Learn to Love Lamb With Boston's Best Chefs
The local culinary authorities share advice on cooking and enjoying lamb, as they prepare to compete in this year's Boston Lamb Jam.
The familiar proverb that “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” may not always ring true in terms of New England weather, but it’s certainly indicative of what’s on the menu. Twenty percent of U.S. lamb is consumed around the spring holidays, including Easter and Passover, according to Megan Wortman, the executive director of the American Lamb Board. Yet many people shy away from lamb because they think it tastes too gamey, are intimidated by the thought of cooking it, or find it expensive in comparison to other types of meat.
At the risk of missing out on a truly delicious meal, I implore you: don’t be sheepish about eating lamb! This is a great time of year to experiment with it, whether you decide to order a new dish at a local restaurant or try out a recipe at home. If you’re truly looking to indulge in all-things lamb, head on over to the Boston Lamb Jam at the Royal Sonesta Cambridge on Sunday, Apr. 10, where Craving Boston's managing editor Catherine Smart and contributor Dan Whalen will be on the panel of judges. This fun-filled event features some of the most celebrated chefs in New England competing for the title of Champion; you’ll get to taste their flavorful and inventive takes on lamb, sample treats from local food and beverage artisans, and watch a whole lamb butchering demo by Savenor’s lead butcher, Christopher Walker.
The competition is fierce (and delicious)
According to Chef Matt Louis of Moxy in Portsmouth, NH, the lineup at Boston Lamb Jam is always top-notch. “The chef community there is a really good group of people,” he says. Louis is happy to be participating for the third time in this event, but despite the camaraderie with his peers, he’s clearly there to compete. “We go down with the intention of having a lot of fun, but we also want to put our best foot forward and we want to win,” Louis says with a good-natured laugh. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to put everything we have into it. I always try to learn from it every year; I look at what the winners do and how they do it.”
Chef Tim Wiechmann of Bronwyn and Playska in Somerville and Cambridge, respectively, agrees that participating in culinary competitions “puts people in the position to try harder.” Wiechmann will be presenting his version of ćevapi, a Balkan caseless sausage, and drawing from a middle eastern flavor profile. “My dish is very complicated and technique-driven,” he explains. The ingredients include ground lamb, French mille-feuille pastry, a walnut streusel topping and black lime yogurt to express what he describes as “the real essence of the Middle East.”
Mami Food Truck of Portland, ME, is the only non-brick-and-mortar competitor in this year’s event. “I think a lot of people may see it as a disadvantage,” says Chef Austin Miller in an email. “However, I feel often there is a disconnect between the kitchen and the guest. In our case, we know instantly if something is amiss, we interact immediately with all of our guests, and we absolutely love it.” Miller won’t disclose exactly what he’s making, but hints it’s a specially tweaked version of a regularly featured dish from the Mami menu. “The hardest part of this will be for us to create so many portions, but we will keep our heads down and rock it out,” he enthuses.
There’s more to lamb than chops
When it comes to a favorite cut of meat, several of the chefs in the Boston Lamb Jam lineup agree that lamb shoulder is a real winner. “It’s extremely versatile,” writes Chef Nemo Bolin of Cook & Brown Public House in Providence, RI, “and is a good substitute for the more traditional leg of lamb for roasting and grilling.” Wiechmann likes to cube, marinate and skewer it, or use it to make sausage. He insists on buying lamb that has been pasture-raised outdoors. “It’s not just about the taste,” says Wiechmann, “it’s about the ethics of how it was raised.” He notes that you can get more bang for your buck by buying shanks and shoulder; they tend to be less expensive than the more popular cuts, such as ribs, chops and legs.
For Chef Matt Drummond of LOCO Taqueria & Oyster Bar in South Boston, cooking lamb is a nostalgic experience. “It was my dad’s favorite food,” he reveals, “so we’d always have a leg of lamb made with garlic, rosemary and a nice salted crust for his birthday when I was growing up.” Drummond describes himself as a huge fan of lamb shoulder, belly and ribs. “Belly and shoulder should be cooked at a lower temperature for a longer period of time because they’re tougher,” he explains, “but they have great flavor. Lamb belly with ribs attached can be used to make lamb bacon, or roulade, which is similar to making porchetta with pork.”
Natalie Singer, a manager at Savenor’s in Cambridge, recommends lamb neck as another economical cut. When braised, she says, “the neck is almost comparable to oxtail in texture. I had a lamb neck macaroni dish across the street at Kirkland Tap and Trotter last week, and it was amazing.” Miller, who gushes about the quality of the lamb he gets from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, ME, also uses braised lamb neck in a variety of dishes at Mami.
“There’s a big difference between run of the mill lamb and the good stuff,” explains Louis, who gets his lamb from Riverslea Farm in Epping, NH. “That strong gaminess is associated with lesser quality lamb on the market. The meat is clean and fresh and tender when it’s raised properly, [so you don’t have to] mask it with other flavors.” He, too, recommends braising the neck to get the best results. “The neck bones have a lot of collagen and marrow, which makes the meat more succulent when you cook it. Sear it in a hot pan to get some good color and flavor, add stock, and cook it slowly with vegetables for three hours or so to get it really tender.” Louis also recommends asking your local butcher for lamb skirt steaks. “They have lots of flavor and are a quick grilling meat,” he explains, then adds, “they’re so delicious.”
If you’re still hesitant about cooking lamb, you might want to check out the American Lamb Board’s site for recipes, cooking tips, videos and inspiration. Don’t be shy about asking your local butcher for recommendations on what to buy based on your budget, and how to prepare different cuts of meat. You can keep it simple by dressing lamb with garlic and salt, or experiment with ingredients like rosemary, mint, thyme, juniper berry, star anise, mustard and citrus -- all of which pair well with it. Or simply head to one of the many local restaurants in New England that feature lamb on the menu, and let the chef’s interpretation of it be your reward for seeking greener pastures to dine on.