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Lamb two ways

With Passover having begun last night and Easter coming up on Sunday, chances are that more lamb will be sold and consumed this week than during all the rest of the year.

What's more, a significant percentage of people ... get ready for this ... don't even like lamb!

From an omnivorous food-lover's perspective, though - and from a wine lover's, too - lamb is one of the most flavorful of red meats, not to mention one of the most wine-friendly.

Yes, there's a certain gamey quality to lamb, a strong flavor that becomes more evident in meat from older animals as lamb matures toward mutton. For this reason, if you can find it outside a restaurant, you'll pay a premium for the pale and tender "spring lamb" that's the lambish equivalent of veal.

But assuming you've acquired a taste for lamb, you'll have no problem with the stronger stuff, which has the muscles to stand up to powerful accompanying flavors like fresh rosemary and garlic ... and a big red wine.

A reader's seasonal question the other day prompted me to review these basic procedures for roasting a leg (or a half-leg) of lamb.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

Whole or half leg of lamb, bone in
Fresh rosemary
Olive oil


1. For lamb leg, as with all roasts, it's a good idea to take the meat out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before roasting, to let it come up to room temperature. If it's not convenient to do this, you can take it straight from the fridge to the oven, but cooking time may be a little longer.

2. If you wish, cut off and discard some of the fatty layer on top of the leg. Some cooks prefer to remove the thin, bluish membrane (called the "fell") that covers the fat before roasting, but I haven't found that this makes much difference either way.

3. Preheat oven to 450F. While it's heating, cut several cloves of garlic into thin slivers, and cut a spring of fresh rosemary into a similar number of short pieces. With the tip of a sharp knife, cut slits all over the lamb and poke a piece of garlic and a bit of rosemary into each. Rub the lamb with a little olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

4. Put the lamb in a shallow roasting pan. Using a rack under it is optional, but will keep the meat from soaking in accumulated fat as it cooks. Leave at 450F to sear for 15 or 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and continue to roast for a total of about 15 to 20 minutes per pound for medium-rare meat. It's much better to use a meat thermometer to check the temperature than to rely entirely on cooking time, looking for 145F for rare and 160F for medium. Please don't cook it well-done. Remember also that the leg will continue to cook from its internal heat for some time after it comes out of the oven, so it's best to take it out of the oven a few degrees short of the mark, then put it on a serving platter and set aside for 15 minutes or so before carving and serving.

If you use half of a leg, it takes a little longer per pound. Estimate 20 to 25 minutes per pound for rare with these smaller cuts, but again use a thermometer to be safe.

ALTERNATIVE METHOD: Another way that we enjoy lamb leg - especially in the summer time - is boned and char-grilled. Ask the butcher to remove the bone for you, or try doing it at home (you can't mess things up too badly - in the worst case you'll end up with two pieces of boneless lamb). Once you've got the bone out, fold the meat into a rough oblong shape, prepare as above with rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and oil, and throw it on the barbie. I like to sear it briefly over direct heat on both sides, then after it's brown, move it to indirect heat for a total of about 15 minutes per pound, using a meat thermometer to double-check.

WINE MATCH: As discussed in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor, red Bordeaux (or its varietal components, the Cabernets and Merlot) may be the best match of all with roast lamb, but any quality red will do, from Pinot Noir/Burgundy to Syrah/Shiraz or your best Italian or Spanish reds. The same goes for the char-grilled version, although I find that its smoky quality makes a particularly good marriage with a good, hearty Zinfandel.

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Thursday, April 17, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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