamb with the sauce spooned around. Rice makes a perfect accompaniment.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), has been in print since 1986. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Beth passed away in 2017.