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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let's Talk About Lamb

Growing up on THE FARM we raised sheep.  A lot of sheep.

As a result, we ate lamb.  A lot of lamb.

I love lamb, it's my favorite meat.  I know there are many of you (Sue and Doris, I'm looking at you) who don't like lamb or have never had lamb.  And I feel sorry for you.

But my dear friends, Sue and Doris, are not alone.  Did you know that the average American eats just one pound of lamb per year?  There's at least 50 people out there not eating lamb because I'm eating their share!

A few months ago, in his Al's Obs column in Stockman Grass Farmer, Allan Nation explained the reason why lamb is such a hard sell...particularly in the midwest.  It all goes back to WWII, the Asian theater specifically.  American soldiers needed to be fed and protein was in short supply in Asia.  So the government contracted with Australian and New Zealand sheep ranchers to supply older sheep to fill the soldiers' protein ration.  It was not cooked well, it was not served well and it tasted terrible.

And lamb producers across the nation have had to pay for that mistake for generations.  Soldier after soldier came home and told his wife, "I don't care what you fix, but you can never make lamb."  Their children grew up never eating it.

Fast forward to today.  I went to the grocery store sans children the other day.  And when I have such a rare and luxurious treat, I cruise the meat aisle to see what prices are.  (Raising most of our meat and buying our grass finished beef from a farmer we rarely buy meat in the store.)  I particularly wanted to see where lamb prices were, if it was even stocked.

To my mild surprise, it was stocked in the meat case but it was frozen and located above the fish on the top shelf of that freezer.  Difficult to see unless you really wanted lamb.

Then I checked available cuts and prices:  ground was $9.59 a pound, roasts were $16.79 per pound and chops were $19.99 a pound.  I about fainted.

No wonder no one eats it!  Generations have grown up never having it and then it's priced out of most casual consumers reach.  No one is taking a chance on $16.79 a pound.

I came home and reported my findings to Hubby and he choked and then said, "At $9.59 for ground, we could retire!"  {For the record, a whole lamb this year cost $250 and our customers got approximately 40 pounds of meat.}

And because he is who he is, and who he is is a man who puts pencil to paper and finger to calculator, he couldn't understand why lamb isn't cheaper than beef.

  • Shorter growing time (7 months vs. 16 months)
  • Higher percentage of maternal weight weaned (Meaning that a mother sheep should usually wean twins and combined, they are a higher percentage of her weight than a calf weaned from a cow.  This may not mean much to the consumer, but it is a key indicator of profitability in the livestock business.)
  • Easier to finish than beef (To finish means to accumulate back fat which means that muscle and flavor development is complete.)
Good question.  Good points.

Back to the eating of the lamb...

I had a package of lamb soup bones in the fridge that I wanted to use yesterday.  So I got them out, seared them over high heat in a little oil and then covered them in water and simmered them all day.  During the afternoon, I thought I'd check some recipes online to inspire myself in the area of lamb soup. Because we all know that recipes are just that inspiration, not to be followed literally.

Imagine my frustration at the few recipes I found.  And imagine my greater frustration when those few recipes I did find contained all sorts of weird ingredients that made the soup (or stew, I was desperate) taste like anything BUT lamb!

(You have to understand that this if from a girl who thinks mint jelly is a horrible thing to do to lamb.)

One recipe for lamb stew contained apricots.  APRICOTS!!  Another recipe for soup used ground lamb and then 3 cans of beef broth.  If I wanted my soup to taste like beef, I WOULD HAVE USED BEEF!

Honestly, no wonder people don't like lamb or are afraid to try it...stew with apricots, for pete's sake!

So, what did I do?  I made lamb stock, strained the meat and bones out.  Added onions and garlic and bay leaves.  Added back the meat and some peas, carrots, corn and beans.  And then 2 pints of homemade tomato sauce and some barley.  It was hearty and delicate and delicious.  Kiddos 1 & 2 gobbled it up and Hubby had 3 bowls.  (He might have had more, but the pot was empty!)

For those of you who don't know, lamb has a delicate flavor.  It is not as bold as beef and therefore needs to be encouraged, not competed with.  Lamb is a sweeter taste, finer and more tender texture than beef.  Lamb is generally leaner because sheep don't marble (store fat intramuscularly) as much as beef does.  

If I were ever to commit a capital crime, for which I would receive a last meal, it would be BBQ lamb ribs, wild rice and creamed peas.  My lamb meatballs (both recipes) are legendary:  I have a swedish version and a parmesan version.  Lamb chops, bone-on of course, are fabulous.  Lamb roasts, either legs or shoulders are excellent, especially with a pan gravy.  And, according to Mario Batali, lamb shanks are the most flavorful cut of meat...of any species.

Because we were sheep producers, our family belonged to the ND Lamb and Wool Growers.  Every December (around my birthday) we would have our annual meeting in Bismarck and a few of the wives would make lamb roasts and baked potatoes for the supper.  That lamb was so tender and delicious and cooked simply, low and slow, with onions, salt and pepper.  

That's it!  Great lamb doesn't have to be complicated.  And it's time the general public knew that.

I guess I'll have to start sharing my lamb recipes here.  I can guarantee there will be no apricots or mint jelly!


  1. I grew up on lamb - my brother and I both practically drool when there's roast lamb in the air (sorry to say, we are mint sauce/mint jelly people). His wife and my hubby never had it growing up and the result is that she eats a small portion politely. Hubby? Loves lamb - tender lamb chops, grilled, is his favourite.


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