Lamb

Lamb

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

When it comes to meat, there is little doubt that in the wealthy West we are well and truly spoilt for choice. Whether it is the ham in our lunchtime sandwich, the minced beef in our takeaway burger, or our Sunday roast, most of us are used to eating meat in one form or another, virtually every day. The vegetables, salads, grains and pulses which accompany it are often eaten only in a grudging nod to nutritional balance or as mere stomach filler-uppers. Consumption of meat, once upon a time an expensive treat and a symbol of wealth and extravagance, has now become the norm.

This is certainly not the case in most developing countries (and this means the majority of the world’s population), where meat is still considered something of a luxury, eaten more as a condiment to flavour starchy staples, and often only on religious feast days and special family celebrations. Many countries around the Middle East and Mediterranean are in this category, even though times are changing and different types of meat are more freely available. What little meat is eaten, however, is almost certain to be lamb. In fact, older Arabic cookery books often vaguely refer to ‘meat’ without specifying from which animal it should come. This is because traditionally the term ‘meat’ was virtually synonymous with lamb or mutton (or sometimes kid and goat), as they were the only meats readily available.

Sheep were one of the very first animals to be domesticated, as early as 9000 BC, by the nomads of the Central Asian steppes who reared them as much for their woolly coats and milk and their tallow fat as for their meat. Sheep were easy to tame, having a strong herd instinct, being quick to breed and easy to graze on scrubby hillsides and grasslands. By the time cattle were domesticated, several thousand years later, they were generally considered far too valuable as draught animals to be eaten and, to this day, much of the terrain around the eastern Mediterranean and Levant countries is too poor for cattle breeding and dairy farming.

In the hot Middle East, pig farming was not viable, as pigs are temperamental animals, generally resistant to herding, and greedy scavengers rather than grass-grazers. Although pork was widely eaten and enjoyed by most early civilisations, the annoying tendency of pigs to roam, coupled with their reputation for spreading disease and parasites, eventually led to taboos surrounding their consumption among two of the major religions of the Middle East, Judaism and Islam.

Lamb, on the other hand, has become strongly associated with many different cultural and religious festivities around the world and particularly in the Middle East. For Christians, a paschal lamb has a deep spiritual significance at Easter as the symbol of Christ. Lamb is also the meat of choice at Jewish and Muslim feast days. The Jewish celebrations of Passover and New Year would be unthinkable without lamb, and Muslim countries ritually slaughter and feast on whole roasted lambs on religious holidays and at wedding feasts or other family celebrations.

Selecting and storing lamb

Lamb is eaten at every age from a few weeks to several years old. The animal that we eat most of the year around is generally between 3 months and a year old. New season spring lamb is also available – usually at a higher price – and is tender and juicy, although its flavour is often milder.

Two other extremes are baby milk-fed lambs (2–4 weeks old), weighing 4–6 kilograms, which are available from some specialist butchers and are a special delicacy in the Arab world. Their meat is sweet, delicate and buttery-soft, as befits an animal which has not yet tasted a blade of grass. At the other end of the age spectrum is mutton, which is hard to find. At least two years old, it has a strong pungent flavour, which some people adore, and its mature meat requires really slow long cooking to tenderise.

Young lamb is a vivid rosy-pink, whereas the older animals and mutton turn a deeper, more purple red. Avoid meat which looks brown and tired. The fat should be white and dry, not yellow and wet.

Using lamb

There are myriad different cuts available to consumers these days and you need to choose the appropriate cut for each particular dish.

In the Middle East, whole lambs roasted on a spit for festive occasions are often baby or milk-fed lambs, which are greatly enjoyed for their delicate and very tender meat. Cuts from older lambs also lend themselves very well to roasting. The European tradition is usually to roast the leg, shoulder or racks (from the best end of the neck), perhaps flavoured with garlic and rosemary, and eat with roasted vegetables and gravy. In the Middle East, lamb is more likely to be stuffed with rice, fruit and nuts.

Braised dishes are often simmered long and slowly, using cheaper cuts from the shoulder, neck or shank and eked out with lots of vegetables and pulses. Much of the thrill of these dishes comes from the elaborate and subtle combinations of many different spices and herbs, or from simmering with fruits such as apricots, dates or quinces.

And then there are minced meat dishes, which are a mainstay of Arabic, Jewish and Turkish cooking. These offer an economical way of using tougher cuts of meat, by pounding or grinding them into a fine paste, adding a generous pinch of carefully selected spices, and then rolling into tiny meatballs for frying or for cooking in a thick sauce or casserole. Spicy minced lamb is also shaped into long sausages around skewers for grilling over hot coals. It is also the main ingredient for the legendary Lebanese dish kibbeh, which can be fried or eaten raw.

All around the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean the air is filled with the savoury aroma of sizzling grilled lamb, known as ‘meshwi’, which is sold from humble street stalls and kiosks everywhere. The technique of packing tender tasty little morsels of meat onto skewers or spits, and then grilling them over flames or glowing charcoal was reputedly first used by Ottoman soldiers during their long battle campaigns. Being constantly on the move, camping out of doors and having only small amounts of fuel led to this practice of quickly grilling tiny pieces of meat over intense heat.

This style of quick grilling over fierce heat is perfectly suited to the most tender cuts of lamb. These days they are marketed as ‘trim’, with much of the fat removed to suit the anti-fat brigade. They are usually fillets, cut from the loin or leg. Because the meat is lean, it needs to be brushed with oil to keep it moist and to stop it from sticking.

Recipes in this Chapter

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