Whether you celebrate Easter or not, the holiday is a sign that spring has arrived. And regardless of where you are geographically, lamb often makes an appearance on Easter and spring menus.
Lamb has reached a certain prominence in U.S. cuisine, but it’s still not as popular here as in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Lamb, (any sheep less than a year old) often has a gamey taste that people either love or hate. Because of these strong flavors, lamb stands up to robust seasonings, one of the many reasons chefs enjoy cooking with it.
David Slater of Emeril’s New Orleans says, “I like how versatile [lamb] is. I like the intensity of flavor. I like it served raw, in tartare, or braised and falling apart; it always keeps that intense flavor.” This is why lamb works so well with Slater’s specialty, Creole cuisine. “We use very bold flavors, bold spices. Lamb is a powerful flavor that matches well with strong Creole flavors.”
Slater has found that customers usually prefer the rack and filet of lamb. But those cuts of meat are very expensive and, in this recession, aren't selling like they used to. “This is a time,” he notes, “when you need to offer people value. Now if I offer a lamb special I offer a less [expensive] cut of meat, but put more time into it, so I’ll braise a shoulder.”
Creative preparations and cuts of lamb are popping up on menus across the country. Bobby Hellen, executive chef at Resto in New York, gets whole animals as often as possible and uses every part. “The head [of lamb] makes the best stock,” he says. “I use the front legs for sausage, the blood for blood sausage, and the tongue if it’s big enough.”
Hellen likes the belly most of all. It's on Resto’s dinner menu with labne and orval-braised beluga lentils. “Lamb belly is the best tasting belly. The fat just melts away at a certain temperature.”
At JoLē in Calistoga, CA, chef and owner Matthew Spector serves Lamb’s Tounge with Fresh Chickpeas, Serrano Chilies, and Feta as an appetizer. “Poaching it with all that garlic really brings out the sweetness. When we slice it and sear it, the tongue gets a nice crispy shell with a creamy center.” Spector says that their menu is designed to encourage people to try things they might not otherwise.
Chef Hellen is optimistic that lamb, and particularly off-cuts, will gain popularity in the way that other meats have. “I don’t know why people are scared of it. People use whole pigs all the time. Hopefully soon there will be an heirloom lamb.”
A special Easter or spring menu is your chance to play with unusual cuts of lamb—and see how they fare with your customers. An Easter menu doesn't have to be stuffy or stale; go for some belly or tongue—they’re unusual cuts, but with traditional flavor.