Lamb Jam offers global twist to farm-to-fork feast

Grilled lamb burgers with green onions in pita combines ground lamb with Mediterranean flavors. Used in burgers, meatloaf, pasta and more, ground lamb is becoming more popular with consumers.
Grilled lamb burgers with green onions in pita combines ground lamb with Mediterranean flavors. Used in burgers, meatloaf, pasta and more, ground lamb is becoming more popular with consumers. American Lamb Board

When it comes to creative cooking challenges, Lamb Jam has legs.

This Sunday, July 17, chefs and meat lovers from throughout Northern California will converge on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Club for the seventh annual Lamb Jam, a farm-to-fork celebration.

“It has really become our signature event where we can celebrate with fans,” said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “We hold this event in strong markets where lamb sales are growing and where consumers have good access to quality lamb.”

With local farms and processors, Northern California has quality lamb in abundance, she noted. Besides San Francisco, Lamb Jams also are held in Boston; Seattle; Austin, Texas; and Washington, D.C.

When Lamb Jam started, the focus was on cuts, not cuisines.

“Now, we focus on global flavors,” Wortman said. “That shows the versatility of lamb. Around the world, everybody eats lamb – except Americans.”

That’s the spark at Lamb Jam’s roots: enticing more cooks to try lamb. Although consumers are eating more lamb, the average American still accounts for only about 1 pound a year, mostly in restaurants.

With chefs competing for the title of “Lamb Master,” the cookoff showcases different ways to prepare lamb using spices and techniques from around the world.

“It amazes me,” Wortman said. “We do this event in five markets and we’ve never seen the same dish twice. It’s mind boggling how creative these chefs get.”

Instead of cuts, the chefs pick a global flavor category: Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American. They can use any cut they like except rack of lamb, a longtime restaurant staple.

“We don’t let the chefs work with racks; it’s not really an affordable cut,” Wortman said. “We’re seeing lots of chops, which are simple to cook at home. Legs are really versatile, so we see a lot of those. Interestingly, shoulder has become one of the most popular (cuts for Lamb Jam). The chefs love experimenting with ribs, too. Some chefs are opting for whole animals, which is exciting. It’s really fun to see how inventive chefs can be.”

One chef who will go whole lamb this weekend is Sacramento’s Jason Azevedo of Hock Farm Craft and Provisions.

“I have a whole carcass of lamb and a Mediterranean theme,” Azevedo said. “The dish title: fire-roasted whole lamb, herb emulsion, Calabrian chili capanata, black olive and tomato.”

At the 2015 San Francisco Lamb Jam, a deconstructed Asian salad took home top honors. Created by chef Sophina Uong, spicy Burmese lamb and ginger salad with corn pudding, lemongrass, crunchy bits and seeds won Best in Show.

Uong, formerly of Revival Bar + Kitchen in Berkeley, also won the 2014 San Francisco Lamb Jam. Now at the Mexican-themed Calavera in Oakland, Uong will try for a Lamb Jam three-peat Sunday.

Among the other celebrated chefs slated to compete Sunday are Francis Hogan of Sabio on Main; Jay Abrams of Bi-Rite Market; Wesley Shaw of Presidio Social Club; Michael Cassady of Kuleto’s; Parke Ulrich of Epic Steak; Sean Thomas of Blue Plate; and John Griffiths of Bluestem Brasserie.

At Lamb Jam, patrons can put together their own global spice mix to take home. Each chef has their own suggestions.

“Fresh rosemary, toasted juniper, coriander and Calabrian chili would be a spice blend for lamb,” Azevedo said.

Although lamb is not currently on his Hock Farm menu, Azevedo is a lamb fan.

“I think lamb is a great protein,” he said. “It has a great flavor, and (it’s) very versatile. I like the unctuous (or fatty) richness of braised shanks and think it’s the best meat for cooking slowly over fire.”

Leg of lamb in particular is good slowly cooked on the grill, he added.

Grilling lamb is a good introduction for home cooks, Wortman said. “It’s grilling season, and that’s the best way to start cooking lamb. Grill it like you would steak.”

Lamb can cook fast, she noted. Grill lamb over medium heat and keep an eye on it.

“Get a good meat thermometer and pull the meat (from the grill) 10 degrees below the desired temperature,” she said. “Then, let it rest. For example, if you want medium rare (140 to 145 degrees), cook it to 130 to 135 degrees, then let it rest 10 minutes. The temperature continues to rise off the grill. It will be perfect. Even chops benefit from five minutes’ rest.”

Typically, a 1-inch-thick chop needs nine to 12 minutes total grill time to reach medium rare. Skewered lamb kebabs require eight to 12 minutes. Cover meat loosely with foil while it rests; that allows the juices to set after cooking.

Or try lamb burgers, at six minutes per side.

“Absolutely, ground lamb is gaining popularity,” she said. “Sales are up significantly each year. Ground lamb now represents 12 percent of total retail; 10 years ago, you couldn’t even find it in most markets. Ground lamb is a perfect gateway cut. You can experiment with it in burgers, meatloaf, pasta, any dish you use ground meat.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

San Francisco Lamb Jam

What: Cookoff featuring 12 Northern California chefs preparing lamb dishes of Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern inspiration. Attendees will taste the results and vote for People’s Choice winners. The event also includes beer and wine tastings.

