I will never forget the Barbacoa de Chivo at Tacqueria La Huasteca for the rest of my taco-eating life. The goat arrived steaming hot in a shade of brilliant crimson, with long strands of fibrous meat, cordlike, intertwining and trapping the braising juices. The very first bite decorated my white shirt with a streak of murder-victim vogue and few tacos since have been so worth the bleach.
I love tacos, and especially those tacos, but even they didn’t change the likelihood of me eating goat meat on a regular basis. In a universe of dining options, rarely would I think past ramen, arepas, pho, and fried chicken to land on tacos—and then think past carnitas, al pastor, lengua, shrimp, and arrive at I want to eat goat today.
It’s a shame. Goat checks a lot of my boxes: juicy dark meat, versatile, a potential ally in a more diverse and sustainable food system, and of course, great in tacos. I see it sporadically in butcher cases, an odd shank or rack (neck, if you’re lucky), and it’s rarer still on restaurant menus.
Today, I’ve set out to eat goat and think about why much of the greater Twin Cities dining community, including myself, doesn’t more often. I’m watching a full goat breast from Shepherd Song Farm in Downing, Wisconsin, being split in half by Alan Bergo, the Forager Chef whose website documents several videos and recipes for lamb and goat.
“It’s this strange combo of fatty rib meat, and this flappy business, like a flank steak,” he says, showing the striations of fat and muscle rising in neat layers above the breastbone. “It’s kind of like pork belly that tastes like lamb.” He’s going to braise it like pork belly, too, in water and aromatics until it’s loose enough to pry away the tricky rib bones and press into cutlets.
In a literal sense, goat meat is eccentric for the majority of Minnesotans. Meaning, as a foodstuff, it’s simply not central to our diets. You might happen on it—deep in the menu at a curry house, served for breakfast with spongy flatbreads at a Somali joint, and maybe at a Mexican place, say, in a birria stew that’s on special.
But goat is not a strange meat in terms of flavor or nutrition, it’s readily interchangeable with lamb. “The only difference is that the goat’s muscles and subprimals are a little smaller,” Alan explains. “I look for lamb recipes and adapt them. Maybe it’s 30 minutes less in the oven, but the flavor is super similar. I think it’s even better.”
Goat also takes well to the same seasonings we like with lamb—dusted with French fines herbes or coated in African chili pepper blends like harissa or berbere. It may be one of the most popular meat animals on the planet, but here we mostly eat its cheese.
“And the best way to encourage [goats] to give milk is to keep them pregnant,” Alan says. “I would say that if you like goat cheese, you’re ethically responsible for consuming goat meat too, because you’re putting money in a system that produces goat meat that doesn’t really have a home.”
But raising that goat meat isn’t cheap—perhaps one of the major reasons we don’t regularly eat it. They’re streamlined herbivores that aren’t built to pack on pounds like anything grain-fed, meaning extra rearing time for a smaller yield of meat. The image of the dopey goat in the Sunday cartoons munching on a tin can has it all wrong.
“They’re actually picky eaters,” Alan says. “Nature has designed them to be super-efficient. They eat from bushes with thorns on them, but it’s not because they’re impervious to thorns. The dexterity of their mouths is so adept to pick around things and nibble on the buds and young growth on these prickly bushes. It’s fascinating.”
Beyond the price, there are some legitimate cooking difficulties with goat. Some of the leaner cuts require close attention during cooking (though the same is true for lamb) and depending on how they’re butchered, the bones can be a hassle. “You see it in halal markets, it’s the most efficient way, cutting it into these blocky chunks,” Alan explains. “You cook it in liquid, and you have the meat and the broth, and it’s a great way to feed a lot of people.”
Of course, most Americans remain staunchly against having to pick out little bits of bone from their chunks of meat. But all the arguments against goat meat—too expensive, too little meat, too many bones, more useful as farm animals—were all employed a century ago to explain our national aversion to eating chicken (and just look at our diets now). Maybe in a future where cattle pastures run scarce, the low-input, foraging goat will be the red meat to the rescue.
