Look for the lamb
Yolo, Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties have long been known for their lamb, and most any time you make a drive across the valley floor from the Sacramento River, heading west through Winters and over the hills on Highway 128, on through the Wine Country, you’ll see grazing sheep and lambs as part of the landscape.
What is more recent is the appearance of lamb burgers on the restaurant-scape and we’ve recently had the pleasure of sampling them, beginning at Broderick Restaurant and Bar in West Sacramento, the Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters for another version, and on to Healdsburg for another take at the Michelin recommended Bistro Ralph on the plaza. All the burgers were thick, over the top delicious, each with a different flavor profile and condiments, and all on soft, brioche-style buns.
At the Broderick, recently taken over by the owners of the popular food truck, the Wicked ‘Witch, the lamb burger, self-described on the menu as “Lebanese spiced ground lamb” comes with a slather of goat cheese, oven-roasted tomato, and Balsamic-dressed arugula.
Lamb burgers, a new item on the Buckhorn Steakhouse bar menu, were developed by co-owner, Melanie Bajakian, and the seasonings reflect her Armenian roots, with allspice part of the mixture, along with onions and parsley, and it is spread with tarragon aioli. Diners can opt for a trio of lamb burger sliders, or a full size version accompanied by house-fried chips, and a garnish of honey-mustard dressed endive.
At Bistro Ralph, the seasonings are Mediterranean, but, with a nod to local, Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese or Laura Chanel’s Goat Cheese is an option, and, like at Broderick, a heap of French fries. Plus, the Wednesday special on the menu is Lamb Meatloaf.
Throughout the world, lamb and mutton, along with goat, are among the world’s most consumed meats, in part because of the animals’ ability to thrive in sparse conditions like those bordering the Mediterranean Basin, from Spain to Lebanon, Egypt to Tunisia. New Zealand, with its mountains and grasslands, is famous for its lamb, and it is the primary meat there and in Australia. The animals are a part too of the arid regions of the Middle East, Africa, and the steppes of Russia and Mongolia. And, don’t forget the rugged lamb- loaded British Isles, where lamb and mutton are long-time staples.
So why then, with the diverse American population that reflects all of these regions, is it that Americans eat very little lamb, less than a pound per capita, compared to 54 pounds of beef per capita? One would think that because lamb is so lean — on average, a three-ounce serving of lamb has only 75 calories and, according to the American Lamb Council, meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition for lean — it would be an attractive red meat alternative to beef. However, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, except in ethnic enclaves, and the west and east coasts, most American do not consume any lamb, and additionally, the US consumers prefer high-value lamb cuts such as leg roasts, racks, and loin cuts.
Personally, I think it has something to do with a cultural collective memory of a Depression population that passed on to future generations the idea that lamb had a strong, gamey taste. And, I suspect that what they thought of as lamb was actually mutton, a mature sheep, which does have a stronger flavor than lamb, and although I like a nice grilled mutton chop if I can find one, it is an acquired taste.
Memories of bad experiences, even second-hand, are hard to shake, so why, in a restaurant, take a chance of ordering something you are pretty sure you won’t like, or in a market, buying a cut of meat in a market you don’t know how to cook or don’t know what it would taste like if you did.
Consequently, lamb is not continually stocked in retail butcher shops, and a special order may be necessary. And, even then, it is difficult to get the so-called lesser cuts, which are less expensive, but require some cooking skill, other than roasting or grilling, like the shanks, neck, breast and flap, shoulder roasts, kidneys (which I am longing for) and other offal.
Ann and I, who both enjoy lamb, are encouraged to see lamb burgers on menus, standing alongside the time-honored and much beloved hamburgers, and we hope to see the lamb trend expanding. It’s easier to try a gustatory experience with lamb when it’s presented casually, accompanied by condiments we already know and appreciate, like aioli and arugula, than as a major dinner item like leg of lamb.
It’s also easier to begin cooking with lamb when it’s ground, like the familiar hamburger, than it is to launch into Stuffed Breast of Lamb or Deviled Lamb Kidneys, but don’t be surprised once you taste lamb in its burger form to find yourself tracking down other cuts to cook.
As we’ve indicated, lamb is amenable to many different seasonings. This one is a basic Mediterranean version, with some condiment variations suggested. Lamb burgers, for maximum flavor and juiciness should be on the rare side, between 130 and 135 degrees F. To check the internal temperature, insert an instant read thermometer into the center of the burger, half way through.
1 pound lean ground lamb
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
4 thin slices pancetta or thin bacon (optional)
4 Pain de Mie (Brioche-style) soft buns or other buns
In a bowl, combine the lamb, salt, pepper, parsley and rosemary and mix well. Divide into 4 balls, then flatten to make a patty about three-quarters to 1-inch thick. Wrap the optional pancetta or bacon around the edge of each patty and fasten with a toothpick.
Wrap in plastic wrap or foil in a single layer and refrigerate 1 hour or up to 4 hours, before cooking.
Preheat a barbeque grill or build a fire of coals or wood.
When the fire is hot, brush the grill and wipe it with vegetable oil. Place the bun halves on the grill cut side down and brown lightly, about two minutes. Remove. Place the patties on the grill and cook until seared and browned, three to four minutes. Turn. Cook for two minutes, then test for internal temperature. Continue to cook until the desired temperature of between 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit is reached. Place a patty on each of the bottom bun halves and top with the upper half.
Serve hot with condiments of your choice.
Makes four lamb burgers; serves four.
Condiment suggestions: Jalapeno Jelly, Fig Jam, Roasted Tomatoes, Goat Cheese, Pickled Red Onion Slices, Arugula, Butterhead or Romaine Lettuce, Aioli, Horseradish mustard, Mint Pesto.
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) or reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.