Get a Leg Up on Spring: Ham and Lamb 101

Table set for spring featuring flowers and hamAs I drive around Central Texas and see the wildflowers in bloom or sit on my back porch enjoying the lovely Spring weather, my mind turns to Spring menus and two of my favorite main ingredients: ham and lamb. While both are very popular centerpieces for an Easter table, I love to serve them all season long. They pair beautifully with the bounty of vegetables that are coming into season, and they look beautiful on the dinner table.

While I’ve purchased and cooked both ham and lamb for many years, I’ve never really made a serious study of either. Given that all I learned about turkey for my Turkey Buying 101 post had such a significant impact on the way I selected and cooked my Thanksgiving bird, I decided a similar knowledge gathering exercise for ham and lamb was in order. Luckily, Howard Miller, the meat guru from Central Market, was more than willing to share his extensive experience with me once again. I’m happy to report that buying ham and lamb isn’t quite as multi-faceted as buying a turkey, but there are some important things you should keep in mind as you go forth to acquire your spring meat.

Ham – The Heat and Eat Favorite

When most of us think about ham during the Spring, and honestly during just about any other season, we think about a smoked ham that is ready to eat. Fresh ham, AKA pork roast, definitely has its place but doesn’t show up nearly as frequently as the ubiquitous smoked ham. Smoked ham is such a favorite from table to table for two reasons:

  1. It’s part of our culinary memory. My mother serves ham during the spring just like my grandmother before her and my great-grandmother before her. For some, the Easter table in particular simply isn’t the same without ham. During our discussion Howard did say that he thinks ham doesn’t take quite the starring role that it did in past years. Now, instead of being the only meat on the table, it may be one of a couple of main course selections, but make no mistake, it’s still there.
  2. It’s easy. Ham is pretty much a no-fail dish. You heat it according to package directions and serve it. If cooking a big meal for friends and family causes you stress, ham is a perfect main dish because it’s one less recipe you have to find and make. Conversely, if you enjoy the thrill of putting together an over-the-top menu, ham is still a great option because it frees you to focus on fantastic side dishes and exceptional desserts.

Buying Ham: The Basics

In the past, many hams were bone-in with a layer of fat on them. These more traditional hams have been largely replaced by the spiral sliced ham. When selecting your spiral sliced ham, you’ll need to consider two things:

  1. How much to buy. Depending on the appetites of your guests, the number of other dishes you’re making, and the amount of ham you want left over, you should plan between 4 and 8 ounces of ham per person. If ham is one of a couple of main dishes and you have 3-4 side dishes plus dessert, then the 4 ounce per person range is probably better. However, if ham is the star of the show or you want quite a bit for leftovers, then buy 6 to 8 ounces per person. Ham is sold in whole or half ends and besides their weight, there’s no difference between them.
  2. Glazed or not. Many hams come with some sort of glaze for additional flavor. Honey is common, as in honey baked ham, but fruit-based flavors are also popular. Whether you buy your ham with extra flavor added or not is entirely based on personal preference. I tend to buy my ham without the extra flavor so I can put my own personal touch on it and also because I can better control the ingredients in the glaze to avoid corn syrup and other unnatural additives. If you do buy an already flavored ham, be sure to read the ingredient list carefully.

What about Organic Ham?

They key to a successful smoked ham is the brine, and when you brine and smoked a meat it gets harder for the entire process to stay organic. You can get hams that are organic and nitrite free, but they may not have the smoky flavor you are looking for. While organic ham may be harder to come by, ham from sustainably raised pigs are easier to come by, thanks in large part to the wonders of the Internet. The Kitchn has a great article on sources for sustainable ham. Many of these producers raise heirloom variety pigs and feed them organic diets, so they may be your best option if

Ham Recipes

If you’re like me and prefer to buy an unflavored or unglazed ham so you can put your personal touch on it, here are some recipes you might find useful:

Lamb – The Fool-Proof Meat with the Bad Reputation

Thanks to years of old, tough, rank mutton being offered up as lamb, true lamb has developed somewhat of a sullied reputation. This is truly unfortunate seeing that today’s lamb is exceptionally tasty and so very easy to cook. It’s versatile, readily available, and a lighter red meat option. It looks lovely surrounded by the other flavors of spring: asparagus, artichokes, citrus, and new potatoes. Are you sold? I hope so. A Spring without lamb really just isn’t Spring at all.

