My mother, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, didn’t need to take a butchering class. I remember watching her flash a knife through the fat and cartilage of lamb shoulder and legs, cutting the meat precisely into right-size sections.
It was common for us to drive two hours from our home in mid-Michigan to the farmers market in Detroit, where my mother trusted the quality of the meats because Arabs and other Arab Americans, as passionate about lamb as she, worked many of the stalls.
“Trusted” might not be quite the right word. When entering one of the small markets, I would trail behind her, a little embarrassed, as she would harangue the poor guy behind the counter.
“Is it fresh?” she’d begin her inquisition.
“Yes, yes, of course,” the man would answer through an Arabic accent.
My mother’s eyebrows would narrow.
“I don’t want it if it’s not fresh,” she would say.
“It’s fresh,” the man would reply. “Fresh. Look. Fresh.”
He’d pick up some of the red meat and hold it in front of her. Mom would give it the once-over with a diamond-cutter’s eye.
“Hownee,” she would say, which roughly translates as, “Bring it here. I want to smell.”
The guy would raise the meat closer to her nose. My mother would inhale delicately, a trust-but-verify type of sniff.
“Ma badeesh dihin!” she’d say. I don’t want fat. Her way of saying: Okay.
You don’t have to be Lebanese to go a little lamb crazy at this time of year. Spring lamb is a treat and, somehow, it signals the beginning of grilling season. I don’t feel as if the season has really begun until I grill some lamb, typically kebabs.
Years ago, I visited Lebanon, and lamb, you might say, was in the air. My cousin and her family whisked us from one restaurant to the next, this one with a natural waterfall, that one on a mountaintop overlooking the rippling blue Mediterranean Sea.
All of them had one item in common: grilled lamb. Menus typically offered it sliced from a rotisserie (shawarma), stuffed into a sausage (maanke, mild; suuok, spicy) and as a loin with an olive oil and herb sauce (sharhat ghanam). But the go-to dish was inevitably grilled kebabs (lahum mishwee).
The waiters made a show of using a round of pita to slide the cubes of meat down the skewer, along with the grilled onions and tomatoes, onto an oblong platter. The performance seemed somehow to heighten the lovely, hot-off-the-grill aromas. The lamb was tender, with mild spice and a light char from a wood-fueled grill. Kebabs in my home and in Lebanon generally were served with mezze of hummus, labneh (sour cheese spread), baba ghanouj (smoked eggplant dip), warm pita, olives, feta, tabboulehand/or a green salad with a lemony dressing.