Slice, serve, and enjoy!
Serves 8-12 people
Slice, serve, and enjoy!
Serves 8-12 people
This is an EPIC story about the oldest domesticated livestock breed in the United States, a story that spans 500 years, and hopefully ends on on your plate.
Antonio Manzanares is one of the last remaining Churro shepherds in the Southwest, and he herds these animals in the traditional style, with little concession to modern farming.
This year, for the first time, Heritage Foods USA is proud to announce that it is making Navajo-Churro lamb a featured product for its retail and restaurant customers, a giant step in saving this rare and exquisite breed. Navajo-Churro lambs are prized for their incredible depth of flavor, as well as their long wool, which commands top prices in woven Navajo rugs.
The Navajo Sheep Association, dedicated to the preservation of these sheep, says that “No other sheep population in the history of the world has survived such selective pressure with such dignity and spirit.”
From Noble Roots
The Churro were brought to America from Spain by Francisco Coronado in 1540. The sheep were bred largely for food for the explorers and the missionaries who followed them throughout the region that is now Mexico and the southwestern United States. By 1807 a single flock of Spanish sheep could number 20,000.
At that time Native Americans had no livestock agriculture of their own — there were no domesticated animals in North America yet. Native Americans were still largely hunters and gatherers, but they quickly learned how to raise sheep both for the meat and the Churro’s thick, double-sided fleece and long haired wool.
In the 1860s, the Navajo-Churro sheep population was nearly destroyed as part of the United States government’s efforts to punish the Navajo people who resisted the new wave of Western settlers moving onto their land. The government ordered military action, led by American “heroes” Kit Carson and John Carlton, with instructions to destroy Navajo orchards and flocks. The results were a bloody swath of death and pain.
The Return of the Navajo-Churro
This year, Heritage Foods, in cooperation with John Sharpe, a pioneer in the preservation of rare breeds and the chef at the Turquoise Room at La Posada hotel — a gorgeously restored train station and historic site in Winslow, Arizona — is working to bring this breed back to the American market.
The Churro is smaller than many other sheep and is noteworthy for its especially herbaceous and savory flavor, with a lower lanolin content than many lambs, which can give the meat a gamy flavor. The Churro is also remarkably tender – even cuts like the shoulder and legs that sometimes call for braising can be roasted and served medium rare like the loin chops or the rib rack.
Shepherding: The second oldest profession
These animals are a reflection of the ground upon which they were raised. Heritage Foods’ Churro lamb is truly free range, raised in Navajo country and in the mountains of New Mexico, and herded in the traditional style. There is very little hay feeding in the winter, as they are grazed at lower elevations.
Antonio Manzanares is one of the few shepherds left breeding Navajo-Churro: “We trail through the mountains in the summer and back in winter. They can get a little wild, but they herd well. The Churro is a smaller animal, leaner than other sheep – I have many customers, such as John Sharpe, who swear that the Churro is a very different tasting lamb.”
It’s no secret that the back story helps sell the lamb — from its arrival to the New World, the drive to save the breed from extinction, and traditional shepherding practices.
Heritage Foods works closely with John Sharpe on our Navajo-Churro project. John is a pioneer in the preservation of rare breeds, and the chef at the Turquoise Room at La Posada hotel — a gorgeously restored train station and historic site in Winslow, Arizona.
“My other shepherds are both women, and both weavers,” says John, who serves Churro, nose-to-tail, in tacos, posole, and grilled. “Irene Bennally is actually a famous shepherd and weaver, she was featured in the New York Times – you can pay her and she’ll take you with her shepherding and camping.”
You can read the New York Times article here
And please contact Heritage Foods to get a taste of this incredible lamb, as delicious as it is part of a great American legacy.
In butchery, “frenching” is the process of removing all fat, meat, and connective tissue from the rib bones on a rack roast.
Personally, I like to leave all that stuff on when I’m cooking lamb. I love the crispy, fatty bits on the bones, but for the purposes of presentation, frenching is often preferred.
A rack of lamb consists of a loin attached to a series of rib bones. When untrimmed, this loin is covered with a thick layer of fat and connective tissue that should be removed before cooking.
Begin by using your fingers to find the natural seam between the top layer of fat and the rack. Slowly peel away the layer. You may use a paper towel to help grip and a small knife to help free any stubborn connective tissue.
The fat should separate along a natural fault line leaving a thin 1/8th-inch to 1/4th-inch layer next to the meat. Be careful not to get carried away when trimming. The more fat left on a lamb rack, the more flavor will come through!
At this step, your lamb rack is fully trimmed ready to cook. To french the rack, follow the steps below demonstrated for us by Phil Lewis, Chef du Cuisine at Fat Radish.
How to French:
Using your knife, score the membrane along the center of each bone. Place the tip of the knife against the center of the bone about an inch and a half away from the cut end and pull the knife slowly and firmly down away from the eye of the loin. Repeat along each bone.
Grip the meat and pull away from the ribs slowly and firmly. You can use a paper towel to get a better grip. the meat should pull cleanly away from the bones. Continue working each rib until all are exposed.
Flip the rack over and use your knife to cut away the flap. Discard excess fat, or render if desired.
