NIOBRARA COUNTY – Okay, please forgive the horrible pun that I used for this title, but I was running short on creativity and frankly, a column written on Father’s Day deserved a dad joke.
In all seriousness, lamb is an underappreciated and under-utilized protein source. My husband’s family has raised sheep for years including showing market lambs but don’t actually eat the meat. This last year I set out to change that.
Fond memories of Irish stew in college and knowing that my ancestors were much more likely to dine on lamb than beef (I’m Scottish) led me to resolve to eat more lamb meat with my family. I have enjoyed lamb at various restaurants but was nervous about introducing this meat to my kiddos. Lamb has a reputation for being strong and as one dinner guest stated, “it tastes the way sheep smell”. With this in mind I began looking for and cooking recipes that seemed to reap the benefits of lamb’s fat content and flavorful meat while also creating a mild and well-seasoned dish that even picky eaters (my husband) would like. My other requirements, the cooking dish couldn’t “smell like sheep” and I didn’t want to spend hours in the kitchen.
The recipes that have become favorites in my family have paved the way for my family to enjoy another meat that we can raise and butcher ourselves and given us some variety.
Please keep in mind that this genuinely is lamb. Mutton, or sheep meat is a completely different ball of wax. If you are planning to make these recipes, please make sure you are getting your meat from a reputable butcher or buying direct to guarantee freshness and age of the meat. The diet the lamb is raised on, like any other meat, impacts the flavor and meat to fat ratio so high-quality producer and processing is a must.
Greek meatballs and Bowties
The most recent addition to my lamb playbook, this recipe got a thumbs up even from my six-year-old who doesn’t tend to like meat much. Simmered all day in a crockpot with sauce, it is a cinch to throw together in the morning and come home, boil up some noodles and throw some broccoli in the microwave for a balance and delicious meal. The meatballs also freeze well if you aren’t into leftovers.
Don’t let the long ingredient list overwhelm you. This recipe comes together quickly in just a few steps.
Braise 1 pound ground lamb
1-pound Italian sausage (we had sausage from a local producer)
2 large eggs
2/3 cup italian bread crumbs
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tbspn fresh parsley
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coarse ground pepper
2 tbspn olive oil
1 small onion minced
1 tsp minced garlic
3 -8-oz cans
1 tsp dried oregano
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red wine
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup chopped kalamata olives
In a bowl mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Form into meatballs about the size of a ping pong ball. In a skillet or in your crockpot if it has a saute function, heat oil and saute onion and garlic for sauce for 2-3 minutes until softened. Then fry meatballs turning once after 2 minutes until browned but don’t worry about cooking all the way through. Add in the red wine and let heat for a minute or so to cook off most of the alcohol. Then add the rest of the ingredients in. If adding directly to the slow cooker stir gently to combine ingredients. If in a skillet transfer to a slower cooker. Cook on low for 6-7 hours.
Serve over bowtie pasta cooked according to directions and cannellini beans.
Braised Lamb Shanks
This is another crockpot recipe but can be adapted to the dutch oven if you want to have an “authentic” braised shank. My husband who “doesn’t like lamb” and my kiddos that don’t like mushrooms thoroughly enjoyed this dish. I did too since it was another fix it and forget it recipe.
4 lamb shanks (about 1.5 pounds)
4 tblspns olive oil
4 carrots peeled and diced
4 stalks celery diced
2 small sweet onions or 4 shallots peeled and thinly sliced
16 ounces mini bella mushrooms sliced
2 cups beef broth
1 cup red wine (use a good quality wine, if you wouldn’t drink it don’t cook with it)
4 tblspns tomato paste
1 cloves garlic minced
2 bay leaves
4-5 sprigs thyme (I didn’t actually have this ingredient, but it would be delicious)
salt and pepper to taste
In a heavy skillet or your crock pot if it has a saute function, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium high heat. Dry lamb shanks and salt and pepper. Add shanks to oil and sear on all sides until nicely browned. Remove shanks and add remaining oil. When heated add in carrots and celery. Cook until slightly softened (about 5 minutes). Add mushrooms and onion, cook an additional 4-5 minutes until tender.
If you started this recipe in a skillet transfer everything to your crockpot. If you are building the recipe in your crockpot then add in broth, wine and tomato paste until well combined. Add in thyme, garlic and bay leaves. Transfer lamb shanks back to pot nestling them into the broth and vegetable mixture.
Cover tightly and set on low for 6-8 hours.
Serve with mashed potatoes or hot cooked noodles. We preferred garlic parmesan mashed potatoes and fresh crusty french bread.
Greek Style Roast Leg of Lamb
on the smoker
This last recipe might seem a little intimidating, but it really is an easy, hands-off approach to lamb. The great thing about it is that the lamb meat is so wonderfully flavored and so moist that even those people that don’t like lamb will be fooled. This does take some planning since it needs to marinate for at least 8 hours. I fixed this as an appetizer for our Christmas meal. People who don’t normally eat lamb even took a slice and were fooled because they couldn’t figure out what it was! The leftovers were eaten cold with horseradish spread on baguette and were so yummy.
One 6-7 pound leg of lamb, bone in
8 cloves garlic
2 springs fresh rosemary, needles stripped, stems discarded OR 4 tablespoons dried rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano
2 lemons juiced
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and black pepper
Using a paring knife make a series of small slits in the leg
Finely mince the garlic, rosemary and oregano to make an herb and garlic paste. Stuff a small amount of paste into each of the slits. Rub the lamb with lemon juice and then olive oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Remove from the refrigerator and let the lamb come to room temperature.
Remove the plastic wrap and season the lamb with salt and pepper. When ready to cook start your grill on smoke until fire is established and then set the temperature for 400F and preheat, lid closed for 10 to 15 minutes.
Roast lamb for 30 minutes to establish a pellicle and a nice toasty color. Reduce the heat to 350F and continue to cook until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the meat is 140F (1-2 hours depending on your smoker and the roast). Transfer meat to a cutting board and let rest for 15-25 minutes. Slice diagonally in thin slices. Serve as a main meat with pasta or as an appetizer with various olives, spreads and a baguette.