WHEN THE FORECAST CALLS FOR SNOW, it’s time to put lamb on the table. Braised, slow-roasted or seared over a hot fire until the fat glistens, earthy and rich, with a bit of gaminess and a touch of sweetness, grass-fed lamb is to winter what trout is to spring.
In the Hudson Valley, a sizable number of small producers are humanely and sustainably raising lamb for local markets, both wholesale and retail. Last spring’s wobbly lambs, fattened on native forage, head for slaughter starting in early November. By the winter holidays, farm stores and vendors at winter farmers’ markets have a full roster of cuts and trimmings: whole racks, whole legs, loin chops, rib chops, blade chops, shanks, sirloin roasts, shoulder roasts, ground patties, sausage, stew meat, soup bones, tongues, kidneys, brains and more.
A generation ago, lamb was the stuff of fussy fine dining. It was dressed up for fancy dinner parties as a crown roast, accessorized with ruffled paper cuffs and emerald-tinted mint jelly. Contemporary chefs are more likely to take that coveted loin and break it down into tiny, individual chops—cheekily called lollipops—and plate them with a wink and a retro side of green goddess dressing.
In the Hudson Valley, a sizable number of small producers are humanely and sustainably raising lamb for local markets.
Also fashionable just now are lamb burgers—perhaps an answer to $20 Angus burgers with $8 sides of truffle fries—and embellishments that up the ante, like mint butter, tapenade, cumin-scented yogurt and paper-thin slices of Persian cucumber.
Less recognizable parts of the lamb are enjoying popularity, too, as young chefs bring “whole-animal cookery” into their kitchens and do the butchering themselves. Trending now is “lambchetta,” a rolled lamb belly (a riff on the ubiquitous crispy Italian pork roast called porchetta) and various charcuterie, including lamb prosciutto.
Also catching on is lamb bolognese. Gianni Scappin, co-owner and executive chef at Market Street, in Rhinebeck, has put lamb bolognese, once an occasional special, on the permanent menu. His version, served over garganelli and topped with soft goat cheese and toasted pine nuts, simmers for hours. There’s no stinting on fat, either. “I don’t mind to see a big one inch of fat on top,” he says. “The grandmother in Emilia-Romagna, where bolognese is king, would say to those who don’t want fat, ‘Don’t eat bolognese then.’”
Lee Ranney answers his cell phone on the run. “I’ve been chasing cattle around,” he says gruffly, breathing hard. His irritation is clear as he adds, “Everyone thinks farming is all glory.”
A week later, Ranney, who oversees Kinderhook Farm, in Ghent, with his wife Georgia, extends his hand without a hint of pique. Inside the small farmhouse, beyond the clutter of muddy boots, a picture window frames a view that could have been in the English Cotswolds: red barns, meandering board fences and meadows strewn with sheep. (The 1,000-acre farm, which also produces grass-fed beef and pastured pork, chicken, goose and eggs, is owned by Steve and Renee Clearman.) With dogs underfoot, the Ranneys and their farm manager, Laura Cline, describe in broad strokes and frank detail the perils and pleasures of life on the farm.
Georgia delights in lingering among the flock, which can number as many as 600 in the fall. “There’s happiness in walking through them, watching the social interaction between the mothers and the babies, finding them in the early morning still sleeping in their little family units,” she says.
At Kinderhook, high-quality forage contributes to superior flavor. The sheep graze on fescue, orchard grass, clover, alfalfa and birds foot trefoil (also called “butter and eggs”), and browse on various leaves, “like a good salad,” Lee notes. “We let the lambs get to 100 to 110 pounds—if you let them get a little heavier, the meat is more intense, a little more complex. Our customers like that.”
In the farm store, where available meats are neatly charted on the chest-freezer lids, the farm’s shepherd, Anna Hudson, stroked two hogget chops through the Cryovac machine, admiring the lace-like marbling of fat characteristic of an older animal. (A hogget often is a culled ewe between one and two years who proved to be an unreliable mother.) She ponders out loud, “I wonder who this is?”
Eating grass and traveling around the farm and using those muscles translates into flavor.
The quaint store is a favorite stop for chef Nick Suarez, who, with his wife, Sarah, owns the bustling Gaskins, in Germantown. “The greatest thing is [our] relationship with Kinderhook,” he says. “The property is so beautiful and the animals have very happy lives.”
Suarez welcomes the efficiency of having an ethical supplier “right down the road.” Though Ranney delivers to Gaskin’s door (as well as to a handful of other local restaurants) Suarez likes to bring his toddler to the farm to see the chickens and to rummage around the freezer for mutton for his personal consumption. “A mutton shoulder is the most vibrant, bright, maroon red,” he swoons. “Eating grass and traveling around the farm and using those muscles translates into flavor.”
Suarez buys whole lambs and breaks them down himself. His market-driven menu features lamb dishes that are both classic and playful. “The lamb chops alone pay for the rest of the lamb,” he says, “and the rest of the lamb is what’s fun.”
For his lamb cassoulet, Suarez swaps out the traditional duck confit and pork sausage for Robin’s Koginut squash, but he keeps the crunchy breadcrumbs. Various and sundry parts go with his lamb barbacoa (smoked in “my little smoker”), stuffed into taco shells with onions and cilantro.
