While long valued in Asia, Australia, Europe and New Zealand as a source of food and clothing, lamb did not reach North America until sheep arrived with Spanish soldiers under the command of Hernan Cortez in 1519. Bloodshed and social division resulted in the 1800s when sheepherding was introduced into what some considered cattle ranching country in the western territories. Racism also may have had a role, since cattlemen were predominately white and sheepherders often were Hispanic or Native American. Some suggest the sheep wars, which continued from the 1870s to the 1920s, may partially explain why lamb never became an American staple like beef.
The English verb “chop” means “to cut or sever with a quick heavy blow.” In 17th century England, when restaurants began serving individual portions at meals, they began to cut meat perpendicularly to the spine between the ribs, creating what they called a chop, a perfect single portion. Chophouses soon were all the rage. Most people think of pork or lamb, not beef, when they think of chops. Technically, though, a T-bone steak is a loin chop, and a ribeye is a rib chop.
Rib lamb chops are cut from the rack along the spine just behind the shoulders. The two racks of ribs, one on either side of the spine, each will contain seven or eight rib chops. If left intact, a rack can be roasted. You can lean two racks against each other, with bone tips interlaced, or you can tie several racks together, bone tips up, to form a circular crown roast. If the bone tips are scraped of all meat, fat and connective tissue, exposing the bones, it’s called a French rack. Should you decide to roast a whole rack, make sure the butcher cracks the chine (backbone) between the ribs so that the roast will be easy to carve.
Rib lamb chops are narrow, fatty and very tasty. When choosing them in the grocery, look for a light, red color. Darkness in a lamb chop can be an indication of age. A light color suggests that the lamb is younger and, presumably, more tender. Because the meat is very tender, rib chops are perfect for high heat cooking, like pan grilling. Since the chops are small, plan on serving three, or even four, per person. The chops will have a neater appearance if you French the ends, but I rarely bother for an informal meal.