Every summer, for me, has its culinary victory. One year it was gelato. Another: jam. There was the summer when the takeaway, clearly, was old fashioned American pie. This year, as the days get shorter and the occasional tree begins to turn color, the one thing that is obvious to me is that this summer was all about lamb and if you forced me to get specific, I’d say it was about lamb ribs.
Lamb as a victory and a theme for my summer has everything to do with the fact that I was collaborating on a MEAT book with Pat LaFrieda, New York City’s paint balling, turkey hunting, Prada shoe-wearing, scimitar wielding celebrity artisan butcher. Before that, I wouldn’t have known there was such a thing as lamb ribs. I mean I knew lambs had ribs. I have ribs. My dog has ribs. But who knew you could or that anybody did eat lamb ribs? Lamb being fatty, lamb ribs are also fatty, in the best way, and lamb being exceptionally flavorful, lamb ribs… don’t even get me started.
I recently brought several racks of lamb ribs with me to Lake Placid, where I visited the Tennesse-born, North Carolina-living cook, Sara Foster. Sara knows a thing or five about pig ribs, so we applied these things to the ribs of the beautiful, all-American lamb that Pat deals in. Sara and I added a hint of mint to the formula–I mean it is lamb, right? And what we came up with were fall-off-the-bone, succulent, glazed and caramelized riblets that are about the most delicious thing anyone we served them to had, up to that point, ever eaten. When we piled them high and put them out as an appetizer to our party of 12, guests started yelling–and I mean screaming. (It was that kind of party, they were those kinds of guests.) “What are these things?” One yelled from the patio, while another guest, known to subside off of Coors Lite alone, was spotted in the kitchen quietly tearing into not one rib but one after another. “These are the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten!” another guest exclaimed. And “Lamb ribs? Who knew lambs had ribs?”
Lambs do have ribs. And you can eat them. And you should eat them. Here’s how.
Double Glazed Lamb Ribs with Mint Pepper Jelly
I used Foster’s Market Seven Pepper Jelly to make this, since I made them with Sara Foster, who invented that jelly. (Plus it’s the best pepper jelly you’l ever eat. It has seven peppers!) Use whatever pepper jelly you want. You could serve these as a main course, but they are rich and sticky and perfect for cocktail time. You can also make these with pork spare ribs (aka St. Louis ribs), which are easier to find and also less expensive than lamb. If you are cooking pork ribs, lose the mint; if you’re dying to include a fresh herb, make it thyme.
Serves 6 or 8 as an appetizer
2 lamb Denver (spare) rib racks (about 1 1/2 pounds each; or pork St. Louis/spare ribs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 (12-ounce) beer
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves (or fresh thyme if you are cooking pork)
1/2 cup pepper jelly
Maldon sea salt
First, get the lamb. Getting your hands on lamb ribs may be the most difficult part of your journey. Your friendly butcher, such as the nice guys at Huntington Meats in Los Angeles and at Ottomanelli in New York will order lamb Denver ribs for you with one or two days notice. Whole Foods will, too.
Now that you’ve got your lamb, preheat your oven to 325°F.
Season the lamb racks with salt and pepper on both sides. Put the onion slices and beer in a large baking pan. Lay the lamb on top of the onions and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Put the lamb in the oven and bake the ribs for 1 hour. (If you’re cooking pork, make that 2 hours instead of one. Lamb is more naturally tender than pork, and it’s also smaller, thus the time difference.) This step is what gives you the juicy, tender, fall-off-the-bone meat. From here you’ll take the lamb, which at this point is a not appetizing shade of gray, glaze it with pepper jelly, and throw it on the grill, where you get the beautiful charred meat. You can prepare the lamb up to this point up to a day or two in advance. Let them cool and keep them in the braising liquid until you’re ready to grill them.
When you’re ready to grill and serve your lamb ribs, preheat a gas or charcoal grill.
Stir the mint into the pepper jelly. Remove the ribs from the braising liquid and onions and brush the racks on both sides with the pepper jelly. Throw them on the grill until the glaze is gooey and the ribs are charred in places.
Take the lamb off the grill and brush another layer of jelly on the ribs. Do this while the ribs are still hot so the glaze melts into the ribs.
Cut the rack into individual ribs but cutting between each bone. Sprinkle them with Maldon if you want and serve them piping hot with lots of napkins.