Mary had a little lamb. Then I came along and slaughtered it. With a hacksaw. And cooked up the different lamb body parts in a week-long lamb feast. Apologies up front to any vegetarians who are reading this article. As a matter of fact you may want to close your browser; this post is not for the faint of heart. You know who you are: the ones who cringe at the thought of touching raw meat, seeing a drop of blood, or having to focus on unusual body parts for more than a few minutes. Luckily, I am not one of those people.
“Scary” Food and Activities Feels Like Home
Growing up I had a smattering of uncommon sightings in the Pao Kitchen: whole fish (head, eye, tail) you name it, we ate it. One giant pig leg, which my dad would chop with a cleaver to make my favorite dish: stewed pigs feet – yummy gelatinous, fatty, fall off the bone meat. Squid balls, fish balls, thousand year-old egg, quail eggs, chicken feet, cold thinly sliced pig ear. The list goes on and on and the point is that this exposure prepared me for only two emotions at my first butchery demo focused on lamb: enthusiasm and curiosity.
Hank Shaw – Hunter, Forager, Teacher
Hank Shaw was our guide for the day. A little bit about Hank. Hank is not some blogger who falls into the forgettable sea of online contributors. Hank differentiates himself as a hunter, angler, gardener, forager, cook and butcher. His refrigerator alone holds more diverse wild game than you can find at BiRite or Avedanos.
In Hank’s own words, “I write. I fish. I dig earth, raise plants, live for food and kill wild animals. I drink bourbon, Barolo or Budweiser with equal relish and wish I owned a farm. But most of all I think daily about new ways to cook and eat anything that walks, flies, swims, crawls, skitters, jumps – or grows.”
Oh, did I mention Hank has been nominated for two James Beard awards and has accomplished all of this working out of his home in Sacramento? Yup, baller. Hank is knowledgeable, informative, and humble even though he could easily boast about not having bought meat for months since he just goes out in the forest, hunt an animal, skins it, butchers it and cooks it. But bragging is not Hank’s style…yet one more another reason to love him.
I found out about the butchery demo in SacTown through my Bay Area Blogger group started by Stephanie Stiavetti. One Saturday morning a few girlfriends and I piled into the car to head up the 80 freeway, eager to begin the four hour butchery lesson with a small group of other meat enthusiasts.
Equipment for the day? Hank recommends a variety of knives: a filet knife (usually more flexible, good for fish or helping to cut those finer pieces of meat), hacksaw (yes, the type you buy at Home Depot to cut through iron pipes), boning knife, and a cleaver. If you want to skip having to kill, bleed, skin and gut, just stop by a butchery shop to buy a lamb. Hank bought our 57 lb baby from a local shop in Orangevale and had them split the lamb in half so he could demo one side of it, and let us take a stab at the second half (pun intended).
Tricks of the Trade
Our lamb was a bit larger than normal, but considering we had to split the rewards between 12 people, bigger seemed to be better. Before beginning the demo, Hank reminded us that “Every body butchers differently. Butchery is a very personal thing.”
The day was full of helpful tips like making sure that we “worked from the extremities in – it makes it easier to work with, more compact” or the group’s personal favourite, that the whole point of butchery was to “free the meat.” I liked this concept that meat is a prisoner and by cutting through we were in a sense, setting it free.
We were encouraged to look for the joints and use gravity to our advantage with butchering. If you hit bone, you should stop for the most part and cut along it, working with the animal instead of against it. Exceptions to this are when you’re parting out the animal or finishing a cut with a hacksaw, as I did with a lamb shank.
My first experience with a hacksaw was exhilarating to say the least. It’s about 1-2 feet long with jagged edges. You have to handle it with confidence but also treat the tool with respect. Remember to keep the hacksaw at an angle and use a push and pull motion, allowing the saw to do the work, careful not to employ too much force.
The demo allowed us to cut up pretty much every part of the lamb. Shank, leg, tenderloin, regular loin, vertebrate, shoulder blade, even lamb belly. Lamb belly was one of the more delicate cuts and a smaller more flexible knife was used by my friend Christina to cut along the seam and “free the meat.” Lamb belly can be used in sausage, pate, as fajita meat, or even cured as bacon…mmmm lamb bacon.
The most popular cut among our group was the lamb tenderloin, which we were warned NOT to cut into given its intrinsic value. To cut tenderloin, use a more flexible boning knife and go up to the vertebrate. Use the knife to lightly slice right below the vertebrate, almost like a painter using his paint brush to lightly detail a piece of art.
Watching Hank cut up the lamb leg was one of the most captivating moments of the day. The front lamb leg is not attached to the main body by any bone so you use gravity and seam butchering to separate it from the main carcass. Hank pushed his finger between the leg and the body in search for a bubble looking film that resembles saran wrap. One graceful slice through the seam with a small boning knife and you can basically pull the leg apart from the body with just a bit of force (beware: bone-cracking sounds will accompany this part).
What about the ribs? Use a hacksaw or cleaver to chop off the rib rack. Cut off the sternum, the rounded bone at the top of the ribs, which keeps them joined together. The sternum is a great bone to use in soup or stock given its fatty quality.
One thing you want to be careful to avoid when butchering lamb is the silver skin. Silver skin is connective tissue and has a silvery quality to it. There is no reason to keep this so try and cut it out.
Now What? Cook that lamb!
The hard part is over, the animal has been broken down, the scraps set aside for sausage and the pieces cleaned up. What about cooking lamb? As experienced, there is no shortage of options.
Lamb loin is a great piece for roasting – usually taking about 90 minutes after seasoning and marinating. If you’re crunched for time, rub the loin generously with salt and pepper then cook it in a heavy pan or skillet. Put the fatty side face down on medium heat. The fat will render out and the side should get a bit crispy. “Kiss it” on the other side with a quick sear and serve medium rare with a buttery sauce. For the sauce sauté garlic, shallots, sage, thyme, rosemary in white wine or alcohol. Burn off the alcohol a bit and then add heavy cream and butter. Let the unctuous sauce thicken up and then spoon over the loin.
Do a slow, low heat braised roast of the shoulder blade. Even better, you can stuff lamb shoulder with just about anything, rolling it up and then tying it down with some string. Ideas for stuffing ingredients include shallots, fresh herbs like sage and rosemary and morels – a nice meaty mushroom that will suck up all those lamb juices.
If you have shanks, you’ve got to braise them. Season generously with salt and ground black pepper. Use a heavy pan and pour in a few table spoons of olive oil. Add the shanks and brown them for 10-12 minutes. Set the shanks aside. Add a chopped red onion, one head of garlic – sliced, several whole dried chile peppers for a kick of spice, rosemary, a bay leave, and thyme. Sauté for 3-4 minutes in olive oil. When the mixture starts to cook down, pour in about a cup of white wine, and then add ripe red tomatoes. Put the shanks back in the pan and add 3 cups of chicken broth. Allow the liquid to come to a fast boil, then remove from heat and put in the oven for 2 ½ hours at 325 degrees. The lamb should be tender and fall off the bone easily.
Other Lamb Bits
One word: sausage. You can buy a meat grinder for under $100 at different house ware shops. Hank chopped up several handfuls of lamb bits and combined them with a hunk of pure pork fat (can we say tasty?). Put that into a meat grinder then massage in a head of finely chopped garlic and some Greek herbs. Use real meat casings to stuff the sausage and voila! You have just made your first sausage.
Don’t let anything go to waste! Use those bones as a base for a stock or soup. I added water to my vertebrate and other bones, and then added a bay leave, spices, some pasta and a fresh bunch of herbs.