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Nature's Bounty: Getting Your Goat

They're earthy. They're edgy. And they give the palate a kick. Goat meat and dairy are also boons to the body.

Americans expect a LOT from their food these days. They want it tasty, low in fat, high in protein, rich in supernutrients like omega-3s, and produced in ways that are kind to the land, sustainable, and humane. Yet the most modern of nutritional goals are often embodied in dietary practices that have existed all along. It just takes Americans time to discover what other cultures never abandoned.

Consider, for example, goat products. Goat is the world's most popular meat, savored at boozy, night-long festivals in Greece, grilled into rich, creamy curries in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, and consumed regularly by more than 70 percent of the world's population. Do they know something we don't?

Goat meat gets a bad rap at the American table for being gamey and coarse. In reality, goat meat is mild, tender, and sweet on the palate—a cross between dark turkey meat and pork, says Bruce Weinstein, coauthor of Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese. "The people I've known who aren't foodies have all been shocked and surprised," he adds. "They expected gamey, they expected tough, they expected lamb squared—and it's not."

The joy of kid doesn't stop there. Goat is one of the leanest meats available, with about one-third the fat content of beef, lamb, or pork, and less than half the fat found in chicken. It is also lower in cholesterol, calories, unsaturated fat, and sodium, but more potent in potassium and iron. In other words, it is exactly the kind of health-conscious superfood that we increasingly seek out in our diet to keep our bodies and brains running in top form.

Why are we so late to the party? An encounter with the wrong kind of animal—a breed designed to produce milk rather than meat—might be a turnoff. Weinstein also cites "the cruise effect." Hordes have taken a trip to the Caribbean and gotten a taste of Jamaica, where residents prefer old, tough, and strongly flavored meat.

But more likely, it's a matter of simple conditioning. "You're fighting many, many years of steaks and hamburgers and pork chops, which are ingrained in the American mind-set," says David Schuttenberg, who served as executive chef of New York's now-shuttered Mexican restaurant Cabrito, praised for its popular goat dishes and recognizable for the gaudy pink goat that presided over its streetside entrance. "It usually takes a trailblazing chef or someone like that to start cooking it and convince people to eat it. Then other people fall into line."

Himself one of those trailblazers, Schuttenberg famously served up a full goat's head, slow cooked to a golden brown, accented by garlic, butter, and herbs, and savored by some for its particularly flavorful cheeks. There were customers who tried the delicacy in the spirit of adventure, and there were niche followers. "A woman called and said, 'I heard you have goat heads.' I said I have three. She replied, 'Save one for me! I'll be there in an hour!' And a 70-something lady swathed in fur arrived in a metallic silver Rolls Royce with her driver. She grabbed a fork and dug in."

But she was the exception. "We had those diners who were more curious and probably scared when they ate it," recalls Schuttenberg. "It's delicious, but it's just not the way that Americans were ever presented with their food." Beef just looks...beefier.

Still, more and more chefs are putting goat on the menu. You might find braised chevon stuffed into Mexican tacos, or simmered with wine and sage into a saucy Italian ragu, or grilled into a hamburger and tucked into a bun. From 1994 to 2010, the number of goats reaching the American table more than doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers are stepping up their game to meet chefs' increasing interest: "From white linen to more bistro-y restaurants, the demand for high-quality goat meat is very keen," says rancher Bill Niman, who has raised goats in the past. "Chefs like it to differentiate themselves from the competition. People who buy it buy it repeatedly."

If goat meat is the wave of the future, goat milk is well on its way to becoming standard fare, now available in many national chain stores as well as farmers markets. It's long been an alternative for those who are allergic to cow's milk. But its taste, texture, and nutritive value are rapidly winning new converts.

So are goat yogurt and ice cream. "When it first surfaced in 2006, goat's milk ice cream was something surprising and exotic," says Amanda Parker, a spokesperson for Murray's Cheese, New York's cheese mecca. "But now goat's milk products have skyrocketed in popularity; you can even find goat's milk yogurt at the airport."

The small fat globules in goat's milk render it highly digestible, even for those with stomach problems, and in no need of homogenization. They are the reason that many who have sampled goat's milk ice cream crave its creamy richness. A bonus is the B vitamins riboflavin and niacin and short-chain fatty acids, believed to particularly promote intestinal health.

Goat cheese, notably in its soft-curd fresh form, has been popular in American restaurants for two decades, often paired with salads. But goat cheese in its more piquant aged state has been savored for thousands of years around the world. Ancient Romans carried it into battle with them. It is believed to have been among the world's first dairy products. Americans are finally catching on.

The Picky Eater's Guide to Goat

  • Request meat goat, produced from breeds raised for their flesh rather than for milk.
  • Buy young. Kid meat, or cabrito, is subtle, sweet, and succulent. It comes from goats between six months and one year old.
  • Use goat's milk in smoothies, cream sauces, fudge, and brownies.
  • Try goat butter for baking. It's distinct and full-bodied without tasting greasy.