Lamb is the stuff of myth, legend, and part of the story of the domestication of animals. It is mentioned in the Bible and were used not only for religious purposes, but for food and wool. It is a meat that is found in every cuisine. It marries well in Moroccan tagines, Indian curry, Southern barbecue, French stews, Near Eastern dolmas and moussaka, and the cooking of the British Isles. It has a nice sweet nature that goes well with vegetables of all kinds, fresh and dried fruits, mustard, wines, garlic, tomatoes, and nuts. The term spring lamb refers to animals born in the spring; it even has its own dish in France, Navarin Primanteur, spring lamb and vegetable ragoût. The early Christians had a custom of serving a whole roasted lamb for Easter, a custom continued by French royalty until the 1700s.
Lamb was domesticated in the Near East probably around the same time of domesticating grains and has ended up outnumbering any other type of livestock for food in the world. While many cuisines call lamb their staple protein, America calls it more of a secondary choice after beef. Statistics note the British and French eat approximately five times the amount of lamb as Americans. Our 1961 copy of Larousse Gastronomique devotes 12 pages exclusively to lamb. The French cassoulet of baked beans has a lamb stew with lots of garlic and vermouth at its core. Napoleon conquered Spain and began exporting their sheep back to France and royalty like Louis XVI kept sheep on their country estates (George Washington kept a herd of sheep at Mount Vernon as well). Many of these breeds were brought to the U.S. and crossed to make modern breeds good for producing both wool and meat from the same animal.
Shepherding became synonymous with the opening of the Midwest and Western U.S. and the best lamb comes from Down breeds imported from England in the mid-1800s. The Basque of Nevada and the Navajos of New Mexico are living testaments to the old way of ranching sheep. The best breed for top-quality meat is a small lamb of the Down breeds known as a Shropshire. The U.S. now imports alot of its lamb from Australia and New Zealand.
Today’s lamb is fresh and of high quality year round. Mutton is a reference to lamb 2 years or older and is not usually sold in the United States; most year-round lamb is between 6 and 12 months in age at slaughter. Look for a dark reddish meat with a fine grain with a fresh smell. If it smells gamey, it is old lamb.
The lamb is divided into portions: shoulders, forelegs, breast, then the ribs and loin. The leg, which is usually dry roasted, is fine for slow cooking. The best portions for braising are the shoulder and tough foreleg, known as the shank.
Martha’s Wine Country Lamb Shanks
This recipe for lamb shanks has no garlic, no tomatoes, no herbs, nor any fancy ingredients; it is plain old home cooking. Martha, our literary agent, often pours off the collected juice from the shanks and freezes it for inclusion in the next batch of shanks. Martha and her husband live in the midst of a Napa Valley vineyard, so they often cook with wine from their own grapes (usually whatever is in the fridge–a Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc), then serve up some more of the same to wash down the stew. Note that this recipe calls for white pepper, not the more pungent black.
Cooker: Medium or Large Round or Oval
Machine Setting and Cook Time: Low Heat: 7 to 8 hours
4 lamb shanks (5 pounds), external fat trimmed and pierced with the tip of a knife
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 cup dry white wine
2 to 3 cups chicken broth or beef broth
1 to 1 1/4 pounds baby new potatoes, washed and left whole
12-ounces whole baby carrots or thick slices of carrots
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
On a cutting board or platter, roll the shanks in the flour to completely coat. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, 6 to 7 minutes in all. If your pan is not large enough, you may have to do this in batches. As the shanks are browned, place them in the crock. Add the onion to the hot skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until it slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine to the skillet and bring it to a boil over high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve any browned bits stuck to the pan; pour the onions and wine over the lamb in the crock. Add the broth to cover and a dash of salt and pepper. Cover and cook on LOW for 7 to 8 hours, until the lamb is tender when pierced with a fork and falling off the bone. Halfway through cooking, at about 3 hours, add the potatoes and carrots to the crock and recover.
Taste for seasoning (Martha likes lots of freshly ground white pepper) and serve a shank, potatoes and/or white beans, and carrots from the crock, ladeling over the sauce.
Victoria’s Lamb Shanks Braised with Garlic, Fresh Rosemary, and White Wine
This is a homey recipe adapted from the wonderful book The Pressure Cooker Gourmet by Victoria Wise. Yes, you want the full three heads of garlic, they get placed in the crock unpeeled, so there is no culinary anxiety there. The diners can squeeze out the luscious innards as they nosh the shanks. Please note this is a smaller recipe than the others for shanks, utilizing only two shanks. You can also cut the shank; have the butcher do this for you. This recipe has a chopped lemon zest garnish that really gives a zing at the end. We like to finely chop it in the food processor with an equal amount of parsley as well.
Cooker: Medium Round or Oval
Machine Setting and Cook Time: Low Heat: 7 to 8 hours
Serves: 2 to 4
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 lamb shanks (2 1/2 pounds), external fat trimmed, and each cut crosswise into 3 pieces
3 full heads garlic, cloves separated and center stem discarded
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped lemon zest, for garnish
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot,
add the lamb and garlic. Cook the lamb until it is golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. If your pan is not large enough, you may have to do this in batches. As the shanks are browned, remove them to the crock. Add the wine to the skillet and bring it to a boil over high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve any browned bits stuck to the pan. Add the tomatoes and rosemary; bring to a boil. Pour over the lamb. Cover and cook on LOW for 7 to 8 hours, until the lamb is tender when pierced with a fork and falling off the bone. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the lemon zest, and serve from the crock with noodles or boiled potatoes.
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2005/2017, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.