Where: The Golden Gate Club, 135 Fisher Loop, San Francisco

When: 3-6 p.m. Sunday, July 17

Tickets: $60; order online; no tickets at door; no minors


Southeast Asian lamb skewers with spicy cucumber relish

Swerves 6 to 8

Cookbook author Andrea Slonecker created this recipe for the American Lamb Board.

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

2 pounds boneless leg of American lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes


1 English cucumber

1 large shallot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise

2 to 4 red Thai chilies or jalapeños, thinly sliced

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt


Roasted peanuts

Cilantro leaves

In a medium bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, ginger and garlic. Thread the lamb pieces onto wooden skewers, leaving about one-third of each skewer free to use as a handle. (Don’t leave gaps between the meat pieces, but don’t smush them together too tightly, either, or the lamb will cook unevenly.) Arrange the assembled skewers in a shallow baking dish in a single layer and pour the marinade over, turning the skewers to coat the lamb evenly. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours, turning once about halfway through.

To make the relish: Halve the cucumber and then halve each half again lengthwise. Quarter each piece lengthwise, so you end up with long wedges (like skinny pickle spears). Thinly slice the wedges crosswise into small triangles. Combine the cucumbers with the shallots, chiles, vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day before serving. (Note, the cucumbers will soften a bit if left to marinate for more than a few hours, but are still delicious.)

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill to high. Lightly oil the grill grate. Remove the lamb skewers from the marinade, gently shaking off the excess, and arrange them on the hottest part of the grill. Grill, turning once, until nicely charred on the outside but still slightly pink in the center, 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with peanuts and cilantro leaves. Serve hot or at room temperature with the cucumber relish on the side.

Curry-yogurt grilled lamb chops

Serves 4

Recipe courtesy American Lamb Board.

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon curry powder

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

8 American lamb rib chops cut 3/4-inch thick, or 1 American rack of lamb (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into individual chops

Mix the yogurt, olive oil, garlic, ginger, curry powder, 2 teaspoons salt and several grinds of pepper in a large bowl. Place the lamb chops in a large baking dish and season well with salt and pepper. Coat all sides with the marinade, cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight.

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill.

Grease the grill grates with oil. Wipe off excess marinade, and place the lamb chops on the hottest parts of the grill. Cook, turning once, until dark grill marks form on each side and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of each chop registers 130 degrees for medium-rare, 7 to 10 minutes. (Carryover cooking will increase the internal temperature off the grill.)

Move the lamb to a cooler part of the grill as needed to avoid blackening or flare-ups. Transfer the chops to a platter, cover with foil and let rest at least 5 minutes before serving.

Grilled lamb burgers with green onions in pita

Serves 6 to 8

Recipe courtesy American Lamb Board.

2 pounds ground certified halal American lamb

1/2 cup finely chopped green onions

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

8 medium pita breads, whole wheat or regular, cut into halves

Olive oil for brushing

Cucumber yogurt sauce (optional):

2 cups finely chopped or shredded cucumber

2 cups plain yogurt

1 tablespoon crushed dried mint

1 clove garlic, finely grated

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

In a large bowl combine lamb, green onions, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice and salt.

Preheat grill or grill pan. Stuff the pita bread halves with the lamb mixture, spreading and filling to edges.

Brush the pita on each side with olive oil and grill until the filling is cooked through and the pita brown and crispy, 5-7 minutes per side. Let cool 5 minutes before serving with cucumber yogurt sauce, if desired.

Cucumber yogurt sauce: Drain cucumber of any liquid and combine with the yogurt, mint, garlic, salt and pepper. Serve chilled.

Red chili lamb barbacoa

Serves 8

Recipe adapted from American Lamb Board.

2 guajillo chilies

2 ancho chilies

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons piloncillo or brown sugar

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup water, or more as necessary

2-3 pounds boneless leg of American lamb, trimmed of most fat visible

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Rip open the chilies and remove the seeds, veins and stems. Heat a large skillet over medium-low, add the chilies and toast them in the dry pan, turning them over until they are fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer chilies to a saucepan with enough water to cover chilies and bring to a boil, then cover with a lid and let rest for 10 minutes or until the chilies are soft. Drain the chilies and discard the water.

Combine the drained chilies, garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, honey, apple cider and water in a blender and puree until the mixture is thick but smooth.

Pour some of the chili sauce into a large Dutch oven or ovenproof casserole with a lid and top with the meat. Rub the lamb with enough chili sauce to generously coat it. Close the lid and transfer to the oven immediately. Bake the lamb for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Alternatively, you can marinate overnight in the refrigerator and bake the next day.

Remove the casserole from the oven and let the meat cool. Coarsely shred the meat with forks, discarding any visible fat. Serve with corn tortillas, avocado and salsa, or any remaining chili sauce.