Flavorful ways to get your goat

Preparation: OK, so this meat has next to no role in traditional American cooking, but you just might like it. No kidding.

January 19, 2000|By Charles Perry | Charles Perry,Los Angeles Times

Here's something nobody ever says: "Goat? Why, it tastes like chicken."

On the contrary, goat meat has a rep for rankness. It's the last thing a lot of people would ever consider eating.

But Jamaican restaurants have softened us up with their goat curries, and a lot of non-Latinos now relish the spicy, gamy goat stew Birria. People who like food to have punch and character seem to be outgrowing the traditional American distaste for goat. We don't even bother to call it "kid" anymore, though kid -- the milder, more tender young animal -- is the only form of goat that is eaten.

At the same time, a lot of people still find lamb too wild, and they're going to be hard to convince. The goat, with its straight horns, up-pointing tail and hairy fleece, is nowhere near as domesticated-looking as a sheep.

And it definitely isn't sheepish. It will butt anything it takes a mind to, and in the rutting season a billy goat has an overpoweringly rank smell. To medieval Christians, the goat seemed a grotesque parody of the peaceable lamb, and the goat provided the image of Satan, from the hoofs, horns, tail and chin beard to the ferocity and sulfurous odor.

Wild though they seem, goats are actually old companions of ours. They were domesticated 9,000 years ago, well ahead of pigs, cattle and horses, much earlier than any other animals but dogs and possibly sheep.

Why? Well, they may not be as docile as sheep, but they're much less trouble to herd. They don't have to be led to pasture; they'll go out and actively forage for their own food. With their unique mouth structure (instead of upper incisors they have a bony palate against which the lower teeth grind the food), they can chew dry, tough plants, even tree bark, though they prefer leaves.

Because goats can survive where sheep can't, they tend to be raised in poor areas. Unfortunately, they tend to keep those areas poor, because goats will chew plants right down to the ground, preventing regrowth. Laws now restrict the number of goats per country in Europe, because they are blamed for ancient erosion and environmental degradation in the Mediterranean countries.

Originally, they were raised for meat, but some varieties have useful fleece. Angora and cashmere are woven from goat fleece. Above all, nanny goats are prodigious milkers, typically producing eight to 15 times their body weight in milk every year. It's rich milk, too, 4.3 percent butterfat.

In this country, goat meat is really a byproduct of the dairy industry. Like veal, it comes from young male animals, which are worthless as milk producers and would have to be disposed of anyway. Around the world, there are a number of goat breeds raised just for meat, such as Assam Hill, Bengal and West African Pygmy, but they're unknown in this country because there's so little demand for goat meat, except at Easter and in communities where there is a goat-eating tradition.

If you like goat cheese, you shouldn't have any trouble with the flavor of goat meat, but it's somewhat hard to describe. I find it quite like lamb, but more sinewy and with a pleasant brassy funkiness. To well-known food writer Colman Andrews, the flavor is like lamb crossed with pork. In "Seasons of the Italian Kitchen," Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca compare it to veal with a gamy edge. Interestingly, the Filipino dish Caldereta, which is braised goat in liver sauce, is usually made with beef in this country.

There are an estimated 375 million goats in the world. Goat meat is relished in all the warmer climates of Africa, the Americas and Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Wherever you go, goat is likely to be roasted (particularly when very young) or stewed. Not many people fry goat chops.

Goat, like lamb, calls for wild seasonings. Garlic and herbs are practically universal. For the Sicilian dish Agnello Alla Griglia Con Ammyghiu, the meat is marinated in oil, lemon juice and oregano and served with a garlicky tomato salsa.

But goat has next to no role in traditional American cooking. There are no goat recipes in Fanny Farmer or "The Joy of Cooking," although in "The Kentucky Housewife" (1839), Lettice Bryan did give a Southern recipe for roast goat. It was pretty much the same as her roast turkey with herbed bread-crumb stuffing, except that it was basted with rich cream toward the end.

Birria

Serves 6

1 (5-pound) piece young goat, preferably hindquarter, or 1 (3-pound) bone-in lamb shoulder or butt end of leg

12 dried guajillo chilies, stemmed, seeded and deveined

6 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon salt

water

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tomato, peeled and cored, or 3/4 (15-ounce) can tomatoes, drained

1 teaspoon oregano

salt

1 onion, cut in 1/8-inch dice

2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves

2 limes, quartered

Trim most of fat from meat. If using goat hindquarter, cut in 2 pieces with cleaver, severing joint at top of leg.

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