Story and photos by Angie Sutton
Here in the Midwest, we pretty much seem to stick to what we know when it comes to preparing protein: beef, pork or chicken. We know how to cook them, and we know what they taste like when paired with other ingredients. It’s comfortable.
I find it easiest to try new types of food when traveling. If you’re in a coastal city, of course, try some local seafood. It also works well because you don’t have to cook it, and if you don’t like it, you’re only out the cost of trying a new food!
One of the proteins that often scares away home cooks is lamb. Partly because of what some call a gamey flavor while others describe it as tough. There can be a lack of availability in smaller markets as well as a higher price. All of those reasons are lessening as ground lamb is readily available in many major grocery stores. We purchased a pound for $7, not that much more in price than its main red meat competition. It’s a bold meat with a lot of flavor that can be a nice change of pace for picky palates in your house. And yes, it can have a strong flavor, particularly when grass-fed. Grain-fed lamb generally has a much milder flavor and is more tender than grass-fed. So there are options for many palates.
Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated by humans and have become a staple red meat for consumers in many other countries, particularly in Mediterranean diets.
In preparing this week’s meal, I reached out to the best lamb expert I know, Erin Sepe Pirro from Granby, Connecticut. She has had the privilege to sheer Martha Stewart’s sheep and travels throughout the Northeast giving shearing demonstrations, including the New York City Zoo. She knows sheep, is valued for her expertise, and better yet, is one of agriculture’s biggest advocates. She was one of four national agricultural leaders selected as a U.S. Council on Germany McCloy Fellow in Agriculture 2010, along with Sarah Wilson from North Dakota, Eric Spates from Maryland and my husband, Jeff, from Kansas.
When preparing lamb, Erin offers one major tip to keep in mind.
“Don’t overcook it!,” she says. “Resist the temptation to cook it any more than medium.”
Medium, for ground lamb, is an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.
The American Lamb Board offers consumer resources for cooking lamb on its website, www.americanlamb.com. A good starting point is the “Lamb 101” tab that provides information on how lamb is raised, cooking techniques, sustainability, buying and storing lamb, and even beer and wine pairings.
In addition to the great zinc, iron and protein that lamb offers as an alternative red meat source, roughly half of the fat in lamb meat is unsaturated (the good kind of fat). Its nutrient density is also very high for vitamin B12.
It’s also important to point out that no artificial or synthetic growth hormones are used in lamb production in the United States.
Erin’s favorite is Mrs. Sepe’s Lamb Meatballs. Named after her mother, Erin says that her husband, Jonathan, didn’t come from a family that ate much lamb.
“One bite of the meatballs, and he was sold!” she said. “Nothing beats those for comfort food on miserable days when the weather starts at 15 degrees below zero and another eight inches of snow is coming.”
Mrs. Sepe’s Lamb Meatballs
2 lbs. ground lamb
Combine the above and form into small meatballs, brown in frying pan. Serve over rice or noodles and smother with sauce.
1 can mushroom soup
Mix together and pour over meatballs.
The meatballs can also be frozen in the sauce.
(makes 2 burgers)
2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1. Heat 2 tbsp. oil in an 8” skillet over high heat. Add onions; cook until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer onions to a plate; let cool. In a bowl, mix onions, lamb, pork, mustard, herbs, spices, garlic, scallions, and salt and pepper. Form meat into two 1”-thick patties; set aside.
2. Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill to medium-high (or heat a tablespoon of canola oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat). Grill burgers, flipping once, until browned and cooked to desired doneness, about 10 minutes for medium rare.
1/2 seedless cucumber, peeled and halved lengthwise
Using a melon baller or small spoon, scoop out the seedy center of the cucumber. Coarsely shred the cucumber. Squeeze the excess liquid from the shredded cucumber without mashing it.
In a small bowl, using the back of a spoon, mash the garlic with the salt to a paste. Stir in the yogurt, olive oil and mint. Add the shredded cucumber, season with pepper and serve.