Peter Cottontail no doubt would approve of the fact that lamb is a traditional Easter-dinner entree — as opposed to, say, rabbit — but the same thought is dismaying to the American Lamb Board.
"People only really think about it for celebrations, because they don’t know how to cook it," said board marketing director Megan Wortman.
In the United States, lamb lags in popularity behind the big triumvirate of beef, chicken and pork — "wayyyy behind," Wortman said. Statistics show American per-capita lamb consumption at less than 1 pound, which represents less than 1 percent of the average American’s protein source.
Why hasn’t it become more popular?
"I think it’s just sort of a lack of awareness," Wortman said. "It can be more expensive, and so it’s high risk if you don’t know how to cook it."
Which definitely doesn’t apply to Lee Rizzo. Rizzo, executive chef at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Las Vegas, said when he cooks lamb at home, it’s a simple process.
"I’ll get a rack, about six or seven bones, rub it with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh rosemary," Rizzo said. "Refrigerate it for four to six hours — the longer, the better. My family likes it not red, just a little pink. I’ll sear it (on the grill) and I’ll finish it in the oven."
At Morton’s, Rizzo prepares double-cut frenched lamb chops, which means they’re about 1 1/2 inches thick and the meat is cut away from the ends of the bones. He sprinkles them with house-seasoned salt — but points out that you could use your own favorite brand — and serves them with baked apples and mint jelly. The recipe follows.
Rizzo said he frequently suggests that people try the restaurant’s lamb instead of the usual steak.
"For regular customers, it’s something different and new," he said.
But he conceded that sometimes it’s a hard sell — especially if "they’re set in their routine. They’re not very adventurous, maybe."
Mark LoRusso, executive chef of Tableau at Wynn Las Vegas, said he has had lamb on the menu since opening day. For a while he served a lamb sandwich for lunch; "that was kind of hit and miss." As for the racks he serves at dinner, "I think a lot of people are familiar with it," LoRusso said. "It sells really well."
But some, he said, don’t like the idea of lamb.
"People say: ‘My mom gave me lamb when I was a kid. It was real gamey. I didn’t like the taste,’ " LoRusso said.
Wortman hears the same complaint. "During World War II, a lot of people were served mutton and had a bad experience and weren’t going back. It’s a generational thing; mothers didn’t cook it and didn’t pass it on." And so the next generation didn’t know how to cook it.
And, all three say, when it comes to lamb, be sure to buy American.
"Keep in mind that we import a lot of lamb," Wortman said. "A lot of people have had a New Zealand lamb experience. That definitely has a stronger lamb flavor than a domestic lamb."
"The New Zealand stuff, from my taste, is a lot more gamey," LoRusso said.
This is not a case of simple chauvinism, there’s a reason for the difference.
"New Zealand lamb is usually grass-fed," Wortman said. "In the U.S., most of them are finished on a grain. It gives it a milder, more buttery flavor."
And the milder flavor protects the lamb’s affinity for a lot of other foods.
"We think domestic lamb has such a great, mild flavor that it needs very little seasoning and little preparation," Wortman said. "You can take a butterflied leg, loin chops, racks, throw them on the grill or roast them in the oven. It just needs salt and pepper, and you throw it on the grill like you would any protein.
"But lamb lends itself to so many different flavors — Indian spices, garlic and rosemary. It will pick up and marry really well with lots of different flavors."
LoRusso changes his rack of lamb entree to suit the season. For winter, that meant serving the rack with a braised lamb and lentil cassoulet with black cabbage and a porcini mushroom souffle. For spring, he’s serving the rack with braised lamb breast canneloni and an English pea and pistachio gratin.
"The biggest mistake is overcooking it," Wortman said. "Use a meat thermometer until you get comfortable cooking it. If you like it medium-rare, pull it off at 135 and let it sit five minutes until it comes up to 140." For medium, she said, take it off at 155. For well-done, it’s 170 degrees, but "I don’t recommend it," Wortman said. "It loses a lot of the flavor."
If your roast has a white membrane, or "fell," remove it before roasting because it can make the flavor stronger. And Wortman pointed out that because lamb generally isn’t well-marbled, the fat is on the outside, where it can be easily trimmed.
The main thing is not to be daunted.
"It’s Easter time, so people are seeing the big, huge bone-in legs at the grocery store, and it can be a little intimidating," she said. "If you roast the bone-in leg with very little seasoning — just garlic and rosemary and a little olive oil — it makes great leftovers, in sandwiches or over a salad.
"And it’s so simple, you just throw it in the oven and walk away."
LAMB CHOPS WITH
3 firm, tart red apples, such as Red Delicious
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 6-ounce, double-cut loin lamb chops, each 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick
2 1/4 teaspoons seasoned salt
Vegetable oil cooking spray
1/4 cup mint jelly
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Cut the apples in half from top to bottom. Remove the stems and scoop out the cores. Cut a thin slice from the rounded side of each half so that apple halves lie flat. Transfer the apples, core-side-up, to a baking sheet.
Place 1 1/2 teaspoons butter in the center of each apple half. Bake uncovered for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the firmness of the apples, until they begin to soften. Remove the apples from the oven and set aside, covered with aluminum foil. (If you bake apples ahead of time, reheat them in a 450-degree oven for 3 to 4 minutes, or until heated through.)
Remove lamb chops from the refrigerator 30 to 60 minutes before cooking. Lightly season both sides of the chops with seasoned salt.
