SPANISH COLONISTS BROUGHT DOMESTICATED sheep to New Mexico, and soon lamb found its way into Indigenous and Hispanic cuisines. Chefs throughout the world appreciate lamb for its pronounced flavor, which can stand up to strong seasoning in curries, tagines, and stews, whether braised, grilled, or roasted. That said, home cooks often steer away from lamb because of its cost and their inexperience cooking it. Heaven forbid you ruin that $35 rack you found at Costco.
In Luscious Lamb Cookery, a class I regularly teach at Las Cosas Cooking School, I help students learn how to handle this tasty meat, including the less expensive cuts, which are delicious when prepared creatively. In the class, I smear shoulder chops with yogurt, garlic, and lemon and then crust them with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend. Cost-effective shanks make a luscious osso buco. To keep the pricier rack moist, I spread it with Dijon mustard and then pack on a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs, capers, and lemon zest before roasting.
Grocery stores offer a wider variety of cuts than our mothers had to choose from, and local growers like Shepherd’s Lamb add specialty items like bones, sweetbreads, and organ meats to the more traditional chops, legs, and shanks.
The Easter, Passover, and Ramadan holidays often set a lamb dish on the family table, making this an appropriate month to perfect a new technique. Don’t be afraid if you, like me, grew up on lamb shoulder chops that spent a fair amount of time in the oven, only to be coated with neon-green mint jelly straight from the jar.
Chef Jonathan Perno at Campo, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
The medium-rare rack with rosemary and garlic I encountered upon moving to New York City was a revelation, but then I discovered the wonderful world of global lamb cookery. In funky East Village African eateries, it was highly seasoned with exotic spices and served with couscous in a domed tagine. At Indian restaurants, fiery vindaloos set my palate ablaze. In Mediterranean restaurants, I fell in love with kebabs of vegetables and marinated lamb. A moussaka, I discovered, was the best of two worlds: meat and mashed potatoes in one dish, gilded with creamy béchamel.
A semester spent at chef’s school in Leeds, England, introduced me to mutton—sheep that are at least one year old and up to three. The meat can be a tad tough, and it wasn’t my favorite. Later I lived in Australia, where lamb “on the barbie” was offered with a sauce of fresh mint, sugar, and vinegar.
Chef Paddy Rawal’s Raaga-Go takeout restaurant, in Santa Fe, simmers up Indian cuisine, including papadum and Lamb Vindaloo.
A Santa Fe friend who needed to boost her strength after a brief hospital stay this winter was lucky enough to receive a container of bone broth made by our mutual friend Mu Jing Lau, of the former Mu Du Noodles fame. After downing a bowl, she called to exclaim that she was cured and full of energy. I had to call Mu to get the recipe: an all-day simmer of Shepherd’s Lamb bones—the more the merrier—carrots, celery, onions, mushroom stems, tomatoes, a head of peeled and smashed garlic, and a large knob of peeled and smashed ginger. “It also humidifies your house and keeps it warm,” Mu says, “and the smell is downright addictive.”
I also snagged recipes from two standout New Mexico chefs—Paddy Rawal of Raaga-Go, in Santa Fe, and Jonathan Perno of Campo at Los Poblanos Historic Inn, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, and I offer some tips of my own for making the best of your lamb selection. Are you game?
On the Lamb
Chef Johnny Vee offers a few tips for preparing lamb.
If you’re new to lamb, start with a cheaper cut: stew meat, ground meat, or shanks. No need to worry about overcooking; the longer these simmer, the more tender they get. Use chicken stock for your liquid (beef stock will overpower the lamb flavor).
Let the meat come to room temperature before cooking. Starting from fridge-cold takes longer to cook and risks drying out the meat.
Marinades and dry rubs enhance lamb flavor without overpowering it. Marinades that include any acid—citrus, vinegar, or wine—should not be left on the meat for more than an hour. The meat will start to “cook,” changing the texture. Most spice rubs need only a few hours to add their flavor.
Before sautéing, blot the meat dry with paper towels to promote a nice crust.
For grilling, make sure your fire is hot so the meat sears quickly and keeps the moisture in.
To oven-roast racks of lamb, season and then sear them in a frying pan before finishing in a hot oven (400°).
Always let roasts and racks rest for 15 minutes, tented with foil, to allow the juices to reabsorb into the meat. Cut across the grain to ensure the tenderest result.
Raw lamb freezes well. Thaw it slowly in the fridge.
Save any bones and use them to make a tasty broth