Springtime and lamb are both upon us.
The key to cooking lamb — of any cut — is to keep it simple. Forget the tales from hardened lamb-haters who say it's "gamey" or hard to cook. They're likely remembering a haunch of mutton they happened upon that was, indeed, as tough as the older sheep it came from.
Spring lamb is from animals that are around 5 months old, which means you'd have to cook a cut of lamb to cinders for it to be tough this time of year. For any meat to be labeled as lamb, it has to be from an animal 12 months old or younger, and that, too, is pretty good insurance against toughness.
For people who've never cooked lamb before, think of it as another red meat: It responds well to roasting or grilling, and needs to be served a touch on the pink side, cooked between 145-155 degrees on a meat thermometer. Remember that gray is not an appetizing color in any food.
A roasted leg of lamb is usually the showy choice for Easter dinner. Cheaper cuts, such as lamb shoulder, do well when they're cut into cubes and stewed. For skeptics, a savory, rich stew may be the safest introduction to a product the rest of the world enjoys about four times as much as the average American.
In buying lamb, look for selections that are deep pink in the grocery case. A 6-pound leg of lamb will serve between 6-8 people.
The cardinal rule is not to overcook lamb, or cook it at too high a heat. Roasting temperature shouldn't go above 325 degrees. Lamb fat is different from that of beef, pork or poultry, which can withstand a good, hot oven with no ill effects. People who complain of lamb being "smelly" likely roasted it at too high a heat.
On the grill, it doesn't take too long to cook lamb chops, so they, too, need a mild kiss of flame — not enough BTUs to heat Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Charlie Thompson has been raising sheep in Lauderdale County for 30 years. He says simple is best. Season lamb chops with salt and pepper, and you're good to go. Cook them 4-5 minutes per side.
"Most people overcook it. That's the biggest thing," Thompson said. "Room temperature before you cook is also the key."
Thompson has been working on a seasoning rub for folks who aren't sure what combinations work well with lamb. "I'm kinda like Colonel Sanders," he said.
To order Thompson's lamb seasoning rub, or for information about the Alabama lamb growers association, contact him at 256-229-6929.
As far as accompaniments to lamb, keep it simple. Lamb packs a lot of flavor, so roasted potatoes, peas and rice or roasted carrots are all it needs to complete a meal.
ROASTED LEG OF LAMB
This is a fun recipe for kids, because it involves stuffing and smearing.
1 whole leg of lamb
6 whole cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/ 4 cup Dijon mustard
3-4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Black pepper to taste
With a paring knife, make rows of tiny slits — each large enough to hold a garlic slice — all over the lamb. Insert a garlic slice into each. Smear a smooth coat of mustard all over the roast, then insert about 1/ 2 inch of a rosemary sprig into each of the slits along with the garlic. Season lightly with the salt and pepper.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let set in the refrigerator 4-8 hours.
Take the lamb out of the refrigerator at least 45 minutes before it goes into the oven, so it can begin to come to room temperature. (Putting a cold roast in the oven not only takes longer to cook, but also increases the odds of having a roast that's done on the outside and raw in the middle.)
Roast in a 325-degree oven for 2 1/ 2 to 3 hours, or until meat thermometer reads 145-150 degrees. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and let rest 10 minutes. (The temperature will rise another 5-10 degrees or so.)
3 pounds lamb shoulder with a little fat, cubed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/ 2 cup flour
1-2 tablespoons oil
2 large yellow onions, roughly diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups chopped celery
12 ounces Guinness stout
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 bunch fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch fresh parsley
2 quarts beef stock
1/ 2 cup pearl barley (available locally)
Season the meat with salt and pepper, and dust with flour. Brown the meat in the oil in the bottom of a heavy soup pan or Dutch oven. Add the onions, garlic, carrots and celery and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the Guinness, potatoes, herbs and stock. Simmer about 2 hours. Twenty minutes before serving, raise the temperature to a near boil and stir in the barley (add more stock if the stew is getting too thick). Cook the barley 20 minutes, then serve with lots of bread.