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This sumac lamb inspired by Navajo stories and ingredients, is an easy but impressive main

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – Lamb and mutton are not considered ancestral proteins among Indigenous peoples in North America, according to Navajo (Diné) chef and author Freddie Bitsoie. Unlike other foods that have been consumed for thousands of years, their meat is a relatively new, “centuries-old” tradition.

Today, lamb graze along the plains, mountains and farmsteads of many Native peoples. This is how one story of their arrival goes: “There was a thick fog for four days. No one could see their hand in front of their faces, and people were growing worried and scared,” Bitsoie, whose cookbook, New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian, written with James O Fraioli, said. “But when the fog lifted, little cloud puffs were left behind: the sheep.”

Of course, it was the Spanish who brought sheep to the Americas, and Bitsoie tells me other (not so charming) stories about the cultural exchanges that took place when Europeans arrived on Native land: How chilis, potatoes and tomatoes migrated across the world – and back again. And, how corn conquered all.

A few years ago, Bitsoie was on a television set with cookbook author Lidia Bastianich, filming a show. At one point, he wrote in the book, she turned to him and said, “It’s the Italians who found the niche with ground corn dishes.” Bitsoie took a moment to consider a reply. “I’m sorry Lidia, but I believe it was the Native Americans.” Soon after, he sent her his recipe for a polenta-like porridge made from ground blue cornmeal, or Hopi maize. Versions of the dish existed thousands of years before corn landed on Italy’s shores.

That blue cornmeal, thick and creamy, would be a wonderful accompaniment to many of the generously adaptable, streamlined recipes in New Native Kitchen – accompanied by illustrations by Gabriella Trujillo and photographs by Quentin Bacon – including this one, for Sumac Navajo Leg of Lamb With Onion Sauce.

Sumac Navajo Leg of Lamb With Onion Sauce adapted from ‘New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian’ by Freddie Bitsoie and James O Fraioli. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Sumac, a dried berry that’s native to North America and elsewhere, is widely used by the Diné. Among other things, it’s used to make a porridge, and there’s a cold beverage, a sort of sumac-ade that Bitsoie says he grew up drinking. But he doesn’t remember it being used as a spice on meats.

Inspired by the ingredient’s lemony flavour, he decided to pair it with lamb. It’s a marvelous combination: The tangy sumac forms a burnished crust on the exterior of a leg or shoulder of lamb – tied or untied – and steeps into the meat, balancing its flavours. It’s an incredibly simple preparation, and mostly hands-off.

The accompanying onion sauce, which is subtly sweet and fragrant with rosemary and juniper berries, is based on a memory: “I never met my grandfather, he died when I was 13, but my mom told me many stories about him,” Bitsoie said.

“One of them was that he used to work in the mountains as a cattle and sheep herder. He’d be in the mountains for days, and used to camp out in the middle of nowhere. To feed himself, he’d roast lamb over a fire, and would make a sauce out of a chopped onion that he’d cook down until it fell apart.” Bitsoie added the juniper berries and rosemary because he imagines those scents may have followed his grandfather as he navigated the woods.

“Is it my grandfather’s exact recipe?” Bitsoie asked, rhetorically. “No, and that’s the point.

The book is called New Native Kitchen, because this is a cuisine that’s still evolving and still expanding. It’s not stuck in the past – it’s looking ahead into the future.”


Active time: 30 mins | Total time: One hour, 30 mins
Eight servings

Sumac, a small, red, citrusy berry that grows wild throughout North America, adds a lemony brightness to this roasted lamb. The sauce is sweet from caramelised onions and savoury with fresh rosemary, thyme and pine-y juniper berries.

Any kind of large cut of lamb will work here, but a lamb shoulder or leg is ideal. To save time, ask your butcher to tie the roast for you. This isn’t necessary, but it will help it cook evenly and make it easier to slice.

Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to four days.

NOTE: If your lamb roast is tall and thick, it may take longer, up to another 40 or so minutes, to reach medium-rare.


For the lamb:
– One leg of lamb or tied lamb roast
– One teaspoon fine salt
– One teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
– 1/3 cup ground sumac
– Three tablespoons canola oil

For the onion sauce:
– Two tablespoons canola oil
– One large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
– Two sprigs fresh thyme
– One sprig fresh rosemary
– Five dried juniper berries
– One teaspoon fine salt
– One teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
– Water, as needed
– Two cups chicken stock


Make the lamb:
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 F. Season the lamb on all sides with the salt and pepper, then coat the lamb on all sides with the sumac.

In a large, ovenproof skillet over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the meat and sear on all sides until evenly browned, a total of about eight minutes.

Transfer to the oven and roast for about 40 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the centre reaches 145 F for medium-rare.

Make the onion sauce:
While the lamb is roasting, in a medium saute pan over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion, thyme, rosemary, juniper berries, salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until onions are soft and brown, about 20 minutes.

If the onions begin to stick or darken in any places, stir in a splash of water and adjust the heat. Once browned, add the stock and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the herb stems and juniper berries.

When the lamb is done to your liking, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve warm, with the onion sauce on the side.


Calories: 272 | Total Fat: 22 g | Saturated Fat: 6 g | Cholesterol: 43 mg | Sodium: 709 mg | Carbohydrates: 7 g | Dietary Fiber: 1 g | Sugars: 3 g | Protein: 12 g.

(This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.)