Two-thousand sheep paraded through downtown Ketchum. It was part of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, at the parade that takes place every October in southern Idaho as the sheep are making their annual migration from the mountains back home for the winter. A celebration of the food and fiber these animals provide to so many. And a celebration of the people in the industry.
With herders behind them, ushering them along, the sheep march through downtown, strutting their fluff as only sheep can do. Only this year, when the noon start time rolled around, there was not a sheep in sight. No feet pitter-pattering on the road, no ranchers clicking their tongues. Just quiet whispers passing through the crowd like a game of telephone: “I hear they’re misbehaving this year,” and, “Someone told me they were being so bad they had to swap out flocks!”
The rumors were true. When the sheep finally arrived, they refused to move in one linear direction, instead preferring to take a few steps forward and then, circling around one another like a tornado, another few steps backwards. The herders, exasperated, screamed and waved hats and clicked their tongues at the bad sheep. But eventually, they threw their arms up into the air and just had a good laugh. From the sidelines, Lily and I did, too.
But what I want to tell you about today is less about the parade and more about lamb. As far as meats go, lamb is, surprisingly, fairly unpopular in the U.S. in large part because most people don’t know how to prepare it. But here’s what goes through my mind when I think about lamb meat: An intense gamey flavor that’s a unique palate to build on. An earthiness, akin to the kind you might find in a bottle of old world wine, that screams grass and dirt and connectedness to the planet. A versatility in its young meat, making it just as ripe for pan-searing and grilling over an open flame as it is for stewing and braising.
Here, I’m stewing it right into a pot of gumbo.
Lamb isn’t usually found in gumbo, of course, given the kind of ingredients that are plentiful in southern Louisiana (chicken, duck, gulf seafood, etc). But one of the best things about gumbo is that it really is a choose your own adventure. All you need is a roux, a broth, the Cajun holy trinity (bell peppers, onions, and celery), some herbs and spices, and protein. This gumbo was built, quite literally, for lamb. I amped up the herbs to compliment the gaminess of the meat, I swapped the classic Andouille sausage for a milder Italian sausage that wouldn’t overwhelm, I used a roux that was one shade lighter than my usual dark caramel, and, for once in my life, I exercised some restraint when it came to the hot sauce.
I took one bite of this earth-driven gumbo as it danced in a bowl with rice and garnished with fresh herbs. And for just a few moments I was back in southern Idaho with Lily by my side, each of us unsuccessfully choking back laughter and watching the sheep parade past. A few steps forward…and then again a few steps back.
Many thanks to the fine folks at the American Lamb Board for sponsoring this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 5 cups (about 2.5 pounds) of lamb shoulder, fat trimmed and cut into large bite-sized pieces
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 12 oz Italian sausage (classic Andouille will also work, but it will be spicier), sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 1 yellow onion, chopped roughly
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped roughly
- 3 stalks of celery, chopped roughly
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 10 cups of lamb (or beef) stock
- 6-8 sprigs of thyme, plus more for garnish
- 8-10 sage leaves
- 2 fresh bay leaves (or 3 dried)
- 1 tablespoon of paprika
- ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoons of kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 ½ teaspoons of fresh ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of canola oil or lard
- 2 cups of okra (about 10 ounces frozen), chopped into bite size pieces
- Cooked white long-grain rice
- Louisiana hot sauce, for garnish (optional)
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Gently pat the lamb shoulder dry and season with salt and pepper to taste. Brown lamb pieces in the skillet until golden on all sides, taking care not to cook the meat all the way through. Remove with tongs and set aside.
- Working in batches, brown andouille sausage, onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic, making sure not to overcrowd the skillet. If you notice the bottom of the skillet getting dry, add more oil. Set aside with the meat once andouille is slightly browned on the edges and the vegetables are tender.
- Transfer lamb, andouille sausage, bell pepper, onion, celery, and garlic to a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add lamb (or beef) stock and cook over low heat.
- Tie together the thyme and sage leaves with kitchen twine. Add to the pot along with bay leaves, paprika, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Cover pot with a tight fitting lid and cook over low heat 1 hour, making sure it does not come to a boil. If it begins to boil, reduce heat. Add okra, return the lid to the pot, and continue cooking for another 1 hour.
- In a large heavy-bottomed skillet (ideally, 12-inches or larger), combine the flour and oil to make a roux. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until roux turns a light brown color, about 30-35 minutes. The ideal shade of brown for this roux is just a few shades lighter than caramel, but this is flexible so don’t worry if your roux gets too dark. The most important thing is not to let it burn, so stir constantly and keep the heat at medium-low. If you notice it beginning to burn, reduce heat. Once your roux reaches the desired shade, remove from heat and set aside.
- Once lamb is cooked through and tender, add the roux, a little bit at a time, to the pot. If your roux has sat for some time and begun to separate, stir it gently to reincorporate before adding to the stew. Roux is a thickening agent in gumbo making so you can add all of it for a thicker gumbo or just a little bit for a brothier gumbo. I prefer my gumbo thick, so I add all of it. Taste test the gumbo and adjust seasonings if necessary. Continue cooking, uncovered, over very low heat until you are ready to serve.
- Remove the thyme and sage bundle and the bay leaves from the gumbo and discard. Ladle gumbo into soup bowls along with a scoop of rice and garnish with fresh thyme and Louisiana hot sauce (if desired).