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John Jamison and his wife, Sukey, have raised their famous Pennsylvania lamb on grass since long before grass-fed became a culinary buzzword. Since 1976, to be exact, when the couple traded their busy city lives for life on the farm, and took up raising sheep as a hobby.
“We had just 14 ewes and one ram,” Mr. Jamison recalls, which the couple allowed to flock and frolic on 65 rolling acres in Pleasant Unity, Westmoreland County.
The avocation soon became a vocation, and in the years since, lamb from Jamison Farm, which is now in Latrobe, has gained a national reputation for being among the country’s best. Featured locally at upscale restaurants such as Poros and Meat and Potatoes, you’ll also find it on the menu at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin and Blue Hill, Jose Andres’ Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., and SuGa in Philadelphia.
What, you say? You’re among the majority of Americans who’ve never tasted a lamb chop, or think the only way to enjoy it is with a side of mint jelly? Or maybe you’re the reverse, and can never get enough of the flavorful, nutrient-rich meat in any form. The Jamisons hope to feed both camps on Sunday, when the inaugural Western Pennsylvania Lamb Festival + Cook-Off gets underway.
Co-sponsored by Table Magazine and Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, the fest will take place at the East Liberty hotel from 2 to 6 p.m., and feature a friendly cooking competition between some of the region’s best-known chefs.
There will be 24 chefs in all, divided into eight teams with up to six members. Some were paired based on existing friendships and geography; others spoke up with preferences. Each team will get two whole lambs from Jamison Farm to break down, and have the day to turn the various chops, racks, shanks and other parts into tasty bites for the crowd using a charcoal grill. Guests will then be asked to vote for their favorite team. In addition to bragging rights, winners of the People’s Choice Award will receive a Super Bowl-style ring with a lamb on it.
“It’s a true-blue cook-off,” says Table Magazine editor-in-chief Victoria Bradley, who organized the event with publisher Christina French. “Our chefs are salivating.”
They’re not just local. Chef Ryan Bloome of of Terrain Garden Cafe in Glen Mills and Carlo Guardado of King’s Highway Restaurant at Ace Hotel Palm Springs, Calif., also will be cooking, along with Dan Kern of Noosa in Erie, Jason Maitland of Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego and John Patterson, executive chef of Fork in Philadelphia.
At least two of the participants, Ms. Bradley says, have asked for the lamb head in addition to the carcass. So along with the expected kebabs and sliders, there are sure to be some unusual bites.
The lamb will be paired with sides crafted from Paragon Foods’ seasonal produce, and there will be plenty of vegetarian options. An outdoor bar will feature $5 beer, wine and punch. You’ll also be able to buy drinks and cool off at a second bar in the hotel gym.
In co-sponsoring the fest, Ms. Bradley says the magazine seeks to shine a spotlight and build an awareness for a superior local lamb that is a forgotten meat on the average American dinner table. According to the American Lamb Board, Americans eat only about a pound of lamb per person each year, compared to 54 pounds of beef.
Which is a shame, because Western Pennsylvania arguably has the two best lamb producers in the U.S. — Jamison and Greene County’s Elysian Fields, which also sells humanely raised grass-fed lamb to restaurants and markets around the country.
What is it about our region that leads to such terrific lamb?
Western Pennsylvania’s superior grass, for starters, which on Jamison’s 210 pesticide-free acres includes a mix of red and white clover, bluegrass, garlic grass and wildflowers that changes with the season — sweeter in summer and heartier in fall.
“It’s really the Napa Valley for sheep,” Mr. Jamison says.
This corner of the state also gets the perfect amount of rain (around 45 inches per year) “and it pretty much falls all at the right time,” he says, creating lush, green pastures for his crossbred Dorset and North Country Cheviot sheep, hardy and nimble breeds that thrive on the region’s hillside pastures.
Since the 1980s, when U.S. Steel debuted a type of high-tensile fencing that made it easier to move their flock, the Jamisons have practiced intense rotational grazing, where only one part of a pasture is grazed at a time while the rest of the field rests. Mr. Jamison’s three border collies move his flock of two to three hundred every three to five days, depending on the season.
Sheep are technically lambs until they’re 1 year old, but the Jamisons process their animals long before they toughen with age, at between 3 to 8 months. That makes for meat that is as tender as it is clean-tasting. The farm, which raises upward of 4,000 lambs a year, also eschews hormones and antibiotics.
But still for many Americans, there’s no getting past what Mr. Jamison calls the “Bambi factor.”
“People think they should just pet lambs instead of eat them,” he says.
