Dijon mustard adds a surprisingly delicate touch to these simple, flavorful lamb chops, pan seared and finished in the oven. Recipe below.
Our love affair with lamb is pretty much a year-round thing. So when the American Lamb Board asked us if we’d like to help get the word out about an actual Lamb Lover’s Month—February, as it happens—we jumped at the chance.
There are a lot of things to love about lamb, starting with its distinctively rich, mild, sweet taste. Too much has been made of its gaminess, I think. As I said when I wrote about lamb stew, “that gamy flavor—as the dictionary defines it, ‘having the tangy flavor or odor of game’—is what makes lamb special. It’s the same quality that separates venison from beef and duck from chicken. And while I love a good steak or roast chicken, there’s just something exciting about the ‘wildness’ of game.” Even though lamb has a more intense flavor than beef, it also seems somehow lighter than beef to me.
Lamb is also lighter on the environment. Sheep are generally raised in ways that are easier on the planet and on the animals themselves than other animals raised for meat. They’re naturally grazing animals, not suited for factory farming and feedlots. With improved animal husbandry practices, much American lamb is raised with little or no feed grain. Instead of requiring the production of feed grain with its attendant fertilizer and pesticide requirements, sheep actually contribute to healthy land. They do so by grazing omnivorously and keeping weeds in check without the use of pesticides and, well, by providing natural fertilizer.
In fact, when Harry and Gwen Carr started Mint Creek Farm in downstate Illinois, they originally brought in sheep to help them revitalize the farmed-out land they’d bought. Their plan was to plant pastures with a mix of perennial grasses and rotationally graze the sheep to enrich the soil. Quickly, though, raising sheep became the focus of their farm. They now supply 100% grass-fed lamb to farmers markets and select grocers in Chicago. They also sell lamb nationwide through their website.
Sheep are ubiquitous in America, raised in all 50 states. They’re highly adaptable to a wide range of climates, at home from the rolling hills of California to the high desert country of Idaho and native grasslands of Pennsylvania. In all, more than 70,000 American sheep operations produce more than six million sheep a year. Sheep operations are just as varied, ranging from farm flocks of 50 or fewer animals to range operations of 1,000 or more.
Lamb producers are stewards of the land, managing their pastures and rangelands as sustainable resources. They use great care in shepherding their flocks to protect water and avoid overgrazing. Sheep in the United States actually contribute to the environmental balance by grazing vegetation in a way that creates healthier land. And they help control invasive weeds without the use of herbicides.
The farmers, ranchers and others who raise sheep are just as vigilant when it comes to their animals’ well-being. Pennsylvania rancher Keith Martin, whose celebrity chef customers include the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, feels that reverence and respect for the animals should extend from the farmer to the chef to the consumer. “Do I need to know how to cook? Does the chef need to know how to raise sheep? No, but we are both ingrained in the process in different ways. The chef relies on me to raise lamb with a superior flavor profile. The greatest expression for the lamb is for the chef to know how to cook it right,” Martin says. “The consumer’s role is to respect that there is a lot more on the plate than just a piece of meat. That’s the connection and the intimacy we’re bringing to the table.”
As we all become more aware of where our food comes from, we can’t help but think about the people who produce it. When we started talking about Lamb Lover’s Month—okay, and full disclosure here, the beautiful lamb loin chops the American Lamb Board provided for this post—Marion remembered a book she’d read some time ago that beautifully records a way of life that has all but vanished. In his memoir This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig tells of growing up in the rugged Montana wilderness with his grandmother and his father, Charlie, a restless man who worked various jobs as he and his son moved from place to place—sheepherding, haying, ranching… First published in 1978, This House of Sky is still in print and deservedly so. I’ve just started reading it and am already enthralled by Doig’s ability to capture not just the harshness and beauty of the Montana landscape, but the powerful ways place and family shape us.
As many times as I’ve cooked with mustard, I always forget how delicate it can become. In this dish, Dijon mustard mingles with thyme and the juices from the lamb and loses its sharp vinegary edge, delivering instead a subtle brightness that balances the lamb’s richness. So celebrate Lamb Lover’s Month—with this recipe or any number of recipes you’ll find at the American Lamb Board’s website. Chances are you’ll become a year-round lamb lover like us.
Lamb Chops with Dijon Mustard and Thyme
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 loin lamb chops, 4 to 5 ounces each, about 3/4-inch thick
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Mix Dijon mustard and thyme in a small bowl, stirring to combine. Set aside. Pat lamb chops dry with a paper towel and score the fat along the chops’ sides with a knife to prevent curling when cooking. Season generously with salt and pepper on both sides.
Heat an oven-proof nonstick skillet or grill pan over high heat. Brush pan with canola oil and sear the chops, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer chops to a plate and remove the pan from the heat.
Brush chops on both sides with a generous coating of the mustard/thyme mixture. Return chops to pan and place in the oven to finish. Cook for just 4 to 5 minutes total, turning halfway through. Plate and serve.