Around this time last year, I was in Colorado attending the annual Taste of Vail festival as a judge for the American Lamb Cookoff. It was a blind tasting of 23 regional chefs’ creations, and every few minutes, a volunteer would rush through the door with a freshly prepared lamb dish. Outside, a crowd of several hundred festival goers roamed among restaurant booths tasting smaller samples and marking their favorites.
Sheep farming is big business in Colorado. Rancher Julie Hansmire—who runs a flock of several hundred bleaters for wool and meat—was among the judges. And much of the lamb enjoyed in the Brandywine Valley comes from that area.
Everyone has their preferences, but there’s no doubt spring—and especially Easter—is a time to savor fresh lamb, whether you’re in Vail or Tallyville, Del. It’s also a good time to experiment with different cuts, though racks are a perennial favorite. “I’d eat Colorado rack of lamb any day. I’m surprised lamb isn’t more popular,” says Jason Barrowcliff, executive chef at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, Pa., who likes to “seal off ” his racks with some bread crumbs, mustard and rosemary before cooking.
Lamb sourced from different regions can vary in flavor. “Colorado lamb tends to be a little older, and the lambs are finished on grain, while New Zealand lamb tends to be younger and finished on grass,” says Barrowcliff.
As a result, Colorado lamb chops tend to be larger and have more complex flavors, while those from New Zealand are smaller and sweeter. Often served as lollipop chops, the latter are popular as a passed hors d’oeuvre at parties. Such options are the best known and most often ordered, with diners and cooks rarely straying from a chop or rack.
But other cuts are equally worthy. Lamb loin chops are considerably larger, with a T-bone cut that cooks faster than beef. After stripping the fat, they’re often marinated, tempering the lightly gamey flavor. For a basic marinade, Barrowcliff suggests rosemary, garlic and lemon with oil.
Another cut—and a personal favorite—is a leg of lamb. Served bone-in, it can be prepared on the grill or on a spit. Baste it as it cooks, then slice for serving, Give those who preferred charred meat the outsides and save the inner cuts for those who prefer it rare.
The butcher can also remove the bone, leaving a perfect cut for stuffing and roasting in the oven. Bread croutons, vegetables (including spinach or squash) and lightly spiced ground sausage make for a complementary stuffing.
For an equally flavorful—if somewhat stringier—option, lamb shanks are a great choice. Unlike other cuts, these are roasted or braised until well-done, with the meat falling off the bone. Be sure to save juices from the pan, or ask the butcher for lamb fat to prepare it confit-style. Shanks are especially delicious cut into pieces and used in a cassoulet—made with white beans, chicken or vegetable broth, and topped with a layer of fine bread crumbs.
When making a selection, breed matters, too. While there aren’t many sheep in the Brandywine Valley, nearby Elkton, Md., is home to BBR Farm, where Julie and Mike Moore run a smaller operation, raising a unique breed they’ve dubbed Katahdins. Crossbred in Maine for different climates, these lamb have a savory meat that’s less gamey in flavor.
That gamey flavor is often a turn off for first-timers. “Unfortunately, a lot of people’s bad experiences with lamb comes from having had older Australian lamb, which tends to be more gamey,” says Julie, who prefers a shoulder cut prepared in a crock pot or a lamb shank “fixed like osso bucco.”
Back in Colorado, the lamb dish a majority of judges also liked best was a Turkish-inspired dry, pursed dumpling (or “manti”) filled with ground lamb, dry harissa, and cilantro and other spices. Whatever flavor profile your next lamb dish is prepared with, pair it with a great merlot or pinot noir.