Lamb: not for vegetarians

photo by Ben_Kerckx via Pixabay

“He’s a vegetarian.  He doesn’t eat meat.”

“He don’t eat no meat?  What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?  Ohhhh that’s OK, that’s OK.  I make lamb.”

You might be familiar with that rather hilarious scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  “Meat” is taken to mean “beef”.  In fact lamb is not on the menu for vegetarians and vegans, but it’s an important food around the world, particularly for special occasions and religious celebrations.  Lambs are young sheep, and lamb has been on the human menu for thousands of years.  According to the American Lamb website, lambs tolerate a wide range of climate conditions, are not treated with growth hormones* and are raised primarily on a variety of pasture plants.  They’re slaughtered when less than 1 year old, typically between 3 and 5 months of age.  Flavor depends on age at slaughter, breed and what plants the lambs (and mother sheep) have been eating.

Lamb isn’t as common as beef, pork, chicken or even turkey in developed countries.  Per capita consumption in the US is a mere 1.2 lbs/year (beef consumption is almost 80 lbs/person/year).  It tends to be pricey, and some people object to the flavor.  I personally love lamb, and I expect flavor problems may come more from poor cooking technique that the lamb itself.

Nutritionally speaking, lamb has a lot in common with other red meats: high protein, and a good source of minerals like iron and zinc.  Compared to beef, lamb is slightly lower in calories, fat and saturated fat, as well as iron and zinc.  Protein content is about the same.  The lower fat content explains the slightly lower calories.  Lower fat also means slightly different cooking techniques, so the meat doesn’t dry out.

Because lambs tend to be born in spring, leg of lamb has traditionally been a feature of special springtime dinners, such as Easter.  A whole bone-in leg can be intimidating, but you can find boned leg of lamb, which makes cooking and serving much easier.   It’s a good choice for a large group, but it’s not something you cook up on the spur of the moment for one or two people.  One of my favorite cuts of lamb is a steak, sliced horizontally across the leg, leaving a piece of the round leg bone in the center.  You can find leg of lamb steaks in the grocery store.  Grill them as you would any steak, perhaps seasoned with garlic and chopped mint.

Lamb chops are another wonderful and convenient cut, easily grilled.  Lamb shanks and stew meat are great choices for hearty braised dishes, where moisture and slow cooking are important.  But the easiest way to use lamb has to be ground lamb.  You can make lamb burgers, chili or meatballs in a variety of flavors.  Middle Eastern seasonings work especially well, which isn’t surprising as lamb is a traditional food in that region.  I love lamb burgers seasoned with garlic, oregano and chopped mint, topped with sliced tomato and roasted red pepper.  You can find plenty of delicious recipes at American Lamb and from other lamb producer associations.

As for vegetarians, lambs themselves are vegetarians, but vegetarians definitely won’t be eating them.

*Lambs are young animals.  The point of lamb is that it stays young. Growth hormones would push a lamb into adulthood — a sheep.

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