<<EDIT 2/13/12 11:30 AM – Voting is now live for the DC Lamb Pro-Am.  Check out all of the entries here (DO NOT do this on an empty stomach) and then vote for your favorite.  Or for us, if we’re not your favorite.  Either way, thanks for your support!>>

Foodie pop quiz.  What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say “lamb?”  If you’re a Fan of Lamb, the answer is likely to be something like “tender,” “medium-rare” or just plain “delicious.”

If you had asked us just a few years ago, our answer would probably have been “intimidating.”  Restaurant presentations of lamb tend toward the more impressive: racks and chops, slices from the leg and loin, often served with rich sauces.  That frame of reference, coupled with the price tag, was enough to make us hesitant to try it at home.

As is often the case, Trader Joe’s provided us with the impetus to give it a go.  We bought a frozen, seasoned leg section for a dinner party and roasted it.  Served with a simple wine reduction, it was a revelation of bold, meaty flavor without the chew of similarly intense cuts of beef.  We’ve been Fans of Lamb ever since.

When the American Lamb Board invited us to compete with twelve other local bloggers for a chance to cook at their Lamb Pro-Am in March, we jumped at the chance.  We were told we’d be cooking a boneless leg of lamb, supplied by local rancher Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm – even better!  But we couldn’t just do a traditional leg presentation.  We needed to get creative.

…And that’s where we ran into problems.

Our first inclination, as you can probably guess if you’re a regular reader, was to smoke the lamb on our Big Green Egg.  The low temperatures are great for coaxing out maximal flavor while maintaining a tender bite.  There’s just one problem: the smoke is lost on the lamb.  Even after hours in a BGE with aggressive woods like hickory and mesquite, lamb pretty much just tastes like lamb (not that that’s a BAD thing).

…So our first trick was a no-go.

Then we thought back to our short-lived run as a Charcutepalooza participant.  In working our way through Michael Ruhlman’s “Charcuterie” cookbook, we were intrigued by a recipe for merguez, a spicy lamb sausage.  Why not use some of the lamb to make sausage as part of our dish?

We decided to incorporate homemade merguez into a lamb chili that has become a family favorite.  The dish calls for chorizo, but we tweaked the spice profile to complement the flavors of the substitute sausage.  The addition of roasted red peppers and black beans (chili sacrilege, we know), completed the transformation.

…Remember those problems we mentioned?

As it turns out, we probably shouldn’t have used this contest as our first attempt at sausage-making.  Pork back fat, which Ruhlman calls for in his merguez recipe, is not the same as pork fatback, which we found packaged and sold salted and skin-on in the grocery store.  Needless to say, this was not an ingredient that fed easily (or at all) through our KitchenAid’s sausage-making attachment.  Our dreams of “Chili with Lamb Two Ways” were ground up while the sausage components remained untouched.

Thankfully, we had already planned to incorporate the spices from the merguez into our chili, so we were able to pick out the pork fat and use the cut-up lamb – we couldn’t stand the thought of letting it go to waste!  We made an emergency grocery run for Mexican-style chorizo from local producer Logan’s Sausages and got to work on a re-revised version of our chili.

This is where we make you drool with a description of the lamb.  The leg we received from Border Springs was beautiful – lots of deep purple-red muscle with some creamy white fat around the exterior.  We’ve worked with our share of inferior lamb in the past, fighting our way past large pockets of hard, nasty fat and silverskin.  In this case, we had to do almost no work to get it ready for cooking.

We began by rendering some of the fat from the chorizo and then cooking onions, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, oregano and red pepper flakes in that oil to get the ball rolling.  To that delicious combination we added the chorizo and a chili paste made from chicken stock and chipotle peppers in adobo.  We turned the heat up to high and added the black beans (which we had soaked overnight) and the cubed lamb.

At this point we turned down the heat and let the whole mixture simmer for an hour.  The beans softened up nicely and the lamb took on that firm tender feeling that we always love.  We rinsed golden hominy and added it to the pot with some more roasted red peppers, and we let things cook for 15 more minutes.  That’s when we turned the heat off altogether and let the chili rest for about 5 minutes (we couldn’t stand to wait any longer).

The chili was wonderful all by itself – the lamb picked up the cumin and the paprika while still retaining its own assertive flavor.  Taken together, this gave what could have been a one-note dish a complex, Middle Eastern accent.  But this is a contest, so we wanted to make sure we made it more camera-ready.  We garnished the dish with shredded cheese, sour cream and cilantro.  It may not have been the duo of lamb we originally envisioned, but the final result was a testament to the quality and versatility of the lamb.

Capital Spicy Lamb Chili

1 lb merguez sausage (or Mexican chorizo in a pinch) removed from casings, if any
1 red onion, diced
10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 chipotle chiles in adobo (roughly 1 small can)
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound dried black beans, soaked overnight and drained
4 pounds lamb (preferably leg or shoulder), cut into 1” cubes
2 cans hominy (golden or white), rinsed
1 red pepper, roasted and peeled

Garnishes to taste: sour cream, shredded cheese, diced raw onion, cilantro

  1. In a small saucepan, cook chipotle chiles in chicken stock for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool, then pulse mixture in a blender until thoroughly combined.
  2. Sautee the sausage in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat for 10 minutes or until it gives up a slick of oil
  3. Remove sausage from pot and set aside.  Add onions, garlic, cumin, paprika and red pepper flakes and cook for 5 minutes or until onions soften.
  4. Return chorizo to pot and add chipotle-chicken stock paste.  Cook for 5 minutes.
  5. Add cubed lamb and black beans.  Bring mixture to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.
  6. Simmer covered for one hour.
  7. Taste beans and lamb.  If cooked to taste, add hominy and diced roasted red pepper.  Simmer uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat and allow to rest for five minutes.
  9. Serve with garnish of your choice.

As we mentioned at the top, this post is our entry into the Lamb Pro-Am bloggers’ challenge.  When voting opens up, we’ll be sure to provide you with a link.  Take a look at all of the competitors, and then we’d love it if you could help us make it into the finals by voting for your favorite!