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On the Lamb : Wild Thing!

April 08, 1993|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During World War II, meat was strictly rationed and beefsteaks were few and far between. That is, beef was rationed; lamb wasn't. The government couldn't seriously claim Our Boys at the Front were crying out for lamb.

No question about it, Americans are just not big lamb eaters. But having spent my earliest childhood eating those non-rationed wartime lamb chops, I am, and I will take a sweet little lamb chop, or a skewer of shishkebab crusty with herbs--or, for that matter, a plate of moussaka or curry or Irish stew--over most of the steaks I've ever had.

After the war, my mother kept serving lamb from time to time, usually as a mild and faintly British Sunday dinner of leg of lamb with peas and mashed potatoes. Some people continue to think of lamb as a gentle, springtime sort of meat. True enough, it is the flesh of an immature animal and mildly flavored by comparison with mutton (which most Americans seem afraid to try, too bad for them), but to me, lamb is basically wild .

Beef is a rich, basically domestic sort of meat that goes with carrots, bay and thyme. Lamb has an austere taste by comparison, but it also has an evocative, expansive, outdoorsy flavor that goes with all sorts of things beef scarcely knows what to do with--eggplant, artichokes, olives, lemon, yogurt. Above all, lamb goes superbly well with herbs, especially the louder herbs such as mint, oregano, rosemary and basil. And lamb and garlic were meant for each other from the beginning of time.

Lamb does have one big disadvantage (apart from being more expensive than beef): its fat has a high melting point. If a dish isn't going to be piping hot right down to the last bite, you have to remove every bit of fat you can or a scum of lamb fat will congeal on your teeth and on the roof of your mouth. Serving lamb lean is an aesthetic as well as a health consideration.

This is traditionally the time of year when spring lamb comes on the market; it's also the season when lamb appears as the main course at many Easter and Passover dinners. But there's a lot you can do with lamb besides roasting the leg.

In "French Country Cooking," Elizabeth David writes, "This is a ragout of lamb or mutton to which spring vegetables give special character." To be more precise, it has an irresistible, spring-like quality of innocent charm. David observes that the liquid should be neither very thick nor very thin when the stew is done, but about the consistency of a cream soup.

NAVARIN PRINTANIER (Lamb Stew) 2 to 3 tablespoons butter 3 small onions, diced 1 (2- to 3-pound) shoulder or breast of lamb, cut into 1-inch squares 2 tablespoons flour 2 1/3 to 2 1/2 cups chicken stock Salt, pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons ground rosemary 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 bay leaf 1 pound new potatoes 6 small carrots, peeled and sliced 2 medium turnips, peeled and cut in chunks 1 1/2 pounds frozen small peas, or freshly shelled peas

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and meat and cook until meat and onions are golden. Remove and set aside.

Stir flour into butter remaining in skillet and keep stirring over medium heat until golden brown. Add stock and stir until smooth. Return meat to skillet. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Simmer, covered, until meat is nearly cooked, about 1 hour.

Add potatoes, carrots and turnips. Simmer another 35 to 40 minutes. Then add peas and cook until done, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about: 403 calories; 575 mg sodium; 85 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 3.58 grams fiber.

From "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II" by Julia Child, impressive haute cuisine treatment of an often overlooked cut. The sauce is wonderful.

EPAULE D'AGNEAU FARCIE, VIROFLAY (Stuffed Lamb Shoulder) 1 1/2 cups cooked spinach or 1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed 2 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions 3 large cloves garlic Salt, pepper Mushroom Duxelles 1/2 cup stale bread crumbs 2 1/4 cups chicken stock or bouillon 2/3 cup finely diced ham fat, fresh pork fat or blanched bacon 1 egg 8 to 10 large basil leaves, minced 1 (5- to 6-pound) shoulder of lamb, boned, reserve bones 2 to 3 tablespoons rendered pork fat or vegetable oil 1 large onion, sliced 1 large carrot, sliced 1 cup dry white wine Chicken stock 6 sprigs parsley 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon ground thyme 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons dry white wine or chicken stock

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