Simple Yet Superb: Onion & Herb Crusted Lamb Spareribs
People often ask me if we eat any of the animals we raise. The answer is yes, and I wouldn't have it any other way. You can read more about my philosphy on raising animals for meat in my previous post, Book Review: Cooking With Shelburne Farms & A Recipe For Grilled Lamb Burgers With Roasted Red Pepper, Parsley, & Kalamata Olive Relish. And look for more of my Less Fuss, More Flavor lamb recipes to be posted soon. Well, maybe not soon, but in the near future.
There are lots of people in this country who do not eat lamb. Some of them had very bad experiences with mutton many decades ago, usually while in the military. Others consider lamb too expensive, preferring to plunk down the same amount of hard earned cash for a couple of juicy T-bone steaks rather than some itty bitty loin chops they aren't completely sure what to do with anyway. And, sadly, a surprisingly large number of people have simply never had the opportunity to taste lamb in any way, shape, or form. According to USDA's Economic Research Service, each American eats less than one pound of lamb a year.
The most well known cuts of lamb are the chops and the leg. Roast leg of lamb, the year round Sunday dinner of choice in England for centuries, is sometimes found on formal holiday tables in this country, as is rack of lamb. Both are suitably impressive looking, which no doubt helps to foster the reputation lamb has of being a very fancy dish. Lamb in America has become the champagne of meats, and serving it is often reserved for special occasions. But this reputation - as anyone who has ever had a cozy dish of slow cooked braised lamb shanks will tell you - is undeserved and needs to be abolished (as does that whole ridiculous 'champagne is only for celebrations' nonsense). And I'm not just saying that because I happen to raise and sell lambs. There is much more to a lamb than a couple of roast legs and some chops.
When I was a child, lamb chops made a regular appearance on our family dinner table. My mother broiled them, and they were always served with mint jelly. I don't recall having any other cuts of lamb, though once I moved to a farm and started raising sheep, I discovered that my mother has a deep and abiding love for lamb. During her 10-day visit last fall we ate lamb at least seven times. When I dropped her off at the airport, she had a lamb sandwich in her carry-on and a small insulated container of leftover roast leg of lamb in her suitcase.
We sell our naturally raised, grass-fed lambs directly to local individuals each year in late spring. We deliver the lambs to a nearby family-owned processor, and a week later the customers pick up their frozen meat which has been cut and packaged to their specifications. This butcher didn't have a whole lot of experience processing lambs before I - totally clueless and not real good at picturing things three dimensionally - showed up with my battered copy of Betty Crocker's Cookbook opened to the page titled 'Lamb Retail Cuts: Where They Come From And How To Cook Them.' The last several years have been a learning experience for all of us.
I ask lots of questions, and they do their best to accommodate me. Can you tell me the exact time to deliver the lambs so they don't have to wait around being nervous and stressed? Yes. Can you hang the dressed meat using this special technique so it ends up even more tender? Yes. Can you hang it for several days longer than you usually do? Yes. Can you make us some lamb salami with seasonings I provide and without any nitrates? Yes. Do you know how to cut a rack of lamb? No, but we'll figure it out.
Easy Summer Supper: Grilled Lamb Leg Steaks & Garden Veggies
Last year, after talking with a new customer who mentioned that he and his wife don't cook roasts ("We're grill people!"), I asked our butcher if he thought it would work to cut the legs into steaks instead of leaving them whole. Yes! Since we probably use our outdoor propane grill 300 nights a year, we decided we would have the legs on one our own lambs sliced into 1-1/4 inch steaks (the same thickness we get our chops). We love roast leg of lamb, and we love having all the leftovers for sandwiches, but we just don't end up cooking them that often, especially during the warmer months.
We grilled two test steaks for six minutes a side and served them up alongside some sauteed veggies from the organic kitchen garden. I took one bite and stared down at my plate as a big grin spread across my face. "It's like eating an enormous boneless lamb chop!" (The legs are actually bone-in, but you barely notice the little piece in each steak.)
When I called the butcher the next day to ask if he could cut up meat that's already frozen, without skipping a beat he said, "You want me to cut up the other legs you have in your freezer, right?" Yes. Leg steaks are now hands-down my favorite cut of lamb.
Nobody's perfect of course, and butchers do make mistakes from time to time. Unfortunately when you're doing custom processing, there isn't a whole lot that can be done once you've messed up somebody's meat. Take, for instance, the time a friend of mine went to pick up her fat hog and found that the two whole hams she'd ordered (and had special plans for) had both been sliced into steaks. It isn't as if they could just be glued back together.
