The Local Ingredient: Lamb

Lamb burgers are not just for Ireland anymore. —Catherine Walthers

It took a trip to Ireland to be reminded how delicious lamb dishes can be. Everywhere you travel there, you see sheep on rolling coastal fields or treeless green hills. You don’t see them just on farms, but very often grazing next to modest rural houses, sometimes escaping fences or stone walls to wander nonchalantly on the narrow, barely passable roads. So it’s not surprising that lamb is featured on most restaurant menus, from tender lamb chops to traditional shepherd’s pie. A sign that read Organic Mountain Lamb Burgers caught our attention in one small town in the Connemara region. The meal was so satisfying — along with a great craft beer — we went back to the same place for dinner the next night.

This is no longer the Ireland where food is routinely dismissed as bland or uninteresting (or worse). We had a number of memorable meals, and took note of the imported and local cheeses, fresh fish in coastal areas, new craft beers, and ubiquitous and delicious scones. The best meal of our trip last summer (which also included France and Italy) was in Dublin, at a neighborhood restaurant called Forest Avenue.

Returning to Martha’s Vineyard after this trip, I kept thinking of the similarities between the two islands, especially the abundance of sheep. I wondered, with at least seven farms here raising sheep, why our chefs weren’t regularly featuring at least one lamb dish on their menus, along with other locally grown or raised fare. I think we are missing out.

Meanwhile, home cooks can try their hand sampling local lamb. Summer is perfect for lamb burgers, topped with cheddar cheese, mint sauce, or yogurt tzatziki. One of my current favorite appetizers is the mini lamb skewers called koftas. These can be made ahead of time and quickly reheated on the grill. Come fall, I’ll be trying some comfort dishes, like lamb shanks or shepherd’s pie topped with mashed potatoes.

Where to buy local lamb:

  • Allen Farm, South Road, Chilmark — look for the “local lamb” sign.
  • Beetlebung Farm Meat, sold in freezers at Beetlebung Tree Care on Cournoyer Road in West Tisbury, the Saturday Farmers Market, and the new Beetlebung Shop in Menemsha.
  • The FARM Institute, which includes lamb in offerings at Saturday’s Farmers Market in West Tisbury.
  • Mermaid Farm, Middle Road, Chilmark, at the self-serve stand.

The Local Lamb Burger
(Serves 4)

1 pound local ground lamb
Cheddar cheese
Summer tomato
Brioche buns from Morning Glory Farm

Form four burgers, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper on both sides. Heat your grill, and grill them to your liking. Add a slice of cheddar cheese when the burger is almost done.

Serve with tomato and lettuce on a hamburger bun. Enjoy!

Lamb Koftas
(Makes about 2 dozen)

No plates or fuss required with these flavorful mini lamb skewers, just a dip into a cooling yogurt sauce. After you mix the lamb with flavorings, you form them and prebake them in the oven. They can then be refrigerated for hours or overnight, and reheated on a grill just before serving.

1 pound ground lamb
½ cup red onion or shallot, finely minced
2 tsp. fresh garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
¼ cup fresh parsley or mint, minced
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. sweet smoked paprika (or ¼ tsp. cayenne)
1 Tbsp. apricot jam
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4- to 6-inch wooden skewers

In a bowl, mix the ground lamb with the minced onion or shallot, apricot jam, garlic, mint, yolks, spices, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. With your hands, take a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and mold onto end of the skewer, in the shape of a football. Place onto the baking sheet, and repeat until you have filled it. Bake the entire sheet for 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, cover with foil and place in the fridge until you are ready to serve. When ready to serve, heat a grill. Oil grates well. Reheat the lamb skewers until they have grill marks on both sides and are hot, just a few minutes. Place on a platter with the yogurt sauce in a small bowl.

Mint Yogurt Sauce
(Makes about 2½ cups)

Serve with the lamb koftas, or with the lamb burgers instead of cheddar cheese.

2 cups plain whole milk yogurt
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. garlic, finely minced
2 tsp. lemon juice
¼ cup fresh cilantro or mint (or combo), chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste

Drain yogurt into a colander, lined with a coffee filter or a few paper towels, for 20 to 30 minutes to thicken (like Greek yogurt).

Combine with olive oil, cumin, garlic, lemon, cilantro or mint, parsley, salt and pepper.