I cannot recall the first time I ever tried lamb, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t really care for it. Growing up, we never had lamb, as my mom was vehemently opposed to the consumption of baby animals. That’s a phrase that most people would probably prefer not to hear, or at least be reminded of on a food blog, and especially not in a post that boasts a recipe for delectable little lamb meatballs. But the fact of the matter is that we do eat foods that were once living, breathing creatures, and I firmly believe it’s important to both remember and respect that.
I often reference a piece that illustrates this very idea, called “The Importance of Rabbits,” written by chef Thomas Keller in his French Laundry Cookbook. I was going to link to it, but then I decided I might as well just paste it right here. It’s short, and definitely worth reading.
“From 1980 to 1983, I worked in the kitchen of a small restaurant near Catskill, New York, on a patch of the Hudson River Valley so remote it didn’t have an address. The sixty-seat restaurant was owned by René and Paulette Macary (she remains its proprietor today). La Rive, named thus because it sat on a wide running creek, was a fruitful training ground, and New York State had extraordinary livestock. Beautiful veal came down from Utica. I found a man who raised spectacular pigeons. I began to ask these farmers for unusual items to experiment with, things like pigs’ ears, cockscombs, duck testicles.
One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it – the whole bit. Then he left.
I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.
The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful. It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away. A cook sautéing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself? No. Should a cook squander anything ever?
It was a simple lesson.”
Those words spoke to me and stuck with me in a major way. Yes, there are problems with factory farming and the commercial meat industry. Yes, there can be unhealthy aspects to consuming red meat and yes, there is merit in the concept of veganism. But as a person who wholeheartedly believes humans were designed to hunt and consume animals, in moderation, for both nutrition and enjoyment, I also believe in the rights of those animals to be acknowledged and appreciated for their sacrifice.
That’s a bit heavy for a rainy Tuesday morning – I know – but I felt it was important to share. We live in a society where waste is commonplace and often disregarded, and I am most definitely guilty of doing it myself. I feel it’s critical for both meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike to recognize this lesson, to have respect for the foods we consume, to be conscious of our choices, and overall, to just do the best we can.
Welp. If that didn’t make you hungry for some meat, I just don’t know what will. Debbie downer over here… Allow me to backtrack a bit. My mom never made lamb, and as a result, I didn’t inherit a taste for it, but did adopt the notion that it was just plain wrong to consume. As time went on, my interest piqued, my palate developed, and before long, I found myself enjoying the taste of lamb more than any other meat. It’s buttery and sweet and depending on the source, not incredibly gamey. We don’t eat a ton of meat in our house, but when we do, it’s of good quality and prepared with care. Lamb is more often grass-fed and sustainably raised, and less often produced in menacing factory farms, but like any food, always know your source.
Allow me to backtrack a bit. My mom never made lamb, and as a result, I didn’t inherit a taste for it, but did adopt the notion that it was just plain wrong to consume. As time went on, however, my interest piqued, my mindset changed, my palate developed, and before long, I found myself enjoying the taste of lamb more than any other meat. It’s buttery and sweet, and depending on the source, not incredibly gamey. We don’t eat a ton of meat in our house, but when we do, it’s of the best quality and prepared with care. Lamb is more often grass-fed and sustainably raised, and less often produced in menacing factory farms, but like any food, always know your source.
These lamb meatballs were inspired by the lamb burgers my friend Anyah made one year during our annual “Spanksgiving,” which was essentially a friendsgiving before friendsgivings were really a thing. They were incredibly juicy and so perfectly spiced, and while Anyah couldn’t exactly recall what she put in them, she gave me enough information to figure it out myself. Lots of garlic and warm spices like cinnamon and cumin, plus an ingredient I would have never thought to put in myself: lemon zest. It adds brightness and lifts the other flavors without necessarily being discernable. It’s been a staple in all of my lamb dishes ever since.
I love to grill these meatballs, but they could easily be pan fried or even broiled. I serve them with a smooth and tangy tahini sauce, along with fresh pita and some fixin’s. Store bought pita will totally work fine, especially if you have access to some really top-quality stuff, but here on the wee island of Brigantine, such a luxury does not exist. I made my own using this recipe, which is really a flatbread and not technically pita, but it was simple, seemingly foolproof, and exactly what I wanted.
I’ve tried many pita recipes in the past and none have been as successful, light, fluffy or tender as this one. I left out the garlic and herbs and opted to throw them on the grill instead of a skillet, and they were everything I had hoped they would be, and then some. Leftover pita bread freezes beautifully, too, and can be heated back up in the toaster oven in a matter of minutes.
These little lamb morsels are simple, healthy, flavorful and satisfying. The recipe makes about 13 small meatballs, which is enough to serve two people dinner plus leftovers, or 4-6 as an appetizer.
- 1 clove garlic, finely grated
- juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup), or more to taste
- 1/3 cup tahini
- pinch of cumin
- salt, to taste
- cold water, as needed
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest (from about half a lemon)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cloves garlic, finely grated
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 small red onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
- olive oil, as needed
- fresh pita bread
- diced tomatoes + cucumbers + sliced red onion, sprinkled with salt + drizzled with olive oil
- feta cheese
- fresh dill
- Combine the garlic, lemon, tahini, cumin and salt in a bowl. Whisk together and add cold water, a tablespoon at a time, while whisking. The mixture will seize up at first. Keep whisking and adding water until it forms a smooth, saucy consistency. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with more lemon and salt. Set aside while you prepare the meatballs.
- In a medium bowl, combine the lamb, lemon zest, salt, garlic, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and coriander. Use clean hands to mix everything together until thoroughly combined, but be mindful not to overmix as it will cause the meatballs to be tough.
- Preheat a grill to medium-high heat. Rub your (clean) hands lightly with oil, then form the mixture into 12-14 small meatballs. Skewer the meatballs on kebabs, placing a piece of red onion in between each, as well as on both ends. Drizzle with olive oil and turn to coat on all sides.
- Grill the meatballs until charred on all sides and to your desired doneness inside. I think they're best when medium-well, or just slightly pink in the center. Overcooking the meatballs will make them dry and tough. Be careful not to leave them on for too long.
- Serve the meatballs with tahini sauce, fresh pita bread, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced red onion, feta cheese and fresh dill.
- Leftover tahini sauce can be stored in a container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.