Last year one of our customers was truly distraught when she realized that her two racks of lamb spareribs were nowhere to be found. They'd inadvertantly been turned into stew meat, an understandable oversight since according to the butcher almost nobody ever wants the ribs. Unfortunately they just happened to be this woman's favorite cut, and she'd been looking forward to eating them for months.
It isn't easy to find whole racks of lamb spareribs (which come from the breast) for sale, but this overlooked cut is worth seeking out, and they shouldn't be very expensive when you find them. Check with a good butcher or try searching at Local Harvest for a lamb producer in your area.
As always - and especially during these times of more and more scary recalls - I urge you to pay attention to where your food comes from and under what conditions it was raised. Do you want to eat animals that have been given growth hormones and antibiotics? Or spend their lives crammed into a filthy feedlot eating GMO corn?
Lambs that are allowed to graze freely on pastures, exercising and gaining weight slowly, are happy, healthy animals. Their lean meat is better tasting and better for you than lambs quickly fattened up on grain in commercial feedlots. Studies show that grass-fed meat is lower in fat and higher in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It also contains as much as 500 times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a compound substance and essential fatty acid necessary for optimal health, as conventional animals fed grains and feed.
One lamb has two racks of spareribs. Ours weigh between 1-1/2 to 2 pounds each. The ribs don't have a lot of meat on them, but they're very tasty. Two whole racks should serve four people, though after a hard day of working around the farm, my lamb loving mother can polish off nearly an entire rack by herself. I roast the racks whole and then cut them up before serving. Eating lamb ribs is a messy but thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Just A Few Minutes Of Prep & They're Ready For The Oven
Onion & Herb Crusted Lamb Spareribs
This is the same way I prepare a whole leg of lamb for roasting. You simply slather on a thick layer of the onion and herb mixture and pop it in the oven. Both the leg and ribs will taste even better if you allow the meat sit for several hours once you've spread the topping on (set it in the fridge if it's going to be more than two hours). You can cook the ribs for as little as an hour, but two hours makes the topping nice and crisp and the meat more tender. You could probably slow cook them at a lower temperature for even longer.
Onion flakes are marvelous little things that I toss into all sorts of stuff. I see them selling in the bulk herb sections of natural food stores for a ridiculous $15 to $18 per pound, but for years I've been ordering them - along with all kinds of other top quality herbs and spices at wholesale prices -for $3.10 a pound from AmeriHerb in Iowa. The minimum order is just one pound of anything, and they only charge you their actual shipping costs. You can read more about AmeriHerb and why I love them so much in my previous post, Onion Flakes & Things For Cakes.
I never measure out quantities when I make this; I just start with at least a couple of big handfuls of onion flakes and go from there. As long as there's enough olive oil to hold everything together and enough paste to make a thick layer, you really can't go wrong with this combination of ingredients, especially if your herbs are freshly picked. Simply adjust the amounts of everything to suit your tastes.
2 whole racks of lamb spareribs (about 3 to 4 pounds)
Chopped fresh garlic
Chopped fresh rosemary
Chopped fresh thyme
Chopped fresh basil
Chopped fresh parsley (I use lots)
Dijon mustard (not too much)
Nice salt & pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Spread spareribs in a large roasting pan.* Combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl to form a thick paste. Using your fingers, spread it all over the ribs. Cook, uncovered, at 325 degrees for 1 to 2 hours. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut each rack into individual ribs. Pile on a platter and serve with plenty of cloth napkins and a bowl for the bones.
Leftover ribs can be reheated in the oven or toaster/convection oven the next day for lunch. Or if you're pressed for time because your mother, disguised as a starving farm worker, is sure she will pass out from hunger before they're ready, you can gently reheat them in the microwave.
* Our lamb ribs come with a couple of separate end pieces that won't fit in my big new roasting pan (how did I survive so long without one of these?), so on a whim I slathered them with Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki Sauce that I bought at Trader Joe's and cooked them in a separate small dish. Yum. Then I tried marinating two entire racks in the stuff overnight. Double yum. So if you can't get a hold of some nice fresh herbs for this recipe, here's another easy and tasty option.
This is my contribution to Grow Your Own, a wonderful monthly food blogging event hosted at Andrea's Recipes that celebrates the foods we grow or raise ourselves and the dishes we make using our homegrown products. This month's roundup will be posted at Andrea's Recipes in a day or two. Want to join in the Grow Your Own fun? Find out how here.
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