Now, on to the business of procuring lamb.

Buying Lamb: Sources

Most of the lamb available in the United States is from one of three places:

  • Domestic sources. Lamb is raised throughout the United States. Close to Austin, Loncito Cartwright raises grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free lamb that he sells at local farmers markets. At our local Central Markets, we have access to lamb from Colorado, and in El Paso where I was raised my parents buy fresh lamb from San Elizario. Howard said that American lamb is usually milder than other lamb because of its grass-fed diet, and when you buy lamb from the US, it’s typically available fresh.
  • New Zealand and Australia. The Aussies have a very productive lamb business and they regularly ship their lamb to the United States. This imported lamb is usually smaller than domestic lamb, and it may be less expensive than American lamb, particularly at large warehouse clubs like SAMs. Because the lamb has to be shipped half way around the world, it will have been frozen at some point during its journey.

I’ll be honest and say that I buy my lamb from several different sources. For special occasions or when I’m buying less expensive cuts of lamb, I will buy from Loncito at the farmers market. Loncito’s lamb tends to be the most expensive of all the lamb in town, but it’s important to our entire food chain to support our local farmers. I also buy lamb regularly from Central Market, particularly when I want to buy just a single rack of lamb chops or a lamb London broil. However, when it’s time to feed lamb to a crowd, I turn to SAMs for lamb from New Zeland. The quality is good as is the price, making lamb a viable option for my dinner table regardless of the number of guests.

Buying Lamb: Cuts

When buying lamb, particularly for the Spring holidays, two cuts stand out:

  • Leg of lamb. A good size leg of lamb will feed a crowd nicely and it’s usually available at a manageable price point. Howard’s advice is to have the butcher remove the leg bone and tie the leg for you so it cooks evenly. Unlike other meats that rely on a bone for moistness and flavor, lamb has enough flavor and cooks quickly enough that you don’t need the bone (or much fat even) to get a good result. Howard’s favorite way to cook a leg of lamb is simple. Make small slits all over the lamb and push cloves of garlic down into each slit. Rub the entire leg with olive oil, and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Brown it on all sides in a little oil in heavy pan and then finish it in a 375 degree oven.
  • Rack of lamb. Lamb racks make for a beautiful presentation and they are one of the easiest cuts of meat to cook. For a section of lamb ribs to be called a rack, the bones have to be Frenched (or have all of the meat and fat removed from the top of the bone). A rack typically has 8 rib sections, and a serving for one person is usually two rib sections, unless you’re our family and then it’s four. Two racks are perfect for a small dinner party and they look beautiful on a bed of herbed rice. Howard is a fan of simple preparation of lamb. Rub the outside with oil and salt, and maybe some strong herbs like rosemary and thyme. Brown the lamb in a heavy pan and finish it in a 375 degree oven. You can also cut the rack into individual ribs, season them with salt and pepper, and cook them quickly over hot, direct heat on the stove or grill. This is the best way to guarantee even cooking and it’s a perfect option if you want to serve “lamb pops” as an appetizer.

Regardless of the cut, when you’re buying lamb, try to buy it as close to the day you plan to serve it as possible. Unlike beef, lamb doesn’t age well.

What about Organic Lamb

Lamb isn’t the least expensive meat to raise in the first place, and when you add the requirements of organic ranching into the fray, organic lamb can be expensive and difficult to find. It’s not impossible however. While you may not find organic lamb at your local grocery store as you would organic chicken or even beef, you can order it online. A quick Google search turned up a slew of organic lamb sources. If you happen to leave near one of these suppliers you’ll have the extra benefit of buying local organic lamb – the holy grail of lamb as it were.

Lamb Recipes

Lamb works beautifully with stronger herbs and other flavors because it has enough flavor to hold its own. If you’re not quite sure what to do with your Spring lamb, here are a few recipes to get you going:

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