There are fashions in meat, as in all things, but... Are you ready for lamb bacon?
That's just one of the new dishes popping up on menus across the country as chefs experiment with American lamb, a trend driven partly by a concerted effort on the part of producers to shake off lamb's dated image. Fussy crown roasts topped by tricky little frilled caps — out. "Lamb Jams," cooking contests featuring local chefs getting their grill on — in.
"We're definitely trying to approach a whole new generation and make lamb more approachable," said Megan Wortman, executive director of the Denver-based American Lamb Board.
Why lamb now?
New Hampshire sheep farmer Jeff Conrad sees the trend as riding the wave of eating local. "People want to know where their food's coming from," he said. Conrad, who with his wife, Liz, runs Riverslea Farm near Epping, has noticed an increase in people buying lamb cuts for everyday meals, as opposed to previous years when he sold mainly whole animals to families looking to have a party.
"Ground lamb? We can't even keep that around," he said.
For chefs, cooking with lamb is something new, giving them a chance to stretch creatively. And if you use the lesser-known cuts — such as the neck and belly — it also can be cheaper, good for budget-stretching, said Matt Accarrino, executive chef at SPQR in San Francisco.
"I've been calling 2010 the year of the lamb," he said with a laugh. "I'd rather have a lamb belly than a lamb rack. Braised and glazed, long and slow-cooked — it's a very versatile cut. It's much less expensive than, say, the rib chops. You see a lot of people working with lamb neck."
Across the country, Mike Price, chef/owner of Market Table in New York City, has been selling more lamb and fewer steaks, "which I think is a good thing. I'm a big fan of lamb."
With its distinctive taste and slight gamey-ness, you don't need a huge portion to make a statement, which also contributes to cost-effectiveness, said Price.
Of course, in the wrong hands, that distinctive flavor can morph into something rather unpleasant. Accarrino can remember facing gray, tough roasts as a child, often accompanied by equally abused brussels sprouts.
"You've got to let the lamb speak for itself," agreed Price. "Overcooked is overcooked. It's going to be dry and it's going to be tough."
Lamb is showing up at the retail level, too, with more and different cuts available. Many supermarkets now regularly carry ground lamb, which can be the basis for some delicious burgers.
"I feel like we're definitely selling more lamb," said Tia Harrison, co-owner and butcher at Avedano's Holly Park Market in San Francisco. A popular cut is the shoulder chop, something she has on the menu at Sociale, the restaurant she co-owns. "Lamb goes beautifully with rosemary and garlic and olive oil."
Harrison gets her lamb from Sonoma Direct, a Northern California processing plant, where executive director Marissa Guggiana has noticed an increased acceptance of "some of the strange cuts," partly because local chefs are buying whole lambs.
She's seen a lot of lamb charcuterie, grilled lamb neck and also noticed that "lamb bacon is a chef-y kind of trend."
Lamb has a long way to go before it becomes a staple in the United States. On average, Americans consume only 1 pound per person annually, and one-third have never even tried it, according to Wortman. Compare that to federal figures from 2008 showing Americans on average ate about 61 pounds of beef, 59 pounds of chicken and 46 pounds of pork per capita.
American lamb producers aren't the only ones trying to boost lamb consumption. Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), which represents that country's lamb industry, has been promoting lamb by way of magazine ads and events aimed at getting quick service restaurants and casual dining chains to consider lamb, said Steve Edwards, the group's business development manager.
"We want to try and get chefs to think outside of the rack, mainly because it's probably the most expensive item of lamb you can get. Once they think the rack is too expensive for their menu, then they don't think of lamb any further," he said.
The idea is to blend global methods of cooking lamb with American mainstream models, hence a lamb burger contest MLA is sponsoring with Plate magazine.
Lamb also was the focus of a recent outing of the popular "Takedown" series, with 20 amateur chefs bringing their best stuff to The Bell House in Brooklyn. Among the prize winning dishes: "Harissa Explains It All," and "Wham Bam Thank You Lamb."
It may be hip to eat lamb, but back in New Hampshire, Conrad sees the cloud behind this silver lining.
"It seems to be making me work 10 days a week," he said.