13 April 2011

Spring Lamb

In the pasture at Sexton Ranches

Every season has its food. Summer has hotdogs and burgers, fall brings squash and turkey, winter is the season of roasts, and to many, spring is synonymous with lamb.

Food writer Mark Bittman in an article in the Kitchen Daily web site, noted that of all the domesticated animals raised in the US (cattle, pigs and chickens), sheep are ranched most traditionally.

According to Christine Deck of Deck Family Farm, most of the lamb in the Willamette Valley is raised on grass fields. The sheep are used to keep the grass short until the grass seed farmers are ready for it to go to seed.  However, whereas grass fields are often heavily sprayed with herbicides, Deck Family Farm uses dedicated, pesticide-free pastures for their animals.

In fact, all the lamb sold at Portland Farmers Market reflects the animals’ environment. Sexton Ranches’ lambs munch on Eastern Oregon grass. SuDan Farm in Canby Oregon grazes their herds on grass. Bend is the home of Pine Mountain Ranch and holistic rancher Allan Rousseau. Lamb is just a part of his operation as he also raises buffalo, elk and other exotics—all grazed on high elevation pasture land.

At Draper Girls’ Country Farm, sheep were a project for one of the daughters, Stephanie. “Then she went to college and that was that,” noted matriarch Theresa Draper. She said the animals love fruit. They eat fruit and fruit pulp left over from the orchards and cider-making operations.  According to Draper, “They scream if they don’t get it.”  Draper Girls began selling produce at the market late in the 2007 season, and began selling lamb in 2008.

Although there are distinctions between the kind of sheep and the resulting flavor, most farms raise white face or black face sheep. Draper likes the flavor of her black face Suffolk mix sheep while Pine Mountain’s Rousseau swears by the mild flavor of the Big Horn Dall sheep he raises, as well as the smaller St. Croix hair sheep he tends.

Susie and Dan Wilson of SuDan Farm have been at the market for nine or ten years, selling (among other things) wool and lamb. Their meat animals are made up of three breeds: Katahdin cross breeds, Coopworth, and Border Leister, an old British breed.

Dick Sexton of Sexton Ranches raises a white face breed of wool sheep called Romeldale.

This may seem like a lot of information to consider, but breeds of sheep and their particular characteristics matter to food nerds (like me – and probably you if you’re reading this), chefs, and ranchers. Rousseau recommends trying different cuts and breeds of lamb to find your favorite. A market veteran of seven years, he makes lamb stew in the winter, kabobs in the summer and shoulder steaks all year long.

Lamb is as versatile as beef, and has as many cuts and variations. Chops, roasts, ground lamb, lamb legs, ribs, shanks…the list is long. Lamb in hand and thawed under refrigeration, it’s time to cook. Christine Deck marinates lamb in buttermilk or kefir, then roasts it adding water to the bottom of the pan. Dick Sexton simply sprinkles lamb with sea salt, and grills.

Need more inspiration?  Susie Wilson of SuDan Farm has a dozen or so lamb recipes at their Portland Farmers Market booth, including this recipe for The Perfect Leg of Lamb. For beginners, she says this recipe for Braised Lamb Shanks are damn near impossible to mess up. Famous food writer Mark Bittman uses a coriander rub to make his Coriander-Pepper Crusted Leg of Lamb. The world’s largest cookbook—the Internet—teems with good recipes.

The key to lamb chops and racks is nailing the appropriate temperature. Lamb is best served medium-rare to medium.  Any cook used to grilling beef, knows how a medium-rare steak ‘feels.’ It is soft and yielding in the center, growing more firm towards the edges of the meat.

However, because of the texture of lamb, chops ‘feel’ more done than they are. If a chop feels medium-rare, it’ll be cold and raw in the middle, so lengthen the cooking time accordingly. Lamb racks must rest for a full 8 – 10 minutes before slicing. Give roasts at least 10-15 minutes to rest. If the meat isn’t rested properly, all the yummy juices will run out when cut and it will be dry.

–by Nancy Schaadt, PFM volunteer, line cook and food writer. Learn more about Nancy and her food adventures in Portland by visiting her blog.