Lamb is a special guest star on most American tables, often making an appearance at Easter and then not again until the following Easter. This relative rarity makes it hard for the home cook to get into a lamb groove.
But lamb today presents another challenge: Domestic meat now shares the case with imports from Australia and New Zealand.
"American is the best-tasting lamb," said Ray Venezia, head butcher at Fairway Markets in New York City. "A lot of consumers buy solely on the basis of price, and imported lamb is cheaper."
Imported lamb cuts are also smaller. New Zealand sheep are about half the size of their American counterparts, and a rack will weigh a pound compared to a 2-pound American rack. Cut that rack into individual ribs and you have a tiny lollipop of a chop. Australian lamb can vary in size, from a little larger than New Zealand to almost as large as American. An American leg of lamb weighs about 10 pounds; Australian legs top out at around 8 pounds.
The biggest difference between domestic and imported lamb is flavor, and that is a direct result of the animals' diet. Once sheep are weaned, they are set out to pasture where they eat grass. For the last two months of their 12- to 14-month lives, American sheep are "finished" on grain, which fattens them up, just like American cattle. In Australia and New Zealand, sheep graze on grass right through slaughter, which lends their meat a distinctive, gamy taste and a leaner texture.
Some people like the stronger taste of lamb from Down Under. For the show-stopping centerpiece of an Easter table, however, there's something to be said for a tender, succulent, leg of homegrown American lamb.
A leg of lamb runs from the animal's ankle up over its hip. At the market you'll find it butchered into various formats. Unless you are an orthopedic surgeon, stay away from a whole bone-in leg. The hip bone is big and irregularly shaped, nearly impossible to carve neatly around. Instead, go for a boned leg (no bones at all) or a semi-boned leg, in which the hip bone has been removed, but the lower shank bone has not. With a little bone sticking out the end, this makes for a dramatic presentation.
To carve a semi-boned leg, cut the top (boneless) section crosswise (perpendicular to the shank bone) into ½-inch slices. When you reach the shank bone, cut along its length and then carefully cut the meat away from the bone, as if you were removing a whole breast from a turkey or chicken. Cut the now-boneless meat crosswise into ½-inch slices.
A whole American leg weighs anywhere from eight to 10 pounds. For smaller parties, you can buy half a leg, either the upper half (the butt) or the lower half (the shank). Once you remove the bone from the shank, there's not much left. For half a leg, go with a boneless butt.
To make a butterflied leg of lamb, the butcher removes the bones and then makes shallow slashes into the meat, opening it out into one flat steak of even thickness. This is a terrific cut to broil or grill think of it like a flank steak but there can be problems with the butterflied leg that has been rolled and tied: Rolling the meat into a neat cylinder wreaks havoc with the meat's natural grain; you won't get one slice that is uniformly tender.
Braised leg of lamb
Serves 8 to 12
1 semi-boned leg of lamb (6 to 7 pounds), trimmed and tied
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
4 stalks of celery, halved lengthwise
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
6 shallots, halved
½ head garlic, cloves peeled
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Pat dry lamb and season all over with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large roasting pan over medium high. Cook lamb, fat side down, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add reserved lamb bone and trimmings, celery, carrots, shallots and garlic to roasting pan and transfer to oven; roast 30 minutes, turning lamb once.
Combine broth and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Pour enough of this liquid into roasting pan to reach halfway up meat, then cover roasting pan with parchment, then foil. Reserve remaining stock in saucepan. Reduce oven to 350 degrees and continue to cook until meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 2 to 2½ hours, adding more stock as needed to maintain liquid level.
Transfer lamb to a deep serving dish and cover to keep warm. Discard hip bone. Strain liquid through a fine sieve into the saucepan with reserved stock; discard solids. Bring to boil, skimming off fat that rises to surface, then reduce heat and simmer until sauce is thickened to a syrupy consistency, about 10 minutes. Spoon sauce over lamb, garnish with mint. Serve immediately.
This recipe, adapted from "Martha's Entertaining," by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, $75), calls for a semi-boned leg, meaning the hip bone has been removed, but the shank bone has not. Ask the butcher for the removed hip bone and trimmings, and add to the pan for more flavor.
Pan-fried parmesan-crusted rib chops
12 to 16 small single-rib lamb chops (about 2 pounds)
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan spread on a plate
2 large eggs, beaten lightly in a large, shallow bowl
¾ cup fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a plate
Salt and black pepper
With a meat pounder or small heavy pot, gently pound the meat of the chops so that it doubles in area and is between ¼- and ½-inch thick.
Turn the chops on both sides in the grated Parmesan, pressing the cheese into the chop so that it adheres. Tap chops against plate to shake off excess cheese. Dip them into the egg, letting excess egg drip off. Then turn the chops in the bread crumbs, coating both sides, and tap them again to shake off excess.
Film bottom of a large skillet with oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, place as many chops into the pan as will fit without crowding. It should take between 60 and 90 seconds for the bottom to form a nice, golden crust. When it does, sprinkle with salt and pepper, turn the chops, and sprinkle salt and pepper on the other side. As soon as the second side has formed a crust, transfer to a warm platter. Repeat with remaining chops. When all the chops are done, serve promptly.
This recipe, adapted from "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan (Knopf, $35), works well with small, imported rib chops, whose gamy taste is subdued by the Parmesan. If you buy individual rib chops, ask the butcher to knock off the corner bone and remove the backbone, leaving just the rib. It's essential that you pound the meat flat so that it's thin enough to cook through quickly.