February 20th, 2015 by Ed Bruske
After nearly two years of grazing our sheep we were in a state of high excitement to finally taste the result of our efforts, namely one of the three-year-0ld ewes we recently culled from the flock. After bringing the meat home from the butcher, we decided to start with some of the stew meat. And after some two and a half hours cooking slowly on the stove top, I can now saw our mutton is truly delicious.
I don’t know where mutton got such a bad rap. As I’ve said repeatedly, the best “lamb” I ever had came from a 14-year-old ewe I helped slaughter on a farm in Southern Maryland. Yet people invariably back away from mutton because of all the bad things they’ve heard about it: it’s too gamy, too tough, too smelly. Maybe it just depends on where your mutton comes from and how it’s prepared, because I’ve never found any of that to be true.
I would simply describe good mutton as a bit richer than lamb, more complex, beefier.
What is mutton, anyway? I’ve been taught that “lamb” refers to a young animal whose bones are still pliable and somewhat pinkish. Around a year of age, the bone completely ossifies–a bit like losing baby teeth and growing adult teeth. This is probably why in common parlance mutton is classified as any sheep more than a year old. But now that I’m raising sheep myself, I find it hard to believe that those big legs of “lamb” sold in the grocery store actually come from lambs. From what I’ve seen, sheep don’t get that big until well past a year of age. Or maybe I’m wrong about that.
Anyway, we were a bit concerned that somehow our older ewes would be inedible, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, the woman who sold us our sheep routinely sells mutton at a farmer’s market in New York and she says her customers love it. Yet try finding mutton in any store.
If the only mutton you can find is stew meat, do try this simple recipe, although it would work with lamb as well. Brown the meat in bacon grease at the bottom of a heavy pot, seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the meat and brown a medium yellow onion, cut into large dice. Add the meat back to the pot along with a large fistful of baby carrots and 1/4 cup pearled barley. Mix in 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme and 1 bay leaf and add enough chicken stock to almost cover the meat and vegetables. (We used homemade turkey stock.)
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to the lowest possible setting, cover the pot and simmer for two hours, adding more stock should the stew become too dry. At this point, add 2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces, to the pot, cover and continue cooking for about 1/2 hour, or until the potatoes are cooked through. Season as needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve in heated bistro bowls garnished with chopped parsley.
Bon appetit! And don’t let anyone tell you mutton isn’t the best thing ever.