Mediterranean people, think of lamb when they mention meat. Cattle and veal need too much pasture land. Lamb is more adaptable to scraggy land with little vegetation. Besides, the light-textured meat is less onerous on the digestive system.
The people of the Middle East have always prized lamb above all other meat. Their methods of cooking lamb were brought across continents by conquering armies and returning crusaders. In these parts mint grows in abundance, and chefs like to serve lamb with fresh mint, which the English changed to mint jelly and use it to this day with mutton, presumably to cover its strong smell.
Throughout the Middle East lamb is cooked with fruit – apricots, apples, quinces, cherries, prune and even cranberries, which is not indigenous to the region.
Shish kebab, tender, pieces of lamb threaded on skewers and cooked over open fire, is a dish that was brought to western Europe by Ottoman soldiers who used to impale chunks of lamb on their swords, then cook it over open fire. Today, before skewering, morsels of meat are marinated in lemon juice, herbs, spices, and occasionally wine, to render them more flavourful and tender.
Leg of lamb is roasted either in wood-fired ovens on a bed of root vegetables, chops cooked on the grill, shoulder meat goes into stews, and the rest is ground to tasty flat meatballs fried in olive oil, or used as stuffing for vegetables. Greek and Armenian chefs mix ground lamb with spices, herbs pine nuts and other suitable ingredients, and stuff tomatoes, green peppers, eggplants, zucchini and even vine leaves. Even white cabbage leaves are used an envelope for these flavourful stuffings.
Lamb hearts, brains, stomach, fries and the whole head are cooked and appreciated by many, although North Americans never considered these parts of any animal to be culinary delights.
Lamb is produces in many countries including New Zealand, Norway, Australia, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Greece, the U S A, Spain, and Canada just to name a few.
Lamb, by definition, must be younger than 18 months, and spring lamb a year. Older specimens are called mutton; a term today associated with tough and strongly smelling meat only a few like to consume. Mutton is mostly prepared in curries to overcome the strong smell and cooked for a long time to render it suitably tender.
Of all the lamb producing countries France’s Normandy region is considered to be the best. Here lamb graze on the salty marshes and acquire a particularly pleasant salty flavour. The meat of such lamb are called pre sale (salted on the hoof).
New Zealand is a major producer and exporter of lamb to many countries including Middle Eastern kingdoms, the United Kingdom, the U S A and Canada. Most shipments are frozen cuts, but some carcasses are broken down and air-freighted as far away as North America but most go to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and occasionally Iran.
In Canada most stores carry frozen lamb, but fresh Ontario and British Columbia lamb in season taste much better than frozen New Zealand product. Both are in short supply, but production is increasing.
Some chefs like Washington State and Colorado lamb, available in major Canadian cities. Both are dark, coarsely textured and taste more like beef, but tender, due to their diet.
Australian lamb is fatter than New Zealand, more difficult to digest.
Buying lamb requires, at least in Toronto, a little research to get the best. Greek butchers carry a good supply in season.
Halal butchers offer cuts from older and leaner animals.
Now fashionable organic meat sparked interest of lamb farmers to producing animals that graze on organic pastures and/or receive organic fodder. Neighborhood butchers carry organic Ontario lamb. Young, well-heeled, nutrition-conscious professionals buy from them.
Do not overcook lamb. The meat should be pink in the middle.
Rosemary, thyme, garlic, mustard, lemon, cloves are best for flavouring.
Braise shanks, stew shoulder cuts, pan-fry cutlets, roast racks and legs.
Legs can be cut into chunks for marinating and skewering
Fresh lamb tastes better than frozen
Ground lamb keeps refrigerated for up to two days.
Middle Eastern Kofte
Yield 6 portions
700 grams medium-lean ground lamb
1 small onion, minced
1 egg, beaten and at room temperature
¼ cup fresh breadcrumbs or crust less French baguette soaked in milk and squeezed dry
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
tt salt and pepper
¼ tsp each cinnamon, cayenne pepper, thyme
Mix all ingredients well. Form six patties and flatten them. Pan-fry in hot oil, or grill four minutes per side.
Drain and serve with sautéed green beans and stripes of red pepper. Rosemary flavored roasted potatoes or golden crisp French fried potatoes are highly recommended.