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Power Up with Proteins!

Catering chefs weigh in on their favorite protein-packed dishes (and share their recipes, too)

Protein, a center of the plate darling, has always been desired due to consumer interest in basic nutrition and healthful lifestyles. Among them, poultry, beef, and fish were the top three proteins ID’d in Catersource’s 2014 end-of-the-year trends survey. Yet, consumers and the chefs who love them have had to get creative with their proteins as of late, due to the H5N2 poultry virus decreasing supply of chicken and turkey, and the corresponding price upswing. Not only that—the demand for protein-powered vegan, gluten-free, and vegetarian meals show no sign of abating.

While alternatives to traditional and beloved proteins have emerged (exotic meats such as wild boar, elk, and rattlesnake, and algae products, insects, and pulse flours), the reality is that not every audience will embrace exotic meats, nor will they entirely welcome legumes as a main or first course.

Will there be enough turkey for Thanksgiving? Eggs for the frittata? Time will tell, but given the chance that chickens will cross the road and turkeys will trot off tables this year, Catersource spoke with catering chefs throughout the US, discussing a favorite protein and why it should be in the center of your next plated event.


Chef/owner Cade Nagy, Catering by Design, Denver, CO


Lamb // 100 grams = 25 g protein

“My customers demand lamb on our menus. Lamb screams Colorado,” says Chef Cade Nagy. “Aromatic and tender, lamb is extremely versatile and can work with an infinite number of flavor combinations with accompanying sauces.” Caterers can pair lamb with tzatziki for a great Greek dish; make a brothy Middle Eastern stew, replete with cumin, chickpeas, and coriander; assemble a tasty East Indian chops dish with couscous, and garam masala—or make a certified crowd-pleaser such as Chef Nagy’s meatballs (below).

As of 2014, there were approximately 80,000 sheep farms and ranches in the US, the vast majority family owned and operated. From small flocks grazing on the grasses of the Northeast to larger flocks in the high mountain ranges of the West, American sheep are reared on high-quality natural forage diets with minimal environmental impact and an eye toward stewardship and conservation. But for the end-user, it’s also that wallop of protein that makes the difference—very close in comparison to salmon and chicken.

While winning over the tastebuds has been a struggle—few people seem to want to eat it on a regular basis, with statistics cited of less than a pound per person per year—lamb is making headway due to people like Chef Nagy, who says, “It’s as simple as choosing lamb over the other meats. The ‘serving them and selling them’ part becomes easier in most cases because my clients expect something unique from us.” The chef also notes that while lamb meatballs can cost on average about 10% more than using beef, he can charge a little more than 20% than a regular meatball.

Recipe and image: American Lamb Board


American lamb meatballs
with caramelized onion balsamic sauce and fresh ricotta
Yield: 12 meatballs

Meatballs ingredients
I medium onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp frozen or fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 Tbsp frozen or fresh marjoram leaves, chopped
2 lbs ground American lamb
¼ lb ground pork, preferably Kurabuto
3 large eggs
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauce ingredients
2 large white onions, finely diced
2 shallots, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups balsamic vinegar
½ cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped, or frozen basil
40 oz spaghetti sauce

For the meatballs:
1. In a small saucepan, sauté onion in oil until translucent. Add basil and marjoram; cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat; cool at room temperature.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, add lamb, pork, eggs, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and onion mixture. Mix together well by hand; refrigerate for 1 hour.
3. Dip hands in water to keep meat from sticking. Roll an approximately 3 to 3-1/2-inch diameter meatball by hand; place on a lightly oiled cookie pan. Carefully place meatballs in a deep fat fryer at 350ºF; cook for about 1 minute or until just seared on the outside. 
4. Remove meatballs; place on cooking tray.
5. Place tray in oven; bake at 350ºF until meatballs are done to medium, about 20 minutes. Remove from pan; drain on wire rack. 

For the sauce:
1. In a medium saucepan, sauté onion, shallots, and garlic in oil until onions are translucent.
2. Add vinegar; reduce until mixture is reduced to 1/4 cup.  Add basil and spaghetti sauce; cook for 1 hour on low, stirring often.

In a large pot, add meatballs; cover with sauce. Simmer on low for about 4 hours. 

To serve: Spoon one meatball on plate with some sauce. Top with fresh ricotta cheese.  Garnish with a piece of deep fried basil.

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