Listen, lamb-leery cooks: Don’t be intimidated by the myth of a “too gamy taste,” true of the bygone mutton-eating generation. Today in America, what was once known as “spring lamb,” is offered to market between 6 and 12 months old, which yields a fresh, meaty flavor no more pungent than pork or beef. Don’t be discouraged by cut choice and cost, either. For a holiday crowd, leg of lamb equals a fine turkey price and requires a fraction of the skill needed to hit the double-whammy of moist turkey breast and tender legs at the same time.
Globally, lamb is the most agnostic meat eaten, relished from London to Jerusalem to Beijing. Lamb loves the bold exotic flavors of Middle Eastern dishes, blossoms under French, Spanish and Italian (anchovy, lemon, rosemary) treatments, and as a “joint,” anchors many a British Sunday lunch.
My brother Jim makes the most simple and delicious roast lamb you’ll ever eat. He’s the real lamb-cook whisperer in our family. Where others are sheepish, he oozes cool confidence, knowing firsthand that lamb is one of the best no-fuss, go-to centerpiece roasts for group entertaining. Jim decided long ago to ditch the bone-in leg of lamb from our childhood table for the ease, time and predictability of a lean, butterflied lamb leg. Enrobed in a flavorful fresh herb coating, it cooks in under an hour and results in a range of succulent doneness from rare to medium to well, thanks to the uneven thickness of the butterflied piece. When serving your luscious lamb dinner, take a cue from our mom, Rose, who managed to raise a little flock of lamb lovers by always offering mint jelly at the table.
Nowadays, many specialty butchers receive whole animals to portion and are happy to share their knowledge, as well as prep a specialty order. The whole, bone-in leg, which includes the shank, is typically about six pounds. Once the bone is removed, the remaining meat should weigh four to five pounds — the perfect size to center your holiday feast around. Ask your butcher to remove as much fat, as well as the paper membrane, as possible.
I like to keep the bones, so I can roast and simmer them into lamb stock, or a delicious soup called Scotch broth.
If a commercial supermarket is a more convenient route, many meat cases carry a packaged (full or partial) butterflied leg, between two and four pounds, trimmed and ready to season and cook.
The night before you plan to cook the lamb, make your herb paste and spread it all over the meat. Cover the lamb with plastic wrap and refrigerate until several hours before cooking. If you’re short on time, marinate the meat at room temperature for at least an hour. To achieve a golden outside, it’s imperative to let the seasoned meat stand at room temperature for a good while before cooking, so it hits the oven sizzling, instead of steaming to gray first.
The boned leg is also the perfect piece to stuff with a favorite filling; then roll, tie and season to roast at 375 degrees for about 1½ hours. Use the following method as a starting point for ratios, and tailor it to your own tastes, seeking to achieve a balanced flavor that is an herbaceous, earthy, tangy, salty-sweet enhancement for the meat. (See options at the end.)
Here’s how Jim roasts his butterflied lamb leg, which serves 10:
Mash together a small glug of olive oil, half a dozen garlic cloves and a tablespoon of coarse salt with a mortar and pestle, blender or food processor. Add a hefty handful each of fresh oregano leaves and mint leaves, along with a teaspoon each of honey and balsamic vinegar. Blend to a paste.
Thoroughly dry the meat with paper towels and massage the herb paste all over. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Remove the lamb from the refrigerator a couple hours before you plan to roast it. Massage the herb paste into the meat again. Leave it out, covered, at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Grind fresh black pepper all over the lamb and roast it on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet or in a shallow roasting pan, for about a half an hour or so, until the thickest part reads 120 degrees (for a rosy medium) on an instant-read thermometer.
Transfer the meat to a cutting board and loosely tent a piece of aluminum foil over it. Rest for 15 to 20 minutes (important, as this lets the juices settle, so that you get the most tender meat). Thinly slice the meat against the grain and place on a serving platter. (It can be sliced as larger, more formal pieces or smaller ones as lamb leg can be tricky to slice evenly across). Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the top, and slice the remaining lemon half. Garnish with a handful of mint leaves sliced into the thinnest of ribbons, oregano leaves and lemon slices, and serve.
Grill option: The seasoned meat can cook on a covered grill over medium-high heat on a rack that is at least 6 inches from the fire (to avoid burning the outside and causing fat flare-ups).
Optional seasoning choices with oil, garlic and salt as your base:
- Switch up the herbs and try fresh rosemary, thyme, dill, cilantro or parsley.
- Swap the vinegar for a different acid, such as lemon or lime juice, sour orange or sherry vinegar.
- Instead of honey, sweeten with jelly, jam, maple syrup or pomegranate molasses.
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