It’s been a couple of years since this blog tackled the old lamb-or-ham-for-the-holiday question.
I’m confident it’s a common enough quandary as a co-worker cooking her first Easter brunch for family asked my opinion this week.
A staunch advocate of lamb, I had to hedge and admit that because she had so many other dishes to make, a ham that’s already fully cooked upon purchasing — basically requiring reheating in the oven — is easier. Plus, ham is a more forgiving meat that, even overcooked, goes over well with the majority of guests.
Make one misstep with lamb, and you’ve earned it another lifelong avoider. Despite some diners’ close-held aversion to lamb, the only thing that causes a bad odor or flavor in good-quality lamb is cooking it too hot or too long, as columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez pointed out in this week’s A Fresh Approach.
But as my parents found out last week, cooking lamb can be catastrophic once an odd butchering mistake has been made. After her freezer went on the fritz, ruining about 30 pounds of Rogue Valley-raised lamb, my mom resorted to purchasing shanks from New Zealand. She said she thought the meat smelled sour — “skunky” — when she opened the vacauum-sealed package. But the meat’s appearance seemed fine.
So she started braising the shanks for dinner. As the hours wore on, a horrific stench filled the house, causing the cats to yowl in protest and my parents to escape onto the deck.
My dad’s theory, which seems likely, is that the animal’s scent gland was penetrated during butchering and spilled onto the meat, souring it past the point of consumption. With no hope of its salvage, even for cat food, the lamb went into the trash.
With the abundance of lambs raised right here in the Rogue Valley, there should be no reason to purchase imported lamb, which is deceivingly cheaper because the cuts are smaller. New Zealand sheep are about half the size of American counterparts, according to a recent Newsday story. Australian lambs 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, directly related to the animals’ diet. Once sheep are weaned, they are set out to pasture. For the last two months of their 12- to 14-month lives, many American sheep are “finished” on grain to fatten them up like American cattle. In Australia and New Zealand, sheep graze exclusively, which lends their meat a distinctive, gamey taste and a leaner texture.
Many Rogue Valley ranchers, though, raise their lambs solely on pasture, producing a meat I personally find more tender and so mild that unsuspecting guests at my house often mistake it for beef. Unfortunately, my typical source for a whole lamb sold out this winter before I could claim one. So with only an entire, bone-in leg in the freezer (far too much meat to justify cooking for fewer than 10 people) and the half pig we purchased from friends still in the butcher’s meat locker, the lamb-or-ham debate is moot for this year’s holiday.
Yet I’ve learned after ordering several lambs over the years that the whole, bone-in leg is an undesirable cut unless you’re planning to spit-roast it outside a la “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.” Now, I request half legs from my butcher.
Newsday sources concur, pointing out that the hip bone is big, irregularly shaped and nearly impossible to carve neatly around. A semiboned leg, in which the hip bone has been removed, but the lower shank bone has not, still makes for a dramatic presentation.
To carve a semiboned leg, cut the top (boneless) section crosswise (perpendicular to the shank bone) into 1⁄2-inch slices. When you reach the shank bone, cut along its length and then carefully cut the meat away from the bone, like removing a whole breast from a turkey or chicken. Cut the now-boneless meat crosswise into 1⁄2-inch slices.
Like Jan, Newsday writers also recommend a butterflied leg for broiling or grilling flat like a flank steak. Although a leg that’s been rolled and tied looks like a neat trick, it wreaks havoc with the meat’s natural grain, making it difficult to get uniformly tender slices.
For tenderness, of course, the rib chops can’t be beat. That’s why this cut is the most expensive, which can be mitigated a bit by buying a full rack of lamb and cutting the ribs apart. Pounding the meat flat ensures quick cooking in this recipe adapted by Newsday from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan.
Pan-Fried Parmesan-Crusted Rib Chops
12 to 16 small single-rib lamb chops (about 2 pounds)
3⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, spread onto a plate
2 large eggs, beaten lightly in a large, shallow bowl
3⁄4 cup fine, dry, unflavored breadcrumbs, spread onto a plate
Vegetable oil, as needed
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
With a meat pounder or small, heavy pot, gently pound meat of the chops so it doubles in area and is between 1⁄4 and 1⁄2 inch thick.
Dredge chops on both sides through the grated Parmesan, pressing cheese into chop so it adheres. Tap chops against plate to shake off excess cheese. Dip them into the egg, letting excess drip off. Then dredge chops through the breadcrumbs, coating both sides and tapping again to shake off excess.
Coat bottom of a large skillet over medium-high heat with some of the oil. When oil is hot, place as many chops into pan as will fit without crowding. It should take between 60 and 90 seconds for bottoms to form a nice, golden crust. When they do, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, turn chops and season other sides. As soon as second sides have formed a crust, transfer to a warm platter. Repeat with remaining chops. When all chops are done, serve promptly.
Makes 4 servings.