Once the surest sign of spring's arrival could be found at the table: tender greens, thin stalks of asparagus, new potatoes and, at the center, a roast leg of lamb.
Now asparagus and new potatoes are available most of the year, shipped from around the globe. Lamb, too, is just as common in December as April. So why isn't it on more dinner tables? In any season?
Lamb is easy to cook, leaner than ever and often modestly priced. It can be roasted, grilled or broiled. Its flavor needs to be enhanced only with salt and pepper, not complicated rubs or marinades.
Still, lamb consumption has declined, largely because of changing tastes in the United States. Even at Easter, leg of lamb is the second choice by a wide margin. Last year, ham outsold lamb 10 to 1 at Giant supermarkets, according to Alan Warren, manager of meat and seafood for Giant.
During the past 35 years, lamb consumption has dropped about 65 percent, from 3.5 pounds per person per year in 1965 to 1.2 pounds last year, according to the American Meat Institute.
"One theory goes that the GIs were served really bad C rations made from lamb. When they got back, they said no to lamb," says Alan Zuschlag, owner-operator of Touchstone Farm in Rappahannock County, where he raises Clun Forest and Icelandic sheep. Other explanations include the drop of immigration to the United States from traditional lamb-eating cultures, the general decline in Americans' ability to cook or the possibility that lamb's occasionally strong, or gamy, taste turned off consumers.
A Flavor Evolution
Most lamb today has a milder flavor than it did 10 or 15 years ago. As the American lamb industry shrank, the United States began to import more lamb from Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, a concerted effort was made to develop a better grade of lamb for export, explains Joel Weinstein, president of Foodcomm International, the company that imports the Australian lamb sold at Safeway and Giant. "Before we became a good market for Australia, we saw more cheap meat. . . . In my opinion, it wasn't the best."
Today a leaner, milder lamb is the norm. The muttonlike taste of the past is gone. For a consumer used to the taste of chicken breast, pork loin and lean beef, the taste will still seem strong. But it is this natural flavor -- which needs little enhancement -- that makes lamb so easy to prepare.
Trim, Trim, Trim
Another criticism of lamb is that it is fatty. Though some cuts still come with a layer of fat, in general the meat today is leaner. First, lamb naturally doesn't have the intramuscular fat of beef. Second, most of the external fat can and should be removed. As Weinstein explains, "When people cook the lamb with a lot of surface fat, it gets a greasy feel. Prepared properly -- trimmed of as much fat as possible -- this feeling will be gone."
Why Size Varies
Purchase a leg of lamb from Australia, one from New Zealand and one produced domestically and the first thing you'll notice is the size difference. "A semi-boneless leg from Australia may weigh between 5 1/2 to 7 1/2 pounds. A domestic leg can get up to 10 to 12 pounds," says Ron Pennington, sales manager for meat and seafood merchandising at Safeway. The New Zealand leg will be the smallest. Theo Weening, meat coordinator for Whole Foods/Fresh Fields Mid-Atlantic region, sells semi-boneless domestic legs that average 7 to 8 pounds and New Zealand legs that average 4 to 4 1/2 pounds.
What does the size tell you? Not much. The American lamb is a bigger animal, partly because it may be a little bit older and partly because it is grain fed, whereas the Australian and New Zealand lambs are primarily, if not exclusively, grass fed. The difference in age is minimal, maybe a month or so, and accounts for the variance even in lamb from the same country.
Here's where the discussion starts to look like a campaign. Fans of domestic lamb insist it's milder. New Zealand lamb lovers are sure they can taste the difference. And proponents of Australian lamb are just as ardent.
Try the choices yourself and decide which you prefer. Size rather than taste may be the deciding factor.
Store selection may also affect your choice. In the Washington area, Safeway carries only Australian lamb. "The whole eastern division switched 10 years ago," explains Pennington. The smaller size appealed to Safeway. Giant carries both Australian and American. "The American pieces are larger, the Australian have a better price point. Some people consider Australian lamb superior, some prefer American," says Warren. At Giant, meat managers in each store can order whichever variety their customers prefer.
Whole, bone-in legs of lamb have fallen out of favor among most consumers. The bone found in the butt end of the leg, called the aitchbone, makes carving difficult so you are not likely to encounter this cut except at a specialty or ethnic market. Most supermarkets and grocery stores limit cuts to semi-boneless (either shank or butt portion) or boneless (butterflied).
The butt end of a lamb roast contains the sirloin, one of the prized portions. The shank, however, has the traditional look of a leg of lamb. With its shank bone intact, the whole leg is easy to hold when carving, and it has leaner meat. But a drawback is that the shank end will cook more slowly than the butt end. Of course this can also be a plus because a single roast will have some meat that is more well done and some that is less done, appealing to a variety of tastes.
Perhaps the easiest cut to cook and slice is the rolled and tied boneless leg. It cooks evenly and can be stuffed and marinated. Unrolled and butterflied, it can be grilled or broiled, but its uneven thickness can make it difficult to cook, with some parts paper thin and others nearly as thick as a roast. Though the butterflied leg doesn't have the look of a holiday or special occasion roast, it is perfect for more casual entertaining.
Like most roasts, leg of lamb is easy to cook. Trim the roast of excess fat, leaving a thin layer so the meat will be self-basting. Season with salt and pepper and lightly coat with oil. Roast in a 350-degree oven at 20 to 25 minutes per pound for a bone-in roast. Start testing for doneness about two-thirds of the way into the cooking time. Unless you love well-done or rare lamb, aim for medium-rare with medium at the ends, 140 degrees when measured with an instant read thermometer in the thickest part of the roast.
Boneless, rolled and tied roasts will cook a bit faster, 15 to 20 minutes per pound.
For grilling or broiling, the boneless, butterflied leg of lamb is the best cut. Lay the boned leg out on a cutting board. The meat should look like two halves joined in the center by a shallow piece of meat. To ensure more even cooking, you can even the thickness of the leg a few ways. First, you can separate the two halves and cook them as independent pieces. Or, you can further butterfly the thick sections, by making a horizontal cut to create a flap and then folding back that flap, creating a sort of sheet of meat. A third option is to use skewers to stabilize and pull together pieces of the lamb, making it more compact and even.
To broil, cook the meat until browned on both sides and finish in a 350-degree oven if necessary. Remember that the goal is still 140 degrees in the thickest part of the meat.
To grill, use the indirect heat method, banking the coals or lighting the burners on only one side of the grill. Cook the meat, with a drip pan underneath, on the opposite side of the grill. The temperature inside the covered grill should be around 425 degrees. Because the meat is only about 2 inches thick, it will cook quickly, a 5- to 6-pound butterflied leg will take 45 to 55 minutes. Just before the lamb is done, the meat can be moved directly over the heat to brown if necessary. Be careful -- whatever residual fat there is will cause the fire to flame up.
A Last Word on Lamb
Lamb is distinctive, and that's exactly what's so good about it. It may even be something of acquired taste, but the best things to eat often are.