In the mountains, spring hasn't quite sprung. Nevertheless, we are two weeks deep into the season of new life, which began March 20. Easter and Passover, those twin Judeo-Christian benchmarks of spring, are just around the corner and, here in Idaho, especially, lamb is the entrée du jour for spring holidays.
Some people won't eat lamb. The image of a fluffy young lamb, snow-white with fleece and perpetually following a young girl named Mary, is simply closer to the heart than the belly for some. But for those carnivores who crave a unique deviation from the tastes-like-chicken-norm, lamb is a reliable ticket to gastronomic bliss.
Here in the Wood River Valley, there are a variety of ways to get your lamb. For those curmudgeons happy diverting money from the local economy, Costco in Twin Falls typically fills one of the warehouse's mammoth coolers with legs of New Zealand lamb.
For those more keen on that old-fashioned notion of eating locally produced, seasonal meats, there are plenty of options.
Since 1999, Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock has been operating five lamb ranches to the north and east of Carey (in Fish Creek, Muldoon and just west of the Craters of the Moon). For the past two years, the alliteration happy company (Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock LLC) has been direct-marketing their lamb products over the Web at their site www.lavalakelamb.com and has successfully launched into shipping it nationally. Everything from Huckleberry Maple Lamb sausage to boneless legs can now be packed in dry ice and lovingly shipped off to hungry relatives looking for a true taste of Idaho.
And by raising the livestock naturally and feeding the animals only the most natural ingredients of grass and herbs and sage, the meat truly has a unique, savory flavor. The benefits of grass-fed livestock are numerous. The meat is leaner and lower in calories, yet higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Pasture feeding results in less ground erosion and then there are the obvious quality of life improvements for farmers and animals alike.
The taste of grass-fed lamb is also noticeably different from the typical, fattier grain-fed products available in most supermarkets. Locally, you can find Lava Lake Lamb in Atkinsons' Markets all summer long.
"We sell (Atkinsons') about four lambs a week, all summer," said Cheryl Bennett, operations manager at Lava Lake in their Hailey office.
In addition to the supermarket and private customer orders, Lava Lake also has become the main purveyor of lamb for many local restaurants, including the Ketchum Grill, Ciro's, CK's, Full Moon and Globus.
"They do some kabobs that apparently just fly out the door," Bennett said of Globus, Ketchum's Asian-fusion location.
At the Ketchum Grill, head chef Scott Mason says he has "noticed a definite difference since Lava Lake" became his main source of lamb. "We know where it comes from and who is raising it. Industry wide, it's real hard to find sources where you know exactly where the product comes from."
At his restaurant, he has long served a red-wine braised lamb shank, and this winter he found a lot of success with wild rice and ground lamb meatballs.
Lamb is admittedly a stronger flavor that chicken or beef, yet this also lends well to creative culinary creations. From Moroccan to Italian, lamb crosses ethnic boundaries, each with a variety of preparations. Legs and shanks do especially well with Old World slow-cooked methods. This spring, carve yourself out a free afternoon and savor the smells of a lamb feast.