Down valley, Rich Parente, chef/owner and chief storyteller at Brewster’s Clock Tower Grill, decided two years ago to buy a farm and try his hand at raising livestock. He and his wife, Cassie, tend a small flock of Dorpers, as well as Berkshire pigs and Scottish Highland cattle. (“My wife is the farmer,’ he says drolly. “I’m her farmhand.”) Like Georgia Ranney, Parente admits to a kind of joy in mingling with the ewes and lambs. “I just like watching them,” he says. “They all have their own personalities. And they want to be loved.” (A pig farmer once dropped by when Parente was in the pen with his pigs, scratching their bellies and ears. The farmer asked him, “Why are you playing with your pigs?” Thinking back on the encounter, Parente says, “Well, they’re here for a short time, they might as well have the best life they can.”)
Parente’s main supplier of lamb is the reputable Rolling Stone Sheep Farm, just over the border in Connecticut. Because, like Suarez, he buys whole lambs, he confesses to having learned a bit about butchering from YouTube. And his imagination, when it comes to lamb, knows few bounds. “I braise necks for a ragu,” Parente says. “I take legs and cut them into steaks and grill ‘em. We do mini T-bones and shoulder chops. I braise lamb shanks in apple cider and serve them over grits with sautéed apples. I take lamb bellies and cure them and roll them up, and after 10 days, I poach them in duck fat. It makes a super-rich pancetta—I slice it a quarter-inch thick, grill it and serve it with toast.” (What Parente doesn’t say is that his petite lamb shank is meltingly tender, and with his buttery caramelized apples on a cushion of creamy cheddar grits, it’s as if the best of the Deep South had met the best of New England half way.)
Parente’s tasty lamb burger is a model of simplicity: a pink-at-center patty on a crispy, toasted brioche with a flirtatious lettuce leaf. It has a fast-food addictiveness, but it is full-blown, bona fide slow food. The lone condiment—a cool, tandoori-spiced yogurt sauce—is an open dare to ask for ketchup. “We sell a ton of them,” Parente says. “Today at lunch, we had 12 tin knockers [sheet metal workers] here from Local 38. Five guys ordered the lamb burger.”
Across the river, Paul Colucci tends a flock of 15 Corriedale-Merino lambs along with 300 head of Devon and Angus cattle at Full Moon Farm. Colucci, who also owns an excavating business, runs the operation from the farm’s headquarters in an industrial park just outside the village of Gardiner, alongside a propane company, a welding shop, an ice cream distributor, a Netflix special effects studio and the town dump.
Colucci is a one-man farmland recovery act, patching together idle parcels in and around Gardiner and restoring them to active grazing and haying (he’s at 1,000 acres and counting). He relegates the day-to-day operations to his farmhands, Bud Christiana, a native Texan, and Noreen Girao, a Jersey girl who came to the area to climb the Ridge but stayed to farm. (“We’re like Starsky and Hutch,” she says.)
The two work six long, hard days a week, but the sheep provide a bit of fun as well as discipline for them and their border collies, Maggie (hers) and Ann (his). Bumping down a single-track road in their little red farm truck, they pull over adjacent to a lush pasture where the sheep are kept, and demonstrate what a couple of highly trained sheep dogs can do. As they call out commands in a staccato duet, the dogs round up the sheep and herd them to a shed at the center of the pasture.
Full Moon Farm sells directly to consumers on the honor system at the farm store. Lambs are scheduled to be slaughtered the last week in November—regular customers know better than to dally with their orders. “The lamb chops sell like hot cakes,” Christiana says. “People come as soon as they know they’re on the shelves.”
Just keep in mind, there’s more to lamb than lamb chops.
2 Church Ave, Germantown
512 Clock Tower
Commons Dr, Brewster
1958 Co Rd 21, Valatie
Full Moon Farm
54 Steves La, Gardiner
19 W Market St, Rhinebeck
It Takes an Army
The bucolic scene of sheep grazing in a field belies the reality of what it takes to actually raise sheep. Besides the ewe, it takes a local militia to bring along a lamb.
At Kinderhook Farm, there are helpful hands at lambing time; a shepherd to watch over the flock; guardian dogs to keep coyotes at bay; someone to feed the dogs twice a day and to check their coats for ticks and burrs and errant strands of barbed wire; a nurse to bottle-feed the bummer lambs; and a mechanic to mend fences and keep the tractors running.
The farm needs a manager to assess pasturage and rotate the flock among paddocks; a team to tag the lambs’ ears so that each animal can be tracked; someone to upload data into the computer; a vet to respond to ailments and emergencies; planters to sow hay and seed the pastures; harvesters to cut and bale hay for winter feed; wranglers to separate lambs from ewes at weaning time; and shearers to clip the sheep in early spring.
There must be a driver to load the lambs and deliver them to the slaughterhouse; a slaughterhouse whose practices the farmer can trust; a butcher to honor the lamb with careful cuts and trims; a salesman to market and sell the lamb; someone to man the farm store; and a bookkeeper to make sure all the numbers add up.