If you think lamb is just for Easter, it may be time to take a new look at one of the world's most popular proteins.
From Australia to Greece, lamb is a staple in many cultures' diets. But in the United States, lamb consumption has lagged behind that of beef and chicken.
That, however, may be changing as more chefs add lamb to their menus and home cooks develop a taste for new cuisines.
Chef Manuel Carr at Lela's in northwest Fresno prominently features lamb in his restaurant. Two of his more popular dishes are the rack of lamb and lamb tenders.
"People really like them because it is not typically the kind of thing they would cook at home," Carr says. "And people are learning that lamb doesn't have to be gamey or tough. It can be tender and flavorful."
Carr pairs the tenders with a savory bread pudding and a red bell pepper and jalapeño chutney.
"Both dishes do very well at the restaurant," Carr says.
One of Carr's sources for lamb is Superior Farms in Dixon. The company has been in business for 50 years and continues to see increased interest in their meat.
Angela Gentry, marketing director for Superior Farms, credits food television shows for boosting lamb's profile. Younger people with a more adventurous appetite also are using lamb in new and simple ways.
"This isn't just something for white table restaurants anymore," Gentry says. "We are seeing more interest in steaks, chops and ground lamb. And they are using them in their weekly meals."
Gentry says consumers are using lamb as a substitute for beef in sliders, tacos and sandwiches.
California ranks as one of leading lamb producers in the nation, second only to Texas. Gentry says imports from New Zealand and Australia have a robust flavor while California's lamb tends to be milder.
Local producer Alice Simons of Page River Bottom Farm in Reedley has lamb available through her Community Supported Agriculture program — www.pageriverbottomfarm.com.
Simons raises Dorper sheep that are known for their succulent meat. The lambs freely roam the Reedley farm's pasture.
"Our customers are looking for a high quality protein," Simons said. "And they feel good knowing how the lambs were raised."
Lamb has long been an important part of the Greek diet and it will take centerstage during Fresno's annual Greek Fest this weekend. The event is Friday to Sunday at the southwest corner of First and Clinton avenues.
Peter Vallis, Greek Fest spokesman, says the volunteer cooks will be serving lamb shanks that are slow cooked for hours.
Souvlaki, the Greek word for skewered meat, are chunks of marinated lamb that are cooked on a grill. Also popular is the lamb loin chops that are seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and grilled on a hot flame.
"If you like lamb, the Greek Fest has what you are looking for," Vallis says.
Oven-baked lamb with potatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, cut in slivers
1 leg of lamb, 4 to 6 pounds
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
1 lemon, halved
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted, or olive oil
1/2 cup water
6 potatoes, peeled, cut into quarters
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste, diluted in 1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon oregano
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Open a few gashes in the meat with a sharp knife; push the slivered garlic deep inside them. Do the same with the rosemary.
Place the meat in a large baking pan. Rub meat with lemon halves; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the bay leaf next to the lamb. Baste meat with some of the melted butter. Pour 1/2 cup water around the meat.
Bake, 1 hour. Add the potatoes all around the meat; pour the tomato paste mixture over the potatoes. Sprinkle with remaining butter, juice from the lemon halves and oregano. Bake, until internal temperature reaches desired doneness, 145 degrees for medium-rare, 1 hour. Allow to rest 15 minutes before carving.
Juicy grilled American lamb burger with caramelized onion, fennel and lemon relish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, cut into thick slices
1 fennel bulb, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 teaspoon honey
1 pinch red chile flakes
Salt and pepper as needed
Zest of 2 lemons (pith removed, the rest finely chopped)
Preheat grill to medium-high. Brush onion and fennel slices with oil; season generously with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat until onion and fennel caramelize and soften, showing grill marks. Reduce heat; continue cooking onion and fennel until soft.
Remove; cool then finely chop. In a bowl, add grilled onion and fennel, rosemary, lemon zest, lemon, honey and chile flakes. Season to taste.
2 pounds ground American lamb
8 dinner rolls, or 4 large buns
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mayonnaise, as needed
Arugula leaves, as needed
Gently form the lamb into 8 burgers; make sure meat is not compressed. Season generously with salt and pepper; grill to desired doneness.
Remove some of the bread from the rolls to make a better bread-to-burger ratio. Grill rolls briefly; cool. Spread both sides of rolls with mayonnaise, spoon on some of the onion relish, some arugula leaves and the cooked lamb burger.
Mango BBQ American lamb tacos
4 American lamb fore shanks
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups fat free chicken broth
2 cups prepared barbecue sauce
2 cups prepared mango chutney
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
8 corn tortillas, warmed
Taco fixings: shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, chopped avocado, mango, chutney and shredded jack and cheddar cheese
Pat lamb shanks dry with paper towels. Season lamb shanks with salt and pepper. In an 8-quart pot with lid, heat oil over high heat. Add lamb shanks two at a time and brown on each side. Repeat process browning all shanks.
Return all shanks to pan. Pour in chicken broth and cook over high heat, reducing broth by one-half.
Stir in barbecue sauce, chutney, cilantro, chili powder, onion and garlic powder. Cover and simmer for 11/2 hours until lamb is tender.
Remove shanks from pan and allow to cool. Reserve sauce in pan. Remove meat from shanks discarding fat and tendons. Shred meat. Add some of the reserved sauce to moisten meat.
To serve: Place meat and all of taco fixings in bowls and invite guests to make tacos.
American lamb gyros with tzatziki
3 pounds boneless American lamb leg, butterflied
Lay lamb leg open on a cutting board. Trim off visible fat. Season lamb generously with salt and pepper; allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before grilling.
2 cups Greek yogurt
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 authentic Greek pitas (not pocket bread)
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and grated on large holes of grater
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced
1 small cucumber, sliced
1 bunch mint leaves
In a medium-sized bowl, combine yogurt, cucumber, dill, mint, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper; keep cold until serving.
Preheat grill to medium-high. Grill lamb leg to medium-rare (remove from heat when thermometer registers between 130 and 135 degrees, or to desired doneness).
Rest lamb, lightly covered, for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Slice lamb across the grain into thin slices.
Place some lamb slices in the middle of each pita; top with tomatoes, cucumber slices, mint leaves and Tzatziki sauce; fold pita like a taco.
Moroccan almond and lamb meatballs
Makes about 50 meatballs
1 pound ground lamb or 1/2 pound ground beef plus 1/2 pound ground lamb
About 1 tablespoon minced red onion
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup almond flour
Mix lamb with onion, garlic, orange, cumin, coriander, mint, salt and egg. Add enough almond flour to make a mixture that is dry enough to easily roll into 1-inch balls. If you overshoot on the dryness, add another egg and gradually add in more ground almonds until you hit the right consistency.
Sauté balls over medium heat for 4 minutes or until all "sides" are nicely browned, shaking the pan often to make sure the meatballs cook evenly. (When you think they're done, remove one and cut it in half to see whether it's cooked through.)
If the meatballs stick to the pan while cooking, add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and carefully move them around to release them.
Serve on a large plate with a toothpick stuck into each meatball to make it easier for guests to serve themselves.