Preheat the broiler and position a rack 4 inches from the heating element. Spray rack with cooking spray.
Broil the lamb chops for 4 to 5 minutes per side for rare, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium rare, or to the desired degree of doneness.
Spoon 2 teaspoons of mint jelly into the center of each warm apple half and serve the apples alongside the lamb chops, 2 chops per serving.
— Recipe from Morton’s The Steakhouse
WITH GOAT CHEESE SOUFFLE
48 lamb rib chops
Olive oil (as needed)
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1/4 cup cracked pepper
Lonesome Dove Game Rub (as needed; recipe follows)
2/3 pound unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
12 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons Lonesome Dove Game Rub (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
24 ounces goat cheese
1/4 cup butter
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup walnut halves
For Lonesome Dove Game Rub:
1 cup Guajillo chili powder
1 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup ground cumin
1/4 cup dried rosemary (finely chopped)
1/4 cup dried thyme leaves (finely chopped)
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup brown sugar (packed)
Brush lamb chops with olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then rub with game rub. Place on a hot grill for 2 minutes on each side; allow to rest for 10 minutes. Put lamb back on grill for 2 minutes on each side, or to desired degree of doneness — 145 degrees for medium-rare, 160 degrees for medium or 170 degrees for well done.
For souffles: In a saute pan, melt unsalted butter. Saute shallots and garlic. Add flour and stir to make a roux. Whisk in milk and mix until smooth; remove from heat and pour into mixer bowl. Add egg yolks, game rub, salt and goat cheese and beat until blended.
Whip egg whites into stiff peaks. Mix 1/3 whites into egg mixture. Fold in the remaining 2/3 of whites. Rub 12 ramekins with butter; dust with cornmeal.
Line ramekins with walnuts. Pour in mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
For Lonesome Dove Game Rub: Combine all ingredients and mix well. Store unused rub in an airtight container for future use.
— Recipe from the American Lamb Board
PETITE ROLLS WITH
AND RED ONIONS
1 lamb top round, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds
1/2 cup prepared balsamic dressing
1 teaspoon coarse ground pepper
24 medium portabella mushrooms, stems removed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
48 thin roasted red bell pepper strips, 2 inches long
24 petite rolls, sliced
24 frilly picks
Trim all visible fat off lamb. Place in a sealable bag. In bowl, blend dressing and pepper. Pour into bag; seal and rotate meat to coat. Refrigerate for 4 hours to marinate.
Remove lamb from marinade and discard marinade. Place lamb on roasting rack in pan. Roast in 325-degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes, or until desired degree of doneness. Remove from oven, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Thinly slice, cover and refrigerate.
Place mushrooms on rimmed cookie sheet. In small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup oil and vinegar. Brush all sides and centers of mushrooms with mixture. Bake in 375-degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove and cool.
In large skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion (separated into rings) and saute for 6 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool and set aside.
Place a mushroom on base of roll and lay on two bell pepper strips. Top with sliced lamb and a few onion rings. Secure top of bun to sandwich with frilly pick.
Serves 24 as appetizers.
— Recipe from the American Lamb Board
CARAMELIZED LAMB ROAST
WITH APRICOT AND
1 lamb leg, boned and trimmed
2/3 cup dried apricots, snipped into 1/4-inch pieces
2/3 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1/3 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Salt and coarsely ground pepper
Butcher’s string to tie roast
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
Lay lamb flat on cutting board. Trim off visible fat. Use meat mallet to flatten pieces of meat so that all of the lamb is about 2 inches thick. Wrap up meat and refrigerate.
In small bowl, combine apricots and cranberries; set aside. In small skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, rosemary, salt and pepper. Stir and saute 3 to 4 minutes. Add orange juice and cinnamon; bring to a boil. Pour over dried fruit, mix and let stand for 15 minutes.
Lay meat flat on board cut-side-up and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cut meat in half, making two rectangles. Divide filling between the two pieces of meat. Evenly spread fruit mixture over meat. Start at the smallest end and roll up meat as tightly as possible. Place seam-side-down on board. Tightly tie string around roast at 1-inch intervals. Tie string around roast from end to end. Repeat process, making two roasts.
Place roasts on a rack in roasting pan. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place roasts in oven; immediately turn down temperature to 325 degrees. Baste roasts with corn syrup every 15 minutes. Roast for about 50 to 60 minutes or to desired degree of doneness. Remove from oven, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Slice into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
Serves 8 to 10.
— Recipe from American Lamb Board
LAMB KEBABS WITH
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (see note)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, pressed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound trimmed boneless leg of lamb, cut into 24 3/4-inch cubes
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 24 3/4-inch squares
24 small metal skewers (or bamboo skewers, soaked in water 30 minutes and drained)
Heat small skillet over medium heat. Add cumin and stir until aromatic and lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Grind cumin in mortar or spice mill. Mix pomegranate molasses, olive oil, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, cinnamon and cumin in 1-gallon resealable plastic bag. Add lamb; chill at least 1 hour and for as long as 4 hours.
Remove lamb from marinade. Thread 1 lamb piece and 1 red pepper piece on each skewer; place on baking sheet. (Can be made as long as 2 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)
Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat) or preheat broiler. Sprinkle kebabs with salt and pepper. Cook, turning often, about 4 minutes for medium-rare.
Serves 24 as an appetizer.
Note: Pomegranate molasses is available at some supermarkets, at Middle Eastern markets and online from adrianascaravan.com.
— Recipe from Bon Appétit magazine