With the coming of spring, there are many things for home cooks to celebrate — the return of fresh asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, fresh peas, and all things green to farmers' markets; the prospect of longer and warmer days, perfect for alfresco dinners at home; and the slow and steady return of grilling season, just to name a few examples.
But there's one more thing that should make that list, and that is the return of spring lamb. True spring lamb is so good that it will likely convince even the most reluctant eater to give it a try. It's a far cry from the gamey, fatty, strongly flavored meat that often makes people shy away from lamb after their first taste. Instead, it is tender, lean, and delicately flavored, traditionally completely milk-fed, often grass-fed in practice. So why is spring lamb so different?
Back in the day in the Old Country, as they say, baby lamb would be born in the spring. Roman shepherds would slaughter them at one to two months of age, at which point their diet still consisted completely of their mother's milk. This ancient custom heralded the coming of spring, and spring lamb was often the timely centerpiece of the Easter celebration. No part of the animal was wasted.
Today, it can be hard to find true spring lamb — most supermarkets don't carry it, as most of them carry American- or New Zealand-sourced lamb that is sometimes up to 11 months old if supplies are tight. In terms of diet, they are also raised similarly to feedlot cows — started on grass but finished on grain, which leads to more marbling within the meat as well as more fat around it.
So where can you find true spring lamb? It's tough, and the best you can hope for is to get as close as possible to the ancient ideal of a milk-fed animal. Look to specialty butcher shops locally or farms like Jamison Farm, which ship nationwide. Their lamb is completely grass-fed and slaughtered at three to six months of age, after which the meat is dry-aged for seven to 10 days.
If you manage to find a local butcher shop that has it, make sure you know what you're getting. Generally, spring lamb will have smaller bones owing to its younger age, less marbling, and just a thin layer of fat. Australian lamb can also be a good bet, since nearly all of it is grass-fed, mostly shipped fresh, and younger than its American counterparts.
So to make the best of this somewhat difficult-to-find ingredient, we've rounded up eight of our best spring lamb recipes for you to try. Here are the highlights.
David Tanis' Shoulder of Spring Lamb with Flageolet Beans and Olive Relish is perfect for sticklers of tradition, with its classic combination of nutty flageolet beans and perfectly roast meat; Erik Cosselmon's Grilled Lamb Chops with Kokkari Dressing are a fantastic way to kick off grilling season; and Elizabeth Faulkner's Lamb Sugo with Pasta is just the ticket for anyone living in a climate that still feels less like spring and more like winter — ahem, New York and Chicago.
So what are you waiting for? It's time to add spring lamb to the shopping list and go on another food adventure.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.