In keeping with his Greek family’s tradition, come
Sunday, rain or shine, George Kyrtatas, the chef at Hathaway’s Restaurant in Cinnaminson, will be outdoors in his Medford yard, roasting a whole lamb on a spit.
“In Greece, they don’t eat that much red meat. For bigger holidays, lamb is always in the picture,” said Kyrtatas, who self-published his favorite Greek recipes in “My Big Fat Greek Feast” and operates the littlegreekchef.com web site.
Greek Orthodox Easter is still more than a month away, but this weekend, when the majority of Christians celebrate the holiday, lamb is likely to appear in various forms on many a table. It is a food of potent symbolism: In Christian theology, the risen Christ is also known as the Lamb of God. For the Jews, who will commemorate Passover next month, the paschal lamb evokes the Exodus. To this day, a roasted lamb bone is one of the symbolic foods on the Seder plate that is the centerpiece of the Passover table. “For the holidays, everybody wants leg of lamb. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Catholic,” said Gary Van Boerum of Snoep Winkle Farm in Frankford (Sussex County), where he raises a herd of 14 sheep and a ram on about nine acres. Pasture-raised, the sheep also are fed a mixture of corn, oat, wheat and vitamins that does not include antibiotics, byproducts or additives, he said. Each sheep is expected to bear one to two lambs, which are sold between two and three months old, when they weigh about 40 pounds.
Van Boerum gets calls from customers — some of whom dress out the lambs themselves — as early as August. “Every year we don’t have enough. We have to turn people away,” he said. Typically, an Easter lamb that weighs about 20 pounds dressed costs $105, not including the butcher’s fee, which is usually $60. Van Boerum expects to sell retail cuts of lamb at the Ringwood Farmers’ Market, beginning at the end of May.
Although the Garden State isn’t perceived by most consumers as a livestock producer, sheep have been locally raised since colonial times, when they were a prized source of meat, fiber, and milk.
“We have about 10,000 sheep, and every spring we probably have about 20,000 lambs,” said Bob Mickey, area livestock agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County. About two thirds of the sheep are bred for meat; the remaining one-third for fiber for the spinning industry. “A lot of the lambs go for Easter and Greek holidays,” he noted. “For the most part, the American consumer is accustomed to buying lamb at a Shop-Rite, a Wegmans, and that sort of thing. Your ethnic consumer is accustomed to going to the auctions, the farmer.” Although lamb bred out west or imported from Australia and New Zealand is usually less expensive, the flavor of locally raised lamb is milder and “by far superior,” he added.
Because lamb is a fatty meat, many cuisines call for adding an acid or sauce to cut it, noted Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 1999): mint sauce made of chopped mint, vinegar and sugar in England; wine or wine vinegar in Spain; lemon juice in Greece. Another approach is to temper the flavor of the meat with strong aromatics, such as garlic, rosemary, oregano and thyme.
“Some people say lamb is gamey, but I don’t see it. I think it’s sweeter than beef and has more flavor, absolutely, because sheep graze more,” said Corradino Suriano, chef at Coors 98, an Italian restaurant in Montclair that he operates with his brother, Elio. The Surianos are originally from Roccaspinalveti, Italy, a small town in the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo region, which has a rich history of lamb cookery. “In the old days, the mountains used to be full of sheep,” said Corradino. “Lamb is very prevalent, especially at Easter.”
In a nod to his homeland’s culinary tradition, Suriano always has rack of lamb on his restaurant menu, and his specials include stuffed leg of lamb, lamb in a sweet-and-sour sauce, braised lamb shanks, lamb ravioli and lamb braciole, stuffed with a mixture of bread crumbs, pine nuts, raisins and garlic.
In Greek cooking, ground lamb is often used to make meatballs and mixed with rice as a stuffing for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, said Kyrtatas. Yuvetsi is a Greek specialty in which lamb shanks or rack are baked in tomato sauce seasoned with garlic, shallots and oregano, he added.
One of the easiest ways to enjoy the taste of lamb, said Kyrtatas, is to grill lamb chops that have been brushed with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper and rosemary. “As they’re ready to come off, squeeze lemon on them while they’re still on the fire,” he said. “It gives a nice flavor without adding too many ingredients. You let the food speak for itself.”