With a little know-how, cooking goat isn’t very daunting. After Alan braises the breast, he removes those bits of rib bone, careful to keep the breasts as whole as possible to press into cutlets. But if he wasn’t very careful, those layers of fat and meat could be shredded together to make incredible carnitas. (Here I am thinking about tacos again, but seriously, goat shoulder barbacoa might be the best taco meat I’ve ever made at home.)
Alan chops the cutlets into smaller pieces, and runs them through flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. He says this dish owes to Elizabeth David, the legendary chronicler of French cuisine. Later, I find her recipe for “breast of lamb Ste. Ménéhould” from The Spectator in August 1961. She wrote that the dish is perfect for a light Sunday lunch, since the braising is easy work for a Saturday, and “the breadcrumbing business is a soothing occupation when you’ve had enough of the Sunday papers.” Fifteen minutes in the oven later, our goat is golden brown, sizzling and toasty.
He plates the nuggets with a watercress salad and a spicy tomato sauce. This elegant lunch has all the warm feelings of chicken parmesan, without the heaviness that’ll sink the rest of your afternoon. This goat doesn’t need any extra oil to cook—all that fat that was compressed into the cutlet renders slightly, crisping the breading from the inside-out. Self-frying red meat! I should really start eating like this more often.
Recipe for Alan Bergo’s Breaded Goat Breast
Serves 4 as lunch, a light entree, or appetizer
2 goat or lamb breasts, about 2 pounds each (lamb breasts will be larger)
1 tablespoon each of fresh rosemary and thyme, chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 small carrots
2 ribs of celery
3 cloves garlic, smashed with the back of a knife
8 cups stock or water
For the breading
2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably homemade
3 eggs, beaten well with 2 tablespoons water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1. The night before cooking, season the goat breasts with kosher salt, fresh black pepper, and chopped herbs, pressing to make sure everything adheres to the meat. Allow the meat to marinate for a couple hours. (Or even better, start it two days before eating and let the meat dry-brine in the fridge overnight.)
2. Preheat the oven to 300. Chop the carrots, onion, and celery, and add them to a baking dish with the garlic and stock or water. Place the breasts in the dish, meat-side down, the breastbones should just peak over the water level. Cover with parchment and foil, and bake until the breasts are soft, about 3 hours. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature, then transfer the breasts to a cutting board.
3. Gently remove the rib bones from the breasts, saving any meat that falls off while you’re working with them. If you see very large deposits of fat, remove or trim them, but make sure not to remove all of the fat or the breasts will break into pieces. Try to keep the breasts as whole as possible.
4. Put any meat that’s fallen off the breasts back on them, wrap the breasts individually in plastic, stack them in a wide, shallow container, and position a heavy weight on top to flatten the parcels. Leave to flatten in the fridge until cold, up to overnight.
5. When the breasts are chilled and you want to cook them, preheat the oven to 350, remove the breasts from the fridge, unwrap, season lightly with salt and pepper, then cut each breast on a slight diagonal into 6 triangles. Bread each slice of breast in flour, egg, and then breadcrumbs, then transfer to a baking sheet and bake until hot throughout, about 15 minutes. (Alternative: Elizabeth David grills the breasts. Keep them whole, bread them as above, and then grill over medium coals until warm and toasted.)
6. Serve immediately with warm tomato sauce and a salad of watercress and radish, dressed with good oil, lemon, salt, and pepper.
Spicy Tomato Sauce
Yield: 2 cups
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
4 large cloves garlic
¼ cup mild olive oil
¼ cup dry white wine
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
In a one-gallon pot, heat the oil and garlic on medium-low heat until the garlic is browned and aromatic, but not burnt, about 5 minutes, swirling the pan occasionally to ensure even browning. Add the salt, chili flakes, wine, and tomato paste, mix and cook for 3–4 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, then puree the mixture with an immersion blender or in a blender to help it reduce quickly. Simmer the mixture, covered on low heat, for 30–45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until reduced by almost half. Cool the sauce, then refrigerate. The sauce can be prepared up to four days in advance and reheated for serving.
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.