Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Baaahh, ram, yew...

Easter is coming up, and for some lamb will be on the menu. In a previous post, I had mentioned that spring lamb should be coming in soon. I did a little research on the subject, and it turns out, the statement was a little off.

It would seem that unlike other animals we raise for food, sheep are very much seasonal beasts. Whereas cows and sows can breed pretty much anytime in the year (if they are in heat), ovulation in most breeds of sheep is triggered by diminishing daylight in autumn. Therefore, lambs are indeed born in the spring, but they're not old enough to be slaughtered for Easter. However, Easter being a big money-maker for sheep farmers, techniques have been fine tuned to induce earlier ovulation (it mostly involves playing with dimmers and light switches for sheep raised indoors.) So technically, you should be able to find some nice spring lamb at a good butcher's. For those willing to wait for Nature, the outdoor lambs will be around in May or June.

True spring lamb is slaughtered between the ages of three and five months. Regular lamb is under a year. (There is also baby lamb -6 to 8 weeks- but I've never seen it in Canada.) The difference between the two is their diet: lambs are weened from their mothers around 4 months old, after which they start to graze. Milk fed lambs have pale and tender flesh. Some fans of lamb find it too bland. The change in diet affects the colour of the flesh and the flavour. If you're lucky, you might even be able to distinguish what the lamb ate: a diet high in herbs can permeate the meat.

Lamb is a meat with character, and it goes beautifully with strong herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and mint. When in season, tomatoes and eggplants are ideal companions. Spring lamb, however, should be treated more delicately: its mild flavour can easily be overwhelmed by over-seasoning. It also tends to be less fatty than regular lamb, so it can be just lovely with a cream sauce and fresh peas.

If you do manage to get your hands on some spring lamb, try out the cheaper cuts like the shoulder, the leg or the neck, and roast or stew the meat. Spring lambs are so small that the racks can easily be overcooked and ruined, so I'd wait for regular racks. When following a recipe, keep in mind that spring lamb requires half the cooking time of regular lamb.

Here's my recipe for roast leg of lamb. I don't have measurements for the ingredients because I've always eyeballed it. Follow you instinct, and make the recipe yours.

Roast Leg of Lamb

Spring Lamb (SL) will feed 2, Lamb will feed 4 to 6

Preheat oven to 400F/200C
Cooking time: up to an hour for Lamb, 30 minutes for Spring Lamb -either way, ask your butcher, he should know

You will need:

Leg of Lamb (with bone)
Dijon mustard, thinned out with equal amount of water
Crushed garlic
Fresh or dried thyme
Salt and pepper
New potatoes

-Mix the thinned out mustard with thyme and garlic. Smear the leg of lamb with the mix. Season with salt and pepper. (You can leave the meat to marinate overnight at this point.)

-Place the leg on a rack in a roasting pan (the joint should be underneath). If you do not have a rack, don't go out and buy one: peel 2-3 carrots, slice lengthwise, place in a pan flat side down, drizzle with a little oil and season. Voilà! you've got a rack and side veg. Add new potatoes to pan.

-Pop the leg in the oven. Check on the meat after 30 minutes (15 for SL), if it has started browning, turn oven down to 350F/180C.
Check doneness after 10 minutes (I have a preference for medium rare lamb.) You can use a thermometer to check, but your best tool are your hands:

This is kind of hard to explain, but it is a tried and tested method: let your left hand (right, if you're leftie) go limp. With your other hand, pinch the muscle between your thumb and index: that is what medium rare meat should feel like. Rare feels like the extra skin between your thumb and finger. This method works for most meats.

Poke the thickest part of the roast to check for doneness.

- When done, take the meat out of the oven, and let it rest (at least half an hour for the lamb, less for SL) on the serving plate.

-Meanwhile, degrease your pan. If it fits on your stove top, turn your burners on, otherwise scrape the caramelised bits into a saucepan. Add a splash of wine and simmer to dissolve the bits. Check for seasoning.
This will only give you a couple of spoonfuls of drippings. If you want an actual gravy, you will need to stretch it out with veal or chicken stock, however, a gravy is not necessary.
Serve with more Dijon mustard.


A friend had commented on my earlier post on lamb, saying that he found the idea of eating baby animals kind of disturbing. While I understand his feelings - I am a vegetarian, after all- I don't think eating lamb, veal, or chicks in their shell is "more wrong" than consuming mutton, beef or chicken. Humans are omnivorous animals, and eating meat is part of our diet. What is wrong is the excessive consumption of animal protein in industrialised nations. Meat has become cheap, mass produced, and unhealthy.

Though it shouldn't be.

I won't preach the virtues of vegetarianism, and I do not want to convert anyone, but I firmly believe that if one wants to eat meat, than one has to respect meat. To respect meat one has to think twice before reaching out for that cling-wrapped, value-pack of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. And the 16oz T-bone steaks. And the family pack of ground beef. And the spicy italian sausages. And... maybe we don't need to buy a month's worth of meat each time we go to the supermarket. We should be cutting down on meat anyway, if only to cut down on our carbon emissions. Raising animals for human consumption requires enormous amounts of energy and resources. Living beings were slaughtered in order to provide us with nourishment, and they deserve better than to be mindlessly consumed.

I know that the recession has hit hard, and feeding a family has never been an easy task, all the more reason for finding a good butcher. A true butcher knows how to stretch a tight budget, and can explain how to prepare unfamiliar cuts of meat. A good butcher will know how to make tripe taste lovely. A good butcher will have beautiful, local meats raised by small farmers who care about their animals. A good butcher is an artisan. And like many artisans, good butchers are a dying breed.

But that's a story for another day. In the meantime,
Bon app'!

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