Some also are put off by the relative high cost of lamb, an economical necessity because the carcass is so much smaller than that of a steer or hog; a typical animal yields only about 25 pounds of meat. Sold via mail order, Jamison’s semi-boneless leg costs $72 while 18 rib chops will set you back $136.
Others complain the taste of lamb is too strong for an American palate, which is accustomed to the mild flavor of beef. Or that the meat is too greasy, a definite factor when the animals are “finished” on grain in a feedlot. “But when it’s raised on grass, it will taste fresh, like the season,” Mr. Jamison says.
Which brings us back to lamb fest, and all the creative talent who’ll be manning the grills.
Lamb’s versatility is one reason why chef Kate Romane of Black Radish Kitchen — one of four on an all-female team — was so eager to participate. “You can do so much without gaminess,” she says. The fact she can find such a quality product right in her own backyard only adds to its appeal.
While she wouldn’t dish on everything she and teammates Jennifer Gerasole of Girasole, Bethany Zozula of Whitfield at Ace Hotel, Kendyl Ryan of Duncan St Dinners and newcomer Jessica Lewis of Or, The Whale and Merchant Oyster Co. plan on serving, she did give a taste. “Both Jessica and I are very vegetable forward, and it’s summer squash season, so we’ll probably do a ratatouille.” Also expect to see Ms. Gerasole’s lamb meatballs and some kind of cool spread on Mediterra olive bread.
Ms. Bradley says the hope is to make the lamb fest a yearly event and part of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Pittsburgh Emergency Medicine Foundation, which funds research and education in the field of emergency medicine.
This way it will allow Pittsburghers to taste one of the best local meats, cooked by the best local chefs.
“I’m pinching myself when I look at the chef list,” Ms. Bradley says. “It’s like the All-Stars.”
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
KNOW YOUR CUTS
The versatile lamb is a leaner protein source (an average 3-ounce serving has just 175 calories) and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Like beef, it can be grilled, braised and roasted; ground into meat for sauces, sausages and burgers; and even be dried into jerky.
There are three regions on a lamb — the forequarter, saddle and hindquarter. The meat is tougher the closer it is to the head and so takes longer to cook. Here’s a breakdown of the major cuts.
• Shoulder: It is the most economical cut but also tough and chewy, it’s best for stewing and slow-roasting. Think casseroles, stews and braised shoulder chops.
• Chop/rack: It is the most expensive and refined cut, and has the juiciest and most tender meat. It is best for pan-searing, roasting, broiling and grilling.
• Loin chop: Carved from the waist of the lamb, it is one of the most readily available and familiar cuts. It has a slightly stronger flavor and firmer texture than the rib chop. Grill, broil or panfry this cut.
• Rump: Found between the loin and the leg, it is lean, tender and full of flavor, and usually served off the bone. Grill or panfry it.
• Leg: It is the midsection between the hip and hoof and is great roasted whole on the bone, or boned and grilled. Also can be cut into chunks for shish kebab. Butterflied, boneless legs often are stuffed and rolled.
• Shank: From the lower part of the legs, it is tough and full of connective tissue. But with braising — a long, slow and moist method of cooking — it can become amazingly tender. Shanks also can be slow roasted.
Rack of Lamb
1 9-rib rack of lamb or 1 crown rack (3 racks tied together)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven 425 degrees
For a rack, sear both sides in skillet on stove top. Then proceed with following recipe.
Rub meat and bones with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. Place rack or crown in roasting pan. Roast 15 to 20 minutes (approximately 125 to 135 degrees with an instant thermometer), until meat is springy to touch.
Remove from oven and let rest 12 to 15 minutes (the meat will continue to cook as it rests).
Carve into 2 to 3 rib chops for serving.
You also can grill racks of lamb, but make sure you protect the bones from the flame by laying a sheet tray beneath the bones to keep them from burning.
Serves 3 to 4.
— Jamison Farm
Sunday Supper Meatloaf
½ onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 egg, beaten
1 cup V-8 vegetable juice
2 pounds ground lamb
1 cup oatmeal
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste, and more for topping
½ teaspoon coarse ground pepper, and more for topping
1 teaspoon crushed thyme
1 teaspoon basil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh or dried parsley flakes
Preheat oven 375 degrees.
In pan, saute onion in olive oil until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes.
In large bowl, mix egg into V-8 juice until blended. Add onion to juice. Then add lamb. oatmeal, salt, pepper, thyme, basil and parsley, and combine. Form mixture into a loaf.
Place loaf in 8-by-12-inch oven pan or loaf pan. Sprinkle an additional touch of salt and pepper on top of loaf before baking. Bake 45 minutes or until desired doneness.
Serve with scalloped or mashed potatoes.
Serves 6 to 8.
— Jamison Farm