Historically, feasting on lamb was a traditional means of ushering in the spring season. The natural breeding cycle of sheep produces lamb in the months of March and April; hence the term spring lamb. This however, is an informal definition.
A lamb is a sheep less than one year old. A baby lamb is six to eight weeks old while a spring lamb is three to five months of age. After a year it is referred to as a yearling and once it reaches its second birthday it becomes mutton. As the sheep ages its meat will become darker colored, develop a stronger, gamier taste, and be less tender. A young lamb will be pink to pinkish red in color. Nowadays, modern animal husbandry allows for lamb of varying ages to be available year round.
Lamb is far more popular in other parts of the world, particularly the Mediterranean, than in the US. In America, the average person consumes about a pound of lamb per year. While ham may be the meat of choice for the American Easter dinner, lamb is the favorite the world over. It is also a common Passover meal.
Rack of lamb is a cut from the rib section. A full rack should contain eight ribs. When you order rack of lamb in a restaurant, you almost always are served it with the bones “Frenched.” This is where all the meat is scraped off the ribs for appearance purposes. I deplore this practice and never French my bones. Any lamb lover will tell you that the best part of feasting on rack of lamb is nibbling on the bones afterward. The bones are fattier but unctuous and delectable. Even though propriety restrains me from partaking in this practice in public, unnecessary aesthetic concern cheats me out of a delicious snack the following day. And who decided that naked bones look better than meaty ones anyway?
Here’s my recipe for roasted rack of lamb.
If we assume four chops per person, each rack will feed two people. Multiply the recipe accordingly.
• 1 full rack of lamb
• Olive oil, as needed
• 2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped
• 2 tablespoons thyme, chopped
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 cup red wine
• 3 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1 tablespoon butter
Make sure your butcher has removed the chine bone from the rack. Most do but double-check. The chine bone is part of the spine and if not removed you will be unable to cut the roast into individual chops. Trim some of the excess fat from the rack but don’t overdo it. You need some fat to naturally baste the meat while it cooks and furnish some drippings to make a sauce. Lightly brush the rack with olive oil. Then sprinkle both sides with half of the rosemary and thyme, and salt and pepper. Place the rack in a roasting pan, preferably with a grate on the bottom, and then into a preheated 375 degree oven.
The next thing people often ask is how long to cook it. Forget time. Cook by temperature. Remove the lamb when a thermometer placed dead center in the meat reads 125 degrees for rare, 130° for medium rare and 135° for medium.
When the roast is finished, place it on a serving plate and cover it with aluminum foil. Roasts need to rest after cooking so the meat will re-absorb its juices. If you cut them immediately after cooking all of the juices will run out. The foil will keep it warm while you make the sauce.
For the sauce, place the roasting pan on top of the stove and turn the burner on high. Pour in the wine, bring to a boil and deglaze the pan, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. Add the remaining rosemary and thyme, garlic, and salt and pepper. Reduce the sauce to at least half, add the butter at the end, and then strain it. Carve the roast into individual chops and pour the sauce over them. For a delicious variation, you can substitute homemade beef or veal stock for the wine, or better yet, use a combination of stock and wine.
Finally, I can think of no better wine to go with lamb than Bordeaux. Lamb is a hearty meat and needs a full bodied and equally strong wine to complement it. Get the best quality and longest aged Bordeaux you can afford. Bordeaux is a blend of predominantly cabernet sauvignon and merlot from the Bordeaux region of France. If you prefer Californian, then select a high quality, full bodied cabernet sauvignon. Use the same type of wine for cooking and drinking. Simply employ an inexpensive one for the purpose of the sauce.
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