I spent my childhood on a tiny British Columbian island in the Pacific Northwest called Salt Spring. The region is famous for its incredibly tender and mild-flavored lamb. Sometimes it seemed as if there were more sheep than people, and the locals revered them with an almost cult-like status. The sheep also make abundant souvenir fodder for tourists.
I’m not quite sure what sets our lamb apart from other regions around the world. It has a subtle floral aroma you won’t find elsewhere, and the meat tastes much less “lamby” than most others I’ve tried (though Icelandic lamb comes incredibly close).
I like to think that this marked difference is due to the happy life most of the sheep enjoy on the island. They’re held in high regard and viewed as somewhat of an idol. Caring for them and relying on them for food and warmth is a way of life that goes back generations. I’m sure our admiration doesn’t hurt when it comes to the divine taste of the meat. But it more likely has something to do with the region itself, the real culprit being the flourishing flora the sheep subsist on. Most of the well-cared for herds spend their days munching on lush green pastures, dense with sweet grass and wildflowers, and drinking up the local pollens and crisp, salty Pacific ocean air.
Lamb has always held a special place in my heart. When I was growing up, it graced our table far more than other red meats, and now it fosters fond childhood memories. We often celebrated special occasions with a roast leg studded with garlic and rosemary, and a juicy, succulent lamb turning on an open-flame spit was a frequent sight at numerous weddings, community events, and carnivals.
For myself and countless other folks outside of my homeland, lamb is an iconic symbol of spring and the corresponding religious holidays of Easter and Passover. Most cultures that originally celebrated the season with young lamb came from the much warmer climates of the Mediterranean and Middle East, where the first lamb generally come a little earlier. Interestingly, in our cooler climate, lamb doesn’t reach maturity until closer to late spring or early summer, so I suppose that’s the true start to lamb season. Technicalities aside, along with its religious significance within numerous ancient cultures, lamb also symbolizes new life and purity, and that certainly isn’t going away.
In addition to being a tasty alternative in your dinner routine, lamb also boasts tremendous nutritional benefits. An excellent source of protein and high in B vitamins, zinc, selenium, and iron, lamb certainly packs a lot of punch. Lamb meat is also an excellent source of conjugated lineolic acid (CLA) and, surprisingly, ounce for ounce, most cuts of lamb contain a little more omega-3 fatty acids than most beef, due to their diets.
Unfortunately, the high demand for lamb results makes it less abundant than other meats, so it can often come with a higher price tag, which makes it difficult for most households to include it on their menus. This nourishing stew makes the most of less-costly lamb shoulder. You get all the health benefits and unique taste at a fraction of the cost of the more luxurious cuts. Fresh herbs, bountiful veggies, and a fresh, flavorful broth perfectly compliment the tender meat. Barley, a hearty staple grain going back eons in many cultures, adds a rich depth and heartiness. It also comes with its own set of health benefits, being high in fiber and trace minerals like manganese, molybdenum, and selenium.
In honor of the coming season—and while the days are still chilly enough to warrant a rib-sticking meal—this stew is a great way to introduce lamb into your family’s diet. And if lamb just isn’t your thing, this stew would be just as easy to prepare and would have a very similar taste if you used another mild-flavored meat, such as pork. Pair it with fresh baked biscuits or crusty bread and serve alongside a fresh, simple salad for a complete meal, perfect for a drizzly spring day.
Herbed Lamb and Barley Stew
Prep time: 20–30 minutes
Cook time: 3–4 hours
2 lbs. lamb shoulder, trimmed of sinew and cut in large bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup white wine
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, or 4 teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped, or ½ teaspoon dried
6 bay leaves
8 cups chicken or beef broth (chicken provides a more delicate flavor)
2 tablespoons flour (optional, for extra thickness)
2 onions, diced
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, cut in half moons, then soaked in a bowl of cold water
4 stalks celery, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
1½ lbs. baby red potatoes, left whole if small or cut in half or large bite-sized pieces if large
½ cup barley
3 cups fresh or frozen peas
1 cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
- Season lamb with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a large, heavy pan or Dutch oven. Sear lamb pieces until deeply browned on each side (sear in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the meat). Transfer to a bowl and repeat until all lamb is browned.
- Add white wine to pot and boil until reduced by half. Add thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 2 hours (6 hours for slow cooker), stirring frequently and adding more stock or water if necessary, until meat is almost tender.
- Add onion, leek, celery, carrot, potatoes, and barley. Continue simmering until lamb and vegetables are tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Add peas and parsley and heat through. As with any stew, this one gets better after a day.
Image from Briana Goodall.