Friday, December 04, 2009
Why I Wish Every Sheep Had Ten Legs
Our family's foray into the retail meat business this past year has been filled with lots of learning. The biggest surprise for me has been how confused people are when you offer them the possibility of buying lamb. Depending on the locale of the farmer's markets we have sold at the comments go like this...
"Oh, I could never eat those cute little animals."
"Wow, local lamb. How great. How much?"
"Oh, I hate lamb." (This comment usually comes from folks of the older generation who ate too much bad mutton during the 1940's.)
The most surprising comment I have gotten is: "What do I do with it? How do I cook it?"
The first time someone asked me this, I must have looked shocked. I remember being full of disbelief that someone wouldn't know what to do with a piece of lamb. But then I remembered that I have been cooking lamb for almost 30 years. I've found the standard answer, cook it anyway you would beef calms most of them down and they aren't so fearful. And then I mention Shepherd's Pie and they buy some ground lamb.
When we began raising sheep back in 1979, I was wearing rose colored glasses. For me, raising sheep was all about the creamy, crimpy, lusterous wool for handspinning, the sweet animals grazing overgrown pastures, and just how beautiful it all was. I am a romantic at heart and there really is nothing more romantic looking than a beautiful field full of white fluffy sheep, don't you agree? Being from the suburbs of NJ, I had never been exposed to much farm life. The closest I got to farm animals was at the annual Morris County 4-H Fair where the farm kids slept over in the barns with the cows and sheep for the duration of the fair. I always envied the fun they must have had when we were leaving the Fair every night to go back to our snug house in Dover.
But when I got involved in this sheep thing, my partner was The Farmer. He is and always was a homegrown dyed in the wool farm boy who grew up eating his family's cows, drinking his family's milk from their Sunbrite Farm Dairy, selling his eggs from his chickens as he rode around on his Dad's "Milk Man" delivery truck, and raising a pig or two. I had a lot to learn for sure.
When our first lambs were born, way back in the early 80's, I was hoping for a bunch of ewe lambs. That way our flock could grow and I wouldn't have to think about what to do with the ram lambs. As luck would have it, our first lamb crop was two ewe lambs and one ram lamb from our flock of four ewes and one ram. Back then, we named all our sheep. I can remember those names still - Putney, Frieda, Addie, and Betsy. Our ram came with a name - Zeno. We named the ewe lambs Polly and Esther and I can't remember what the ram lamb was called. Perhaps we were smart and didn't name him although I doubt that was the case. The lambs grew and grew. I knew that the inevitable day was coming when we would have to get rid of the ram lamb. We planned to keep the old ram Zeno and back then we never would have bred sisters to their brother.
After our first ram lamb was taken care of (you can read a bit about that here), I had a whole bunch of lamb meat to work my way through. I started experimenting with different recipes, buying cookbooks, and generally learning about all the different cuts of meat you get from a sheep. This was and still is a huge learning experience for me and one that I can honestly say I have really enjoyed. I love a good cookbook full of lovely lamb recipes although they are difficult to find!
Our step into the retail meat business has been another learning experience and once again I am enjoying the learning. Our meat business has slowed down since the Farmer's Markets stopped in late October. Coincidentally, we have run out of animals to process. What perfect timing although it was totally unplanned! Now, we're waiting for the new lambs to be born this winter. We will grow out them out to about 100 pounds and then the cycle will begin again. We do have some spring lambs left that are pretty much spoken for when they are at slaughtering weight.
So back to the title of this post. When we started the Farmer's Markets, we really weren't sure what we were doing. It took a whole summer of trial and error to figure out what cuts of meat would sell. I experimented a lot to see what cuts of lamb customers really wanted. It became clear to me that if we had our lambs processed into lamburger, we'd keep very busy. But lamburger is the least expensive cut we sell. Each animal yields many different pieces of meat - 2 legs (the back), about 24 chops (loin and rib), some stew meat, liver, heart, and kidneys (great for steak and kidney pie), lamburger, and 2 shoulders and 4 shanks (the hoof end of each leg). It's easy to sell chops - everyone knows what to do with them. A leg of lamb is pretty standard fare too, as is burger and stew meat.
And then there are the shoulders! What to do with the shoulders? I have cooked shoulders for many, many years but most people aren't aware why the meat is tougher - especially if they purchase shoulder chops. When I sell shoulder roasts or shoulder chops to a customer, I always preface the sale with - "You do know how to cook a shoulder, don't you?" You see, the shoulders on the animal do the most work. It's the part of the body that carries the animal up the hill and across the field. They are full of connective tissue which my Dad used to call grizzle. After many years of cooking lamb, I know that I've got to cook the shoulders "low and slow" or use them in a stew or a braise. They are totally delicious as long as they are cooked properly - full of fabulous flavor and with an unctuous quality.
And boy do I wish our sheep had ten legs! With every leg comes a shank (whether it is a front leg or a back leg). Lamb shanks are delicious and thanks to many fine restaurants, they are becoming more and more popular with consumers. No matter how many shanks I bring to a market, I usually sell them all. Shanks have a huge cult following and I am one of those shank devotees. You've got to cook them low and slow but man oh man, are they tasty.
Here's a lamb shank recipe I came up with a few weeks ago when we had a few shanks left and I had a hankering for them. It is one of those recipes that is really easy - you just put everything in a pot and let it cook. When you come back, it is done and dinner is ready to eat.
Kristin's Autumn Lamb Shanks:
4 lamb shanks
1 large can of peeled Italian tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cups of wine - I prefer red but white will do
Heat oven to 250 degrees. Place all ingredients in a Dutch oven. You can cut up the tomatoes a bit if you want but it isn't necessary. I use a copper pot but any pot will do as long as it can go on direct heat and oven heat. I don't have any Le Creuset pots but I think they would be perfect. Place the Dutch oven on the top of the stove and bring it to a boil. Once the mixture boils, place it in the oven with the lid on. Cook until tender - about three to four hours. The shanks are done when they easily pull away from the bone.
I usually serve one shank per person but this depends on people's appetites and the size of the shank. Serve with crusty bread, a salad and some nice cooked white beans. A perfect meal for a late autumn or winter weekend day.
There's a great cookbook by Stephane Reynaud I just found with lots of nice lamb recipes in it. And it is one beautiful cookbook: French Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings. He also has another wonderfully beautiful cookbook called Pork and Sons. Both these books are so beautifully designed and appealing that my heart melts. Check them out.
And did you seen this? Check out the link - a new magazine called Canal House Cooking that looks really intriguing. It is done by former editors at Saveur and Martha Stewart. I downloaded some sample pages and it looks really great. A bit expensive but with the demise of Gourmet (I'm still in tears) perhaps it will fill the void. There's a chocolate gingerbread recipe in the winter issue that looks divine.
Does anyone else have any favorite cookbooks with lamb recipes in them? I'd love to hear.
Today's sheep photos were taken while the sheep were grazing another neighbor's field close to where we moved them a couple weeks ago. There's still a lot of grass left but it's just a matter of time before the ground freezes and the fence posts won't go in the ground. The dogs, The Farmer, our neighbor Wendy, and Eeyore moved the 230 plus sheep across the road without incident. Not a car passed, what luck! The electricity is running from Wendy's house through a culvert under the road so that the sheep will be safe from the coyotes.
Good weekend everyone.