Tradition tells us to eat lamb in the spring. From holiday roasts to splurge-worthy racks and minted jellies made with the earliest greens of the season, the popular game meat can herald the mark of warmer months to come. But t’is not the season for all types of lamb. As chefs and restaurants adopt a more local, seasonal approach, it affects the way they source, store, and prepare the meat. And, as food costs rise, chefs have looked to “off” cuts as well as in-house butchering to reduce costs and differentiate themselves.
“Lamb is available year-round,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, but springtime sees a greater abundance of California lamb because the animals have fed on rich grass during the temperate fall and winter before the hot, dry summer hits. Colorado and states in the Midwest and East Coast, however, “are lambing in the spring and market in the fall before the cold winter,” Wortman says. Australian lamb, known for its sweeter taste and 100 percent pasture-raised, grass-fed diet, has a season opposite from cold-weather states in the U.S.—the “Down Under” winter comes during our summer.
Despite lamb’s year-round availability, as more restaurants source locally many chefs find they need to get creative with a limited stock.
For restaurants in cold-weather climates, some chefs freeze their extra supply during the fall harvest, ordering the whole animal or primal cuts and butchering their own pieces. Many make sausage, bacon, and other longer-lasting products.
“We butcher the lamb in the fall so when spring rolls around we’ll use a dry-cured sausage we made earlier and serve it with new spring vegetables, or we’ll just use meat left in the freezer,” says Chef Joel Wabeke of Trillium Haven in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
While rack of lamb remains the most popular cut, Wortman says innovative chefs experiment with other parts.
At Fontainebleau in Miami, Chef Thomas Connell serves seared lamb porterhouse with a simple mint and tomato chimichurri. He uses domestic lamb because of its bigger chop and loin size compared to imported lamb. “The rich and buttery Porterhouse cut is known as the ‘king’ of steaks in a steakhouse so this cut in lamb gives that same bold statement,” he says.
Jeff Mall, chef/owner of ZIN Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, also looks to unique cuts for lamb—serving grilled lamb sirloin with jalapeno-mint jelly and seasonal vegetables. The boneless cut from the top of the back leg is prepared “as a small roast or portioned into steaks,” he says, noting its lighter appeal, perfect for spring menus.
It’s also becoming easier to order lamb bacon. “Three years ago we had chefs asking for lamb belly and we had suppliers who didn’t even know how to cut that,” Wortman says.
Troy Graves, chef/owner of Red Door in Chicago sources his lamb bacon from Smoking Goose meatery in Indiana, where the belly smokes for hours in an outdoor wooden shack. He serves the leaner, fuller-flavored lamb bacon similar to a lyonnaise salad with a poached egg. Alternatively, he’ll make his own version by curing the belly in a mixture of brown sugar and spices like a pancetta.
Graves also uses the lamb neck, braising the meat until tender and then shredding it and tossing it with a homemade barbecue sauce for a lamb Sloppy Joe.
Braising has become a popular preparation method for lamb in recent years as chefs have sourced less-expensive cuts. In addition to traditional leg of lamb, some chefs will braise the even less-expensive shoulder—or lamb shank—as a way to cut costs and try something different. Michael Scelfo, chef/owner of Russell House Tavern in Boston braises lamb shoulder for hours in Cabernet and stock spiked with rosemary and bay leaves.
Ris Lacoste, chef/owner of RIS in Washington finds it easier to braise traditionally tougher cuts when using domestically-raised lamb because of the extra marbling. She braises Colorado lamb shank in the tradition of Lebanese cooking with a range of spices, then tops the fall-off-the-bone meat with local yogurt from Blue Ridge Dairy and a mint-pomegranate seed-pine nut mixture.
Jennifer Jasinski, chef/owner of Rioja in Denver also works with local Colorado ranchers. A semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Awards in the catgory of Best Chef-Southwest, Jasinski breaks down larger primal cuts or even whole sides of lamb in-house for braising and making Merguez sausage, snatching up the smaller “gems” like lamb loin, which she’ll serve in the spring with an English pea salad spiked with tarragon and crème fraiche for a lighter dish.
The increased availability of less-expensive lamb cuts has also helped the protein’s popularity branch out from fine-dining restaurants to midscale and casual-dining. Lamb’s appearance on these menus has increased during the last four years in the form of lamb burgers, samosas, and flatbreads. “Driven by the economy and pricing, a lot of chefs are going beyond the center of the plate,” says Wortman.
This includes the use of ground lamb, which is also more readily available. Chef Patrick Harnett of Kachina Southwest Grill in Westminster, Colorado, grinds his own blend of lamb shoulder with pork butt, cumin, coriander, Chile Caribe, and other spices to form mini sausages that are then cooked in immersion circulators and wrapped in cornmeal crust.
Lamb typically conjures Middle Eastern and Moroccan flavors reminiscent of where the meat is served most.
“Australia has a lot of Moroccan influences, something that I haven’t found much in the U.S.,” says Aussie Chef Janine Booth from Yardbird in Miami, who makes a lamb curry with grilled eggplant and poached raisins using bone-in Australian lamb parts, preferring the imported lamb for its milder, less “gamey” flavor.
Outside the realm of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cooking, many chefs have looked to other cultures for their lamb dishes.
San Francisco Mandarin Oriental’s executive chef Adam Mali serves lamb shank braised overnight in Italian red wine with a gremolata of mint and lavender alongside stewed cannellini beans as an alternative to Middle Eastern chickpeas.
Chef Hartnett draws upon Latin cooking, offering roasted lamb leg meat on the roving mini burrito cart, where proteins are seared to order tableside atop a salt block. And Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville, Kentucky, serves up Mexican-style, hominy-based posole with lamb from Border Springs Farm in Virginia for a comfort food reminiscent of cook-outs he had growing up on a farm in California.