Tender, loving care for lamb

GOT THE CHOPS: Lamb rack with fennel seed and black pepper crust, with roasted garlic agria mash.
GOT THE CHOPS: Lamb rack with fennel seed and black pepper crust, with roasted garlic agria mash.

There may be nothing like a traditional lamb roast, but that shouldn't be an excuse for not trying other ways with our our most famous flesh.

Spring lamb is without a doubt a Kiwi national dish, much loved and well known. In fact, the history of European settlement of New Zealand is punctuated with the development of lamb and sheep farming. It is a massive industry even though it is not quite as grand as it was 50 years ago, as we have matured economically and diversified our trade.

What we can say is that both wool and meat production is central to our economy and is synonymous with our identity as a nation.

There are more than 40 breeds of sheep raised in New Zealand, both for wool production and meat, many of the meat varieties being a romney cross. New Zealand is the largest exporter of lamb meat and most of it goes to the European Union, followed by North America. Nine-tenths of our export lamb is processed into value-added cuts before export.

There would be very few Kiwis who have not eaten lamb at some time in their lives and, for the carnivores among us, lamb is a staple part of our diets. Lamb chops, lamb racks, leg of lamb, lamb fillets, lamb shoulder and lamb shanks are all equally delicious.

The sheep snobs out there might tell you they much prefer the taste of mutton (more than two years old) or hogget (more than one year old) to lamb. They might tell you that lamb isn't tasty enough. It is obviously a matter of taste. I find mutton too gamey and strong tasting and prefer the more delicate flavour of lamb, which by definition must be under a year old.

The Sunday roast of my childhood – leg of lamb, roast potatoes, baby peas and mint sauce (always made with malt vinegar) – still evokes warm memories. Plainly cooked, the quality of the meat stood for itself.

My first experience of lamb studded with cloves of garlic is indelibly etched in my memory. I think the versatility of lamb and the fact the meat combines so beautifully with a wide range of herbs and spices is what makes it such a special meat.

Lamb is enjoyed in many parts of the world. It is one of the oldest recorded meats to be eaten, which probably explains why it appears in the cuisine of a wide range of cultures. It combines brilliantly with a wide variety of herbs and spices to infuse and adorn it, each time making the taste so different.

New Zealand lamb is prized because it is low in fat cover and inter-muscular fat, it has no chemical residues and it is known for its tenderness and versatility. Grass-fed lamb, as ours is, contains high levels of CLA fatty acid, known for its cancer fighting properties. It is high in protein, iron, Vitamin B12 and B3, zinc and phosphorus.

The meat that is the most tender and can be cooked quickly comes from the loin or rump, followed by the leg, with the shoulder and shanks requiring longer cooking using a braising or stewing method. Lamb can be eaten rare and medium rare, just like beef.

Kiwis traditionally have cooked lamb well done, but for the tender cuts, such as a rack of lamb, it is more delicious if it is served pink or medium rare. In other countries, such as France, you will always be served lamb medium rare.

For those of you from an Anglo Saxon heritage who only cook lamb plainly and simply like your grandmother and great grandmother did, this is the time to branch out and experiment. Try three different approaches: the French, the Italian and the Moroccan.

The French combine lamb with garlic and tarragon, the Italians garlic, fennel, oregano, rosemary and sage, the Moroccans combine with an array of spices, such as cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.


Serves 2

1 trimmed rack of lamb
1 tsp of fennel seeds
1 tsp of dried oregano
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp of sea salt
1 tsp of black peppercorns

Carefully remove the layer of muscle from the top of the rack – this increases the tenderness of the meat.

In a mortar and pestle, combine the other ingredients, pounding together into a smooth paste.

Smother the rack in the herb mixture and set aside for 15 minutes.

Heat the grill in your oven.

Place the rack in a roasting dish and place under the grill. Cook until golden brown on both sides. Test the meat by pressing down on it with the flat side of a knife. For medium rare, you should be able to feel some "springiness" to the meat. For well-done, the meat will feel firmer. The time will depend on the thickness of the rack. It should take about 7-8 minutes on each side.

Take the lamb rack out of the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes before slicing each of the chops off the rack with a sharp knife. Serve with garlic mashed potatoes or white beans with garlic, and a green salad with balsamic vinegar dressing. (Regular readers will recall these recipes appeared in the Fresh garlic feature in late December.)


Serves 6-8

Have your butcher bone out a leg of lamb or try doing it yourself. Once it is butterflied, lie it out flat and, with a sharp knife, cut it in a criss-cross pattern on both sides. Stud the cuts with slices of garlic – 3-4 cloves should be enough.

Finely slice a handful of French tarragon leaves and rub the herb into the meat all over on both sides.

Heat the barbecue to medium hot and lightly oil the surface of the meat and the grill. Cook for about 30 minutes for medium rare and 40 minutes for well done. Turn the meat once. Make sure that the grill does not get too hot,

Let it rest for 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with salads.


Serves 6

For the tagine:

1kg lamb shoulder
4 cloves garlic chopped
2 Tbsp of finely chopped ginger
2 Tbsp of spice mixture, below
1/4 cup of honey
1 tsp of saffron threads dissolved in 1/2 cup of boiling water
1 cup of beef or chicken stock
1 cup of pitted prunes
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup of fresh chopped coriander

Spice mixture:

Combine 1 tsp each of coriander, cumin and fennel seeds, toast in a dry pan until they become aromatic, and grind to a fine powder.
Add 1 tsp each of ground turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and cayenne; 1/2 tsp each of ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and salt.
Mix the spices together well and store in sealed jar.

Cut the meat into chunks and heat 4 Tbsp of oil in a tagine or large casserole. Brown the meat and then remove from the pan.

Add the onion, garlic and ginger and more oil if needed, to the pan and cook gently.

Add the spice mix and incorporate it well. Put the meat back into the pot and add the honey, saffron and soaking water, stock and half of the chopped coriander. Cover and cook over gentle heat for about an hour.

Add the prunes and continue to cook for another 30-45 minutes. Test the meat to make sure it is tender. Serve with the rest of the fresh coriander sprinkled on top, with rice, couscous or quinoa.

The Nelson Mail