Driving down 290 one wet, drippy day last winter, I noticed a warehouse, empty, abandoned, and desolate, with the word “wool” painted on the side, atmospherically faded, close to disappearing. We love that look in Austin–faded remnants of a rural, cowboy past, weathered tin, faded paint, the ghost of a farmers mercantile. Soon I noticed another. And another. Wool? In Texas? Cows, of course, but sheep? Long enough ago to weather and fade, and disappear?
My friend Loncito Cartwright recounts the history of the once-thriving sheep ranching business in Texas. “South Texas was settled by the Irish Empresarios. They had enormous sheep ranches that provided both meat and wool to the local community and to the rest of the country. But then three things happened. First, the herds were hit with internal parasites that the ranchers didn’t know how to treat. Second, the wool market tanked, and third, belt-driven mills everywhere began using cow hide for their belts, so all these guys switched over to raising cattle. A hundred years ago, there were 50 million heads of sheep in West Texas. Now there are 8 million in the whole United States.” He says, sadly, “We’ve become a country that imports our food.”
I ask him if sheep are more sustainable than cattle to raise-should we all be eating lamb instead of beef? He shakes his head, “No, it’s not really about one being better than the other. To truly be sustainable, you need to have all the animals on the ranch together–cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens. All of them are dead-end hosts for the parasites of the others, so by having them all on one property, you control disease and enrich the land.” Loncito plans on putting some cattle on his property soon. If cattle ranchers could see that there was a market for local lamb, maybe they’d start adding some sheep to their herds too. I’ve been eating Texas beef all my life, but Texas lamb has been a most pleasant discovery. Earthy and robust, with more nuance of flavor than beef, I love the way it works with the bright flavors of lime and fish sauce in this stir-fry. With a bright tangle of broccoli or greens, it is a delicious dinner that makes truly sustainable ranching a brighter possibility in Texas.
Lamb & Broccoli Stir-Fry
1 bunch broccoli, cut into florets
grapeseed oil for stir-frying
1 small bunch spring onions, white part only, cut into thin slices
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground lamb
juice of 1 lime
1/4 c. fish sauce
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. hot pepper flakes
salt to taste
small handful fresh cilantro
Blanch broccoli in a large pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh with ice water. Heat oil in heavy wok until smoking hot. Stir-fry onions and garlic for 15-20 seconds. Add lamb and quickly stir-fry until browned. Add broccoli and continue to stir-fry until broccoli is seared and hot. Stir together lime juice, fish sauce, hot pepper flakes, and sugar until dissolved. Drizzle on top lamb-broccoli mixture. Serve with hot basmati rice and top with cilantro.