Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 21, 2013
01:42 PMSmall Dishes
The Other Red Meat
Growing up, I never ate lamb. No one in my family ate lamb. No one I knew ate lamb. I certainly knew about it since people in the Bible and on TV were constantly eating it. When I inquired why it never appeared on our table, my mother replied—as she too often did about too many things that peaked my interest—that I wouldn’t like it. I was sure that I would.
I soon got my chance to find out. After moving to Madison, a friend’s mother invited me over to dinner and leg of lamb was on the menu. It was beautifully rosy pink and I loved it. I already had an affinity for rare beef, no doubt in some part because watching me eat it made my mother squirm. She cooked all meat—beef, pork or chicken—until indisputably done and definitely desiccated.
Though outrageously popular elsewhere, it’s never been the red meat of choice here. In part this is due to the availability and affordability of beef, a much rarer commodity in many places. Also, like so many dishes in our past, lamb was matter-of-factly overcooked, disastrous to both its taste and texture.
As raising sheep became more widespread, especially in the western states, so did lamb. What really boosted its culinary status was the influx of immigrants from countries where lamb was the meat of choice. They brought with them many new dishes soon assimilated by our modern eclectic taste.
Meat labeled lamb comes from sheep 12 months old or younger—baby lamb is 6 to 10 weeks old, and spring lamb is 5 to 6 months old. As with U.S. farmed beef, U.S.D.A. grades include Prime, Choice, and Good. Lamb imported from New Zealand and Australia has of late found a market in our supermarkets. Less popular and much stronger in taste is mutton, meat from a fully matured ewe or ram.
When I go out to eat and lamb is on the menu, it’s difficult to pass up. Here are some suggestions where you can get your lamb on around town.
Take Five. Be assured that any good Greek restaurant will feature lamb. Here it comes several ways, but I especially like the home-style lamb shanks in a sauce of red wine and pan drippings.
Nostrano. On the dinner menu a worldly lamb stew imaginatively flavored with cinnamon, mint, and preserved lemon tops hearty whole wheat pappardelle.
Tom’s Red Pepper. Specializing in Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin food, this Middleton restaurant includes three Asian lamb dishes among its extensive offerings.
Taste of India. It’s hard to go wrong with lamb at an Indian restaurant, but lamb korma—simmered in cream with aromatic spices—never fails to make me swoon.
Bunky’s Café. Different cultures merrily mingle here, including a perfectly grilled halal grass-fed lamb kebob served with an Italian salad.
El Pastor. A specialty is the traditional barbecued lamb tacos—barbacoa— minimally but suitably served with fresh lime, onion and cilantro.
Dobhan. An exotic starter is the keema dosa: spiced ground lamb with potatoes and peas wrapped in a crepe made from rice and black lentils.
Fresco. Grilled “lollipop” (small medallions of meat attached to the rib bone) get a Mediterranean treatment with orzo, zucchini, pesto and pine nuts.
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry. The list of imaginative burgers is long and includes a thick and juicy lamb burger topped with feta and cucumber-dill sauce.
Tornado Steakhouse. Nothing is more elegant than a rack of lamb. At Tornado it’s classically prepared with a crispy mustard and bread crumb crust and presented with tangy mint vinegar.
RECIPE: Lamb Chops with Sorrel and Mint
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 rib lamb chops, about 1-inch thick
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups shredded sorrel (approximate)
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Half a fresh lemon
Put 2 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a large heavy skillet and set over medium high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, add the lamb chops to the skillet. Cook for 3 minutes; then turn. Cook the lamb chops for 3 minutes on the other side. Remove to a hot platter while preparing the sauce.
Pour the fat out of the skillet. Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. When it melts, add the vermouth, sorrel and mint. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring, until the wine is reduced by half. Add the cream and continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and a few drops of lemon juice.
Pour the sauce over the lamb chops and serve at once.