Marinated or not, then roasted, grilled or braised, the possibilities for creating delicious lamb dishes are seemingly endless.
Lamb certainly crosses national boundaries and is a staple in many ethnic dishes, including Turkey, Greece, New Zealand, Australia, Africa and countries of the Middle East. But therein may lie an explanation for lamb having a lower consumption in the Midwest, as this area initially was settled by primarily Scandinavians and Germans.
In addition, there are historical aspects going back to the 1800s, when sheep were introduced into the commercial cattle herds of the western territories, leading to bloodshed and social division. Perhaps this bad reputation is one reason why lamb did not make it as a mainstay of the American palate.
Executive Chef Jordan Bell of Forager Brewery believes lamb is an underutilized protein. It also tends to be fairly expensive on a per-pound basis. This is, in part, due to the low yield of meat per animal. But nutritionally, he says, lamb stands tall — and, he added, “It has fantastic flavor.”
So, when Bell had the good fortune to connect with a local woman who was raising lamb, a partnership was established. Now that Bell could count on consistent supplier, the next step was to create some dishes using the meat. He decided to put lamb on Forager’s menu through a common dish, namely pizza. “And besides, we were already unorthodox in this area,” he said.
Forager’s many unusual pizzas include two lamb-based ones: a Greek and the Merguez. Both have been positively received by patrons.
For the Greek pizza, the lamb is first braised. Cooked pieces are sprinkled on the pizza base along with feta cheese, Kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onion and a lemon cream sauce.
Merguez is a heavily spiced sausage with roots back to North African cuisine. Bell adds a slightly different twist by smoking it in its final preparation. Once cooked, his version of this lamb sausage is incorporated into the pizza along with hummus, feta cheese, preserved lemon and cilantro.
At the Redwood Room, one finds a hearty Four Meat Bolognese on the menu. Indeed, it is a sneaky way to introduce lamb to those who are skeptical, but the outcome is sure to garner rave reviews.
The sauce itself has its roots in Italian cuisine, where this classic meat-based sauce is believed to have originated in the city of Bologna. Variations of this complex sauce rely on various cooking techniques as well as various meats, herbs, tomato varietals and other supporting ingredients.
Chef Clayton Welder describes the sauce to be similar to a ragout. Slow cooking — three hours in this case — builds rich flavors as it brings together flavors of shredded lamb, pork, beef and chicken in a Burgundy wine-tomato sauce with some fennel, basil and harissa. It then is tossed with small oval pasta. The final result actually proves so rich that upon plating, he adds a splash of pomegranate champagne vinegar. A bit of shredded fresh basil and arugula add both garnish and flavor.
It’s a hearty winter dish — yes, a meal in itself. Its complex flavors are impressive.
For those established lamb lovers, head over to Terza for their braised lamb shank. Once again, slow cooking in a rich tomato-based sauce brings the cut to an exceptionally tender state in which the meat almost falls off the bone. It is served over a creamy house polenta. Every bite is worth the slight bit of work to get if off the bone.
As you graze through this dish, each rich, savory bite makes you wish this were a meal that would never end.
While a preference for different foods may originate from familiarity, I personally have no regrets that my childhood included lamb in my diet. However, it is never too late to “get acquainted” through these and other lamb dishes, which make their way to area restaurant menus.