After a couple of bites, I paused for a few seconds, just to regard this marvel. Lamb belly, where have you been all my life?
I must have been charmed. I set about learning to make it. But first I had to find it.
Locating a belly was a challenge. On a recent weekend, several specialty butcher shops were out of it. "It's in such high demand in food service," says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. "Suppliers are in short supply."
What I didn't realize at the time is that the belly is not actually the belly. It's just called that. It's technically the breast. Indeed, the high-demand specialty aspect of the cut may not be the only factor in determining lamb belly's availability. It might also have a little something to do with language.
Not long ago, I called a butcher and asked for lamb belly. I was told that he didn't have any. When I asked for lamb breast, he said he had several. I headed over, and, at the counter, the butcher held up the cut and explained that the bone-in cut is lamb breast. He said the roughly inch-thick layer beneath the bones is called the belly --- even though it technically may be considered part of the breast.
"Trust me," the butcher says. "The industry is confused, too."
The name is the result of marketing stemming from the popularity of pork belly. "When belly was becoming so hot with pork, then chefs were wanting to go to the next cool thing, and our industry didn't understand it," says Wortman.
"The cut ended up being called lamb belly even though it is actually the breast."
By any name, it is impossibly rich in flavor.
American yearly per capita consumption of lamb amounts to only about 1 pound. Of the small amount of consumed lamb, lamb belly is a tiny percentage, making it both scarce and sought after. Yet it remains a relative bargain.
In restaurant kitchens, chefs have discovered the cut's adaptability. Marc Hennessy, executive chef at BLT Steak, cooks it with Swiss chard, adds it to peas and carrots, and uses it in agnolotti. "It has real versatility," Hennessy says. "Just serving lamb belly is kind of a strong thing. The fat flavor is very strong. When it comes as a side, people are very interested."
Lamb belly's big flavor pumps up otherwise staid side dishes, certainly, but its robust taste is what made me fall head over heels in the first place. After returning from my revelatory experience, I rubbed spices into the two bellies I'd bought -- one bone-in, the other boneless -- and smoked them gently for a dinner party. I had plenty of other food in case they didn't turn out. They turned out. The flavor was as full and the texture as velvety as I remembered. My guests were amazed.
Since then, I have cooked several lamb bellies. I always smoke them low and slow, crisping their outer layer and concentrating their burly succulence. Then I grill them and eat them on the bone as I would a rack of pork ribs, or if they're boneless, slice them like steak.
Because they are fairly thin and have a lot of fat, lamb bellies cook at a relatively leisurely pace on the grill (within two hours) and are incredibly luscious. In other words, they are nearly impossible to mess up. Me, I like a dish that is practically foolproof and impressive at the same time. And frankly, I don't care what they call it.
BARBECUED LAMB BELLY TACOS
• Eight 6-inch corn tortillas
• 14 ounces to scant 1 pound Barbecued Lamb
• Belly (see headnote and recipe)
• About 1/4 cup homemade or store-bought salsa verde (see accompanying recipe), for serving
• Flesh of 1 ripe avocado, cut into 16 slices
• 1/2 medium red onion, cut into thin half-moons
• Leaves from 4 to 6 stems cilantro, for serving
• 1 medium lime, sliced into 8 wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Stack the tortillas atop one another; wrap them in paper towels and then in aluminum foil. Bake (middle rack) for about 20 minutes, just until warmed through. Transfer to a cutting board, still wrapped. Coarsely chop the lamb belly (if it isn't already chopped). Unwrap the tortillas and divide them among individual plates.
Spoon some of the meat down the center of each tortilla, then fill each one with salsa, 2 slices of avocado, some red onion, and the cilantro. Serve warm, with lime wedges.
Nutrition | Per serving: 450 calories, 32 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
BARBECUED LAMB BELLY
The flavor of lamb belly, a.k.a. breast, is rich and gamy. The treatment here borrows from the Middle East, with the ground sumac adding a slightly lemony flavor.
You'll need 1 cup of hardwood chips, such as apple, pecan or oak, soaked in water for 30 minutes, and an instant-read thermometer.
Serve with rice or your favorite potato salad.
Ground sumac is available at Mediterranean markets.
MAKE AHEAD: Although best if used immediately, the spice mixture can be prepared up to 1 month in advance and kept in a sealed container in the pantry.
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon ground sumac (see headnote)
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (optional; to turn the spice rub into a paste)
• 1 bone-in lamb belly, about 1 1/2 pounds, trimmed of most surface fat; or 1 boneless lamb belly, about 11/3 pounds (see headnote)
Whisk together the salt, black pepper, granulated garlic, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne pepper, ground sumac and oil, if using, in a small bowl. Coat the lamb belly with the mixture.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat: If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Scatter the wood chips over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Place the lamb meat side down directly over the coals and cook uncovered until lightly blackened, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the meat over and cook for 3 to 5 minutes.
Use long-handled tongs to place the lamb meat side up on the indirect-heat side of the grate. Close the grill lid and cook for about 75 minutes.
To finish, use the tongs to place the lamb meat side down directly over the coals, which should be dying, for 5 to 10 minutes to crisp the exterior. The internal temperature of the meat should register 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, with little or no trace of pink inside.
Transfer to a cutting board to rest for 10 minutes before slicing or chopping. Nutrition | Per serving: 290 calories, 30 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
BARBECUED LAMB BELLY GYROS
Lamb and Mediterranean food are made for each other. In this version of the Greek gyro, juicy lamb belly provides a rich base for the bright, light mint and cucumber.
MAKE AHEAD: The cucumber, onion, parsley and mint can be prepped and refrigerated up to 2 hours in advance.
4 whole pitas
• 14 ounces to scant 1 pound Barbecued Lamb Belly (see accompanying recipe)
• 1/2 medium seedless (English) cucumber, peeled
• Leaves from 2 stems flat-leaf parsley
• Leaves from 4 stems mint
• 1/2 medium red onion
• 1 cup plain vegan yogurt
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Stack the pitas atop one another, then wrap the stack in aluminum foil. Bake (middle rack) for about 20 minutes, just until warmed through.
Meanwhile, coarsely chop the lamb belly (if it isn't already chopped), cucumber, parsley and mint. Cut the onion into thin half-moons.
Place a warm pita on each plate. Top or fill equally with the lamb belly, cucumber, herbs, onion and yogurt.
Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving (using low-fat yogurt): 480 calories, 36 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 740 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar