Little lambs remain a springtime favourite

As a nation we like to talk about the weather it is our ‘got to’ ice breaker for any and every occasion. It is strange that we have such a fascination with the elements given that we live in a relatively moderate climate and extremes are unusual. However, this winter has been one of them. It has been very difficult to watch as the farmers in the North of Ireland struggle against high walls of compacted snow. It’s lambing season, but one seriously hampered by the weather and, sad to say, in some situations completely annihilated. It seems so wrong to see little lambs with snow all around when they should be lolloping around green, dewy fields.

As a nation we like to talk about the weather it is our ‘got to’ ice breaker for any and every occasion. It is strange that we have such a fascination with the elements given that we live in a relatively moderate climate and extremes are unusual. However, this winter has been one of them. It has been very difficult to watch as the farmers in the North of Ireland struggle against high walls of compacted snow. It’s lambing season, but one seriously hampered by the weather and, sad to say, in some situations completely annihilated. It seems so wrong to see little lambs with snow all around when they should be lolloping around green, dewy fields.

Thankfully the sun has been shining down here in the South the last few days and suddenly there’s a glimpse of the proper season. That mix of watery sunshine and longer evenings triggers those lamb thoughts instantly. Going for the papers last Sunday morning people were generally in slightly lighter clothes, one or two slightly shivering, but putting it up to the weather all the same. I imagined them all scurrying home for a leg of lamb roast. I’m not sure if there is anything more elegantly simple, succulent and tasty than spring lamb. With the major advances in animal husbandry lamb is now available year round, but I’m glad to say high demand is still intrinsically linked with springtime.

Today’s lambs are tender creatures, except for the shanks, neck and shoulder. Even these not so tender parts make wonderful dishes if cooked correctly, which usually means slowly. I love slow cooked lamb shanks in tinfoil parcels. It’s a superb rustic dish and visually appealing and considering it uses one of the cheapest parts of the lamb, an absolute winner if you want to stretch a few euro. However it does take around 4 hours in the oven so it’s a meal you need to plan. On a flat piece of tinfoil lay up some slices of carrots, onion, leek and celery, then liberally butter the lamb shank and sprinkle with coriander and pop on top of the vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Pull up the sides of the tin foil to form a parcel. Pour in about a half to a glass of white wine into each foil packet. Place in the oven at around 140° for 3 to 4 hours, depending on the size of the shanks. The rest of a lamb is tender enough to be cooked by dry heat like grilling and roasting. Even shoulder chops can be grilled, although personally I prefer a moist heat method such as braising.

When it comes to roasting you just can’t beat the leg and I like to dress it with fresh rosemary and garlic; classic but simple. I usually use 1 tablespoon of good quality olive oil, 2 good dollops of Dijon mustard (lovely and mild), 1 tablespoon of chopped, fresh rosemary, 1 teaspoon of rock salt (Maldon is an excellent brand), half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and 1 tablespoon of minced garlic (roughly 2 to 3 cloves). Mix all of these ingredients together to form a rough paste. Brush the meat with this mustard and rosemary paste and let it sit for up to two hours at room temperature before cooking.

The leg is probably the most versatile cut of the lamb. While it is sold on the bone it can also be completely boned and is often found butterflied, rolled, and tied for roasting. This type of roast is perfect for stuffing; just remove the net, fill the cavity left by the bone with a stuffing of choice and tie it up again. Half legs of lamb are also available but for information the shank end is less meaty and a bit chewy; the sirloin end is meatier and tender, but either makes an ideal roast for about four people.

I like my lamb accompanied by oven roasted herbed potatoes. Recently though I found a lovely recipe for boulangere potatoes where you allow the juices from the lamb drip down into the potatoes while cooking and this really is a treat. You can keep the whole spring theme running through the meal with young, barely cooked fresh green beans.

When it comes to leftover lamb I would encourage you to break out and explore the spicier, more aromatic side of life. Lamb is very popular in Asian cooking, particularly traditional Indian dishes. If you haven’t conquered the art of Asian cooking, experimenting with leftovers is a good place to start. Try a simple lamb korma or lamb byrianni for a refreshing change.

As it happens I stumbled across a relatively new small indoor farmer’s market on my travels recently. One stand was selling slabs of freshly backed red onion, gruyere and rosemary bread. I felt they were a little expensive, but I bought them as a treat. I made a braised lamb dish to go with last week’s cold weather and instead of potatoes or rice we had the bread as an accompaniment instead. It was great and made a nice change from the usual. There are plenty of these easy, rustic bread recipes floating around and so I am on a mission to try and make some different varieties. Watch this space for how I get on. Don’t forget it you want any further information on lamb or how to work with different cuts drop by our website or call into James Whelan Butchers in the Oakville Shopping Centre, Clonmel.

Gigot Lamb Chops with Paprika

Both economical and really easy!

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 gigot chops, trimmed

1 teasp. smoked paprika

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 tablesp. olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Selection of stir-fried vegetables to serve i.e. mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, scallions

To Cook

Method

Combine the paprika, garlic, olive oil and seasoning. Place the chops in a dish and pour over the marinade. Leave for as long as you have. 15- 20 minutes is perfect for new season lamb.

Heat a pan or barbecue and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, depending on thickness, until golden.

Heat a little more oil in a wok or large frying pan and stri-fry the vegetables for a couple of minutes.

Serve the chops with the vegetables and your favourite potatoes or some crusty bread.

Boulangere Potatoes are delicious if you have time – simply layer some thinly sliced potatoes and shallots or onions in a baking dish. Add seasoning and a few more knobs of butter as you do the layers. Finish off with some chicken stock. Bake for 40 minutes until the potatoes are tender.