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grilled mutton leg

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Grilled mutton legs

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A glutton for mutton: Making a case — and a recipe — for gamy meats

They say hunger is the best sauce, but imagination, at the very least, is a pretty good seasoning. 

The famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer used to claim that the brain is the largest sex organ in the body; I'd suggest that the mind is similarly the biggest taste bud. Studies have shown that knowing the value of a bottle of wine will influence how people think it tastes. Children, meanwhile, will fight over certain colors of M&M. 

We are wired to appreciate food, in part, based the story attached to it. Whether it's an egg from a happy hen, or some words on the back of a chocolate bar about the farmers who grew the cacao. Even a name, like Klari Baby Cheese, will make a pepper more interesting. 

And then there is my friend Steve, a farmer who can fill himself with literal and existential hunger with a single word: "Mutton." Steve makes a point of saying the word at full volume, because it's more than just a statement. It's a one-word manifesto. 

"Nobody wants to say 'mutton' anymore," Steve complained to me once. "As a society we've shunned the eating of grown-up sheep in favor of young lambs to the point where even saying the word 'mutton' is like talking filth in some circles, and that's a shame." 
lamb shoulder chops
Mutton, otherwise known as old sheep, or overgrown lamb, is not what most people would call a delicacy. Sheep is a strong-tasting animal, and this flavor gets stronger with age. A lamb is not only mellower of flavor, but a lot more tender than a full-grown sheep, which can be as tough as an old rooster. Certain measures must be taken so that the flavor is tamed. These steps — and the soft, delicious meat that results — are well-worth the trouble. 

Steve and his family enjoy a mutton salad in which the mutton-y flavors are not denied or neutralized, but put to work alongside romaine, onions, cucumbers, dill and shelled peas, with a creamy dressing called "creamy." 

Mutton can be hard to find in stores, and if you can't find it, lamb shoulder or shank would be an acceptable, if expensive, substitute. But I would recommend turkey, or beef shank — which are more affordable — or wild game if you can get it. Any meat that's tough and flavorful can work here. 

Meaty salads are a balancing act. It's common in restaurants to witness someone sit down to a salad laden with meat, cheese, egg, croutons and other non-leafy materials. At the end of the meal, the remaining leaves are returned to the kitchen, untouched, while the eater walks out feeling like a health hero for having ordered a salad. 

This mutton salad is not like that. The braised meat is teased apart like pulled pork and tossed in, where its greasy, flavorful richness adds delicious contrast to the crunchy romaine and sharp onions. 
mutton salad
Pea and Mutton Salad
Serves: 4

Ingredients
Mutton
1 pound boneless mutton, or other tough, gamy meat
1 to 2 cups red wine
3 bay leaves
Garlic powder
Salt

Creamy Dressing
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/3 cup yogurt
3 to 6 cloves garlic, finely grated
1 tablespoon horseradish
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salad
2 heads romaine, washed and chopped 
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 large or two medium cucumbers, thinly sliced
1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen, blanched and cooled
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped

Instructions
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Set the broiler to high.

Place the mutton on a baking sheet and brown under the broiler without any oil, then transfer it to baking dish with a lid, half-filled with water, the wine, bay leaves, and salt and garlic powder to taste. (Just a few pinches, enough so the meat will absorb a little flavor, but don't overdo it. You can always add more later, but it's difficult to remove if you add too much.) Cover the dish.

Braise at 300 for a few hours — however long it takes for the meat to soften completely. It could take 4 or more hours. Replace the cooking liquid as necessary so that it mostly, but not totally, covers the meat. When the meat is soft, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool. 

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together all of the dressing ingredients. In a large bowl, combine the salad ingredients.

Once the mutton is cool, shred into bite-sized pieces and add to the salad. Toss with the dressing and season to taste with salt and garlic powder. 

Optional but recommended: Before eating, climb to the closest hilltop and yell "MUTTON!!!" Then, go eat some greasy, gamy, creamy leaves. 

Photo (shoulder chops): Ramona King
Photo (salad): Ari LeVaux

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