The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Wow: Mutton Shanks

February 27th, 2015 by Ed Bruske

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Recently we dipped our toes into our new world of mutton with a simple stew and our sheep passed. But last night was the real test: shank, our favorite cut. The results were superb. Even my wife judged this slow-braised dish “excellent,” which is extremely important for the viability of our little farm. Years ago, when I was a freelancing food writer, my wife lost her taste for lamb after I subjected her to too much in the way ovine recipe research. Now that we are herders of sheep, the basement chest freezer is bound to fill with meat needing to be eaten.

We claimed for ourselves one of the two ewes recently culled from our flock. Both these ladies were nearly three years old. Could the meat possibly be edible? My own view is that mutton–from older sheep–is superior to young lamb, much as an aged Cabernet Sauvignon would outshine an ordinary red wine. The texture is very much the same, but the flavors are deeper, earthier, more complex. Yet there’s none of that “gamey” taste that people apparently fear from mutton. My guess is that very few people have ever eaten true mutton to actually know the difference. Or, they have eaten mutton that was incorrectly labeled “lamb” from the supermarket and didn’t even realize.

We are partial to the heartier cuts of meat that require long, slow cooking. Unfortunately, one sheep has only four shanks to give, so do take care in how you prepare them. The recipe I used derives originally from the Union Square Cafe in New York. The meat is initially seasoned and browned, of course, then cooked in a 250-degree oven for three hours in a broth of white wine and stock flavored with rosemary and mint. When the meat is practically falling off the bone, the lid comes off the pot and the dish bakes another 30 minutes with the oven temperature raised to 500 degrees.

Along with a salad, we served it with a mash of potatoes and celery root–a perfect winter meal, to our minds.

Bon appetit!

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Our First Mutton Stew

February 20th, 2015 by Ed Bruske

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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.

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