Once upon a time, people knew their lamb. In her turn-of-the-century cookbook, Fannie Farmer taught homemakers 20 ways to prepare lamb (plus 10 recipes for mutton and four for lamb’s kidneys). And only one recipe said anything about mint jelly.
Mint jelly is solely responsible for lamb’s current image problem. Actually, the whole mint jelly thing started out innocently enough. The British traditionally serve roast lamb with a tart mint sauce, made by steeping fresh mint leaves with water, vinegar, salt and sugar. The tangy sauce is a nice counterpoint to the unctuous lamb. Cuisines all over the world have developed similar tactics; in Greece, lemon might balance lamb’s richness. Middle Easterners might dress lamb with tangy fruits, Indians might stew it in yogurt, and so on.
Lamb, unlike many modern, mass-produced meats, has a good strong flavor that will stand up to just about any herb or spice you throw at it: rosemary, garlic, curry spices and cilantro are favorites. Lamb is also impossibly tender, so you need only sear a chop medium-rare and you’ve got a succulent meal.
Ah, but the cost! True, the price-per-pound on those teensy loin chops is eye-popping. But well-stocked butcher counters offer more affordable options:
Arm chops. As the name—and the round bone in the middle—suggests, these represent a cross section of a lamb’s upper arm. It’s a well-used muscle, so a bit chewier than a loin chop, but highly flavorful and still quite tender enough for a quick sear.
Blade chops. This cut, from the lamb’s shoulder blade, is streaked throughout with fat. Great flavor, but probably best cut into chunks for a stir-fry or curry. Blade and arm chops tend to be modestly priced.
Loin chops. These are small—you’ll need two per person—and expensive. But they’re meltingly tender, with no oddly placed fat pockets for your dinner companion to wrestle with.