As a country that likes meat, it surprises me that America doesn’t eat more lamb. According to the USDA, the average American meat consumption in 2018 was about 220 pounds per person — one of the highest rates on record. Yet, out of that, only about one pound, if that, came from lamb.
Lambs are defined as sheep that are less than one year in age. When sheep are older than a year, their meat is referred to as mutton. Lamb is a red meat and a complete protein, meaning, it contains all nine of the essential amino acids.
Sheep were one of the first domesticated animals. Back in the 1940s, there were more than 56 million sheep in the United States. Today, that’s down to almost five million. But it’s not just the lack of demand for their meat. There’s also less demand for sheep’s wool.
Nevertheless, in a rural state with plenty of farmland, I’m still surprised to see so few sheep among the Vermont countryside. Whereas, when in England, I couldn’t go long without encountering a flock or two, and usually in the middle of a road or a hiking trail. Today, the majority of American sheep live in Texas and California.
How do we compare to the rest of the world? North Africa, the Middle East, India and Europe are the largest lamb consumers. Lamb stews, ribs, kebabs, curries and roasts are some of the most popular dishes. Yet, much of the lamb is coming from New Zealand and Australia, the world’s largest lamb exporters.
Although beef consumption in the United States peaked in the 1970s, we’re still one of the world’s largest consumers. In fact, we eat about four times as much as other countries. That means that we still like red meat, even if the popularity of chicken only continues to grow year after year. Perhaps there’s enough appetite to replace some of our red-meat demand with lamb and mutton?
Personally, I think we need fewer cows and more sheep. First off, the meat is delicious. It’s always better than I expect. Second, although it’s not inexpensive to buy quality wool sweaters, I would rather invest in a few of these than buy cheap clothes that don’t last. It’s cold here most of the year, after all. Third, I think sheep’s milk makes some of the best cheeses you can find. Think Manchego, Pecorino Romano, and Feta. Need I say more?
OK. I will. As grazers, sheep are also good for maintaining landscapes and grasslands. They consume grasses and plants while helping to fertilize at the same time. If grass-fed, and cared for in a sustainable manner, it would seem there could be an opportunity to get Americans back on board with sheep, especially with more people looking to try new foods and flavors.
One of the downsides though is that sheep, during their digestive process, produce the highest level of methane gas compared to other farm animals. That’s a tough selling point when we need to address climate change now more than ever.
All I can say is that we need to do everything in moderation. Overall, we should eat less meat. I try to do so only a couple of times a week. And when we do eat meat, we should vary the types of protein and seek out organic and/or local sources.
I can’t determine why exactly, but this dish feels well-timed, as we finally get a few days of sun and spring. It features lamb chops from the Vermont Butcher Shop, with a rosemary and walnut pesto that adds a sense of vibrancy and ties the whole meal together. It’s a nice alternative to basil pesto, especially outside of summer months. Find local spring greens at the farmers market or Co-op.
Rosemary walnut pesto lamb chops
1 pound orecchiette pasta
1 ½ cups walnuts
8 stems of fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic
zest of 1 lemon
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 lamb chops
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 pound of young kale leaves or other greens
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add several pinches of salt and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or so. When done, reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water and drain.
In a large skillet, toast the walnuts until they start to brown and become fragrant. Transfer to a food processor or blender with the leaves of the rosemary sprigs, the garlic clove, the lemon zest, 5 tablespoons of olive oil, the pepper and ½ teaspoon of salt. Process until smooth. Taste and adjust to your liking.
Wipe out the skillet used for the walnuts and heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the lamb chops with the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper. Place the chops in the pan and cook for 5 minutes on the first side. Then flip and cook another 4 minutes on the second.
Remove the lamb chops from the pan and set aside. Add the red onion to the pan and cook until soft and lightly browned. Add in the greens and sauté for just a minute. Add the balsamic and cook another minute. Toss in the pasta and season with the nutmeg.
Serve the lamb chops with a side of the pasta and greens, topping it all with plenty of the pesto.
Adapted from “Rachael Ray’s Big Orange Book.”