If you’re really lucky, the fat and membrane will come cleanly off the bones, leaving them bare and pearly white, but most of the time, little bits of meat and fat will remain behind. These can be removed with the help of a small pairing knife.
To divide rack into smaller chops, stand it on end, starting from the exposed rib end, cut between ribs with a smooth, single stroke. If you don’t get through in one stroke, pick up your knife, place it back in the seam, and pull it again. Try to avoid sawing back and forth, which will create jagged edges.
That’s it! It may seem intimidating at first but it just takes a little practice.
Leave any questions in the comments section bellow.
Spring is here, and so is lamb season. Lamb is closely associated with Easter feasts, but did you know that the lengthening of days matches up with a lamb’s natural mating patterns?
Unfortunately, rare and heritage lamb breeds lack the industrial-sized methods of production which yield mass-produced, individual lamb cuts found in grocery stores. To avoid waste, Heritage Foods USA has moved into the half lamb game. Purchasing half lamb from our farmers is the best, most cost-efficient way to enjoy these gastronomical masterpieces.
This year, we were fortunate enough to acquire four rare breeds from four family farms, spanning from Vermont to Montana.
Tunis – Sandstone Ridge Farm, Wisconsin:
Having originated in North Africa, the Tunis is especially heat-tolerant and was the most popular breed of sheep in the Southern United States until the Civil War, when nearly all Tunis flocks were wiped out. Slowly but surely, through the efforts of farms like Sandstone Ridge, this breed is being brought back. The Tunis is an excellent grazer and produces meat that is flavorful, yet delicate.
When James and Lisa Twomey found their “piece of heaven” in La Farge, Wisconsin, the land was overgrown with weeds and shrubs. They decided sheep were the best animal to help them manage their pastures and settled on the Tunis, one of the oldest breeds the world. The Twomeys aren’t the only fans of the Tunis—both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised flocks of this personable, good-natured breed.
Dorset Horn – Tamarack Sheep Farm, Vermont:
Nestled in the pastoral valleys of Central Vermont, Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer are continuing a family tradition by raising sheep from the same genetic line as the flock started by Ben’s great-grandfather. Tamarack Sheep Farm is committed to the preservation and continuation of heritage lamb breeds and is excited to work with Heritage Foods for the first time, offering their Tunis-Dorset Horn lambs for Easter.
Ben and Grace love these breeds, not just because of their history, but also because they possess qualities beneficial for both farmer and customer. The Tunis is a sweet-natured sheep with a docile personality. As a breed known for heavy milking, the Dorset Horn ewe makes a particularly good mother, raising sturdy lambs with good appetites. Crossing these breeds ensures vigorous lambs that produce excellent quality meat.
With fewer than 1,000 registered in existence in The U.S. and less than 5,000 globally, the Dorset Horned lamb is on the ALBC’s Threatened list. Thought to have descended from an ancient breed native to southwestern England, Dorset Horned sheep boast a milky, almost airy meat that is incredibly tender and delicately flavored.
Katahdin – Clover Creek Farm, Tennessee:
The Katahdin is a meat breed, not a wool breed. As a result, it tastes delicious. The Katahdin sheep is the product of innovative thinking on behalf of a farmer named Michael Piel. In the 1950’s, Piel brought three sheep from St. Croix to his farm in Maine. He crossed these “African Hair Sheep,” as they were known, with his own flock of “Down” breeds (more typical wooly meat sheep found in New England), producing a lamb he called “Katahdin” after the highest mountain in Maine. The Katahdin does not need to be sheared and produces a well-muscled, lean but meaty carcass.
It is for these reasons that Chris Wilson has been raising Katahdin sheep on her farm in Tennessee for more than 18 years. Following the motto “farming in harmony with nature,” Chris raises Animal Welfare Approved sheep using rotational grazing methods. In 1999 Chris was named Conservation Farmer of the Year. The Katahdin lamb has delicious, succulent meat with nutty, full flavor.
Icelandic – Willow Spring Ranch, Montana:
Brought across the North Atlantic Ocean by the Vikings, Icelandic sheep were able to survive the harsh conditions thanks to their double- coated fleece and natural inclination to forage on pasture. Katy and Richard Harjes choose to raise Icelandics on their ranch in Montana for these reasons.
Founded in 2009 by Katy and Richard Harjes, Willow Spring Ranch is grass-fed certified by the American Grass-fed Association. The Harjes use organic, humane practices and raise their Icelandic lambs on a 100% grass diet, as soon as they are weaned.
Icelandic sheep are a true triple-threat, known for their creamy milk, luxurious wool, and fine-grained, clean-tasting meat. In fact, Icelandic meat is mild enough that it has been known to convert self-proclaimed “lamb-a-phobes.”
This year’s heritage lamb project was a huge success. Eighty lambs were sold in total, thirty-eight of which were purchased within the first week. In fact, we sold all of our Tunis sheep within the first week! As always, we’d like to thank those who were able to participate in our project and helped in making it a huge success. Your support allows our farmers to continue breeding and raising new lambs, and ensures the preservation of heritage breeds for years to come.