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Published: Tuesday, 3/26/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Lots to love about lamb

Traditional meal celebrates Easter

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Lamb with potatoes and asparagus. Lamb with potatoes and asparagus.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

"Little lamb, who made thee?" asked the poet.

And the lamb responded, "Why are you asking me? I can't talk. I'm a lamb."

And so the poet, who happened to be William Blake, went on to answer his own question: "He is called by thy name, for he calls himself a Lamb."

That famous 1789 poem, known to English majors and no one else in the world, still engenders shudders of revulsion whenever it comes to mind. But in the simplest possible language it makes clear the traditional connection between lambs and Jesus. "He is meek and he is mild," it says, just like a lamb.

On Sunday, Christians in western churches will celebrate Easter, the day they believe Jesus rose from the dead (Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate the day on May 5). Around the world, many will be celebrating with a traditional meal of lamb, for reasons both culinary and metaphoric.

Easter is a time of renewal and rebirth, a herald of spring. It has long been associated with fertility, which explains the symbolism of the Easter egg, and is connected historically with the season of new crops and young livestock.

So lamb is appropriate, which is fortunate because it is just so darned good.

For millennia, people have been cooking lamb over an open flame. At first, grilling it or roasting it on a spit was necessary because it was the only way people could cook. But even now, when almost everyone has a stove, some folks still prefer to cook it the old-fashioned way. The char-grilled flavor you get from the flames has an uncanny way of harmonizing with the faintly gamy flavor of the meat to create an exceptionally happy marriage of tastes.

That said, a lot of people do not like lamb. They find the taste too strong. But those people probably have plenty of other good qualities, if you get to know them.

For this Easter, I made four boneless, four-pound legs of lamb (I thought of it as one lamb's worth of legs). I grilled two of them over a charcoal fire and cooked the other two in the oven — one was braised and the other roasted. I personally preferred the grilled varieties, but here is the great secret of lamb: Many recipes can be adapted to either a grill or an oven. Among the exceptions are lamb stew, which must be cooked in an oven or on top of a stove, and shish kebob, which just isn't shish kebob if it isn't grilled.

First on the grill was a simple concoction I decided to call Mediterranean Lamb. I mixed together a marinade that was heavy on the onion, which always goes well with lamb, and a bit lighter on garlic, cumin, and ginger. These spices and aromatics were mixed with olive oil, and I rolled a boneless leg of lamb around in the whole thing. I set it in the fridge for two hours before bringing it out to the grill.

The result was a wonderfully subtle taste of spice infused into the heady flavor of grilled lamb. If you want more of the spice, simply marinate it for a longer time. But to get the lamb-forward experience I was going for, subtlety is key.

That's not so much the case for one of my favorite dishes of all time, Julia Child's excellent Gigot à la Moutarde, which she translates as "herbal mustard coating for roast lamb." Though Ms. Child conceived of this recipe as being cooked in an oven, this is definitely one I'd recommend trying on a grill, although the oven-roasted version is also terrific.

For this dish, she stirs together Dijon mustard and olive oil with garlic, rosemary or thyme (I've always used rosemary), and a bit of ginger. To this she adds a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce, which is a most unusual ingredient for her — a quick Google search reveals no other recipes calling for it in her seminal work Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It isn't French, but it adds much more depth to the lamb than mere salt would do.

It had not occurred to me to combine lamb with citrus until I ran across a recipe pairing it with oranges in New West Cuisine, by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard. I was almost taken aback by the thought until I pondered it longer and realized that, in some senses, lamb is not unlike duck: It has a forceful flavor and it tends to be a little greasy. Because duck plays so happily with fruit, I decided to make their idea the center of my own dish, which I called Lamb à la Orange.

I browned the lamb in a Dutch oven and added the juice and pieces from one orange. I threw in a carrot and a rib of celery for a couple of extra dimensions, and braised it in the oven for an hour. To what I must confess was a little bit of surprise, the dish worked quite well; the sweet acid from the orange helped to tame the lamb.

Finally I was on my last leg, so to speak. I was utterly entranced by a photograph of a tapenade-stuffed leg of lamb in a cookbook by Laurent Tourondel, and I couldn't believe how easy it was to make — especially compared to other dishes by Mr. Tourondel.  It was so simple, in fact, I decided to make the tapenade myself, also from one of his recipes.

It only took a couple of minutes, but my wife happened to come in while I was making it and asked, "couldn't you just buy tapenade at the store?"

Why, yes. Yes you could. But even if you lived next door to a store, it might still be faster to make your own. And this way you have lots of leftover homemade tapenade to spread on toast points or use as a dipping sauce for vegetables.

Once you've made (or bought) it, using it with lamb is easier, still. Simply spread it on the inside of a boned leg of lamb, roll and tie the lamb, sprinkle chopped rosemary  over the top, and stick slivers of garlic into slits you have created with a knife. Seventy-five minutes later or so (mine took nearly 90), you have a gorgeous hunk of meat with a strong taste of olive, garlic, and anchovy to exponentially develop the flavor of lamb.

Little lamb, who cooked thee?  I did. In my kitchen.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Mediterranean Lamb

1 (4-pound) boneless leg of lamb

Salt and pepper

¼ cup olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

Unroll and pat dry the leg of lamb. Season generously with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, onions, garlic, cumin, and ginger. Roll the lamb in the bowl to coat all sides, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and marinate in the refrigerator 2-4 hours.

Prepare a hot grill for indirect heat or preheat oven to 350°. Grill over indirect heat, turning once, for 1 hour or until cooked medium rare or medium (140-160°). If roasting, place on a rack in a roasting pan and cook in oven 1 hour or until medium rare or medium.

Cover loosely with foil and allow to rest at least 20-30 minutes before carving and serving.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Gigot à la Moutarde

1 (4-pound) boneless leg of lamb

½ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 clove garlic, mashed

1 teaspoon ground rosemary or thyme

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons olive oil

Cook's note: This dish is better if the meat is coated several hours before cooking.

Pat the lamb dry with paper towels.

Blend the mustard, soy sauce, garlic, herbs, and ginger together in a bowl. Beat in the olive oil by droplets to make a mayonnaise-like cream. Using a rubber spatula or brush, paint the lamb with the mixture (the original recipe calls for a 6-pound leg, so if you are using a 4-pound leg you should have more than enough). If possible, allow meat to marinate in the refrigerator for several hours.

Prepare a hot grill for indirect heat or preheat oven to 350°. Grill over indirect heat, turning once, for 1 hour or until cooked medium rare or medium (140-160°). If roasting, place on a rack in a roasting pan and cook in oven 1 hour or until medium rare or medium.

Cover loosely with foil and allow to rest at least 20-30 minutes before carving and serving.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck

Lamb à la Orange

1 (4-pound) boneless leg of lamb

Salt and pepper

1 orange

1 cup beef stock

1 carrot, roughly chopped

1 rib celery, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 350°. Pat lamb dry with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper.

Squeeze juice out of the orange (do not discard peels) and add to a large bowl. Cut remaining peels and pulp and add to bowl, along with beef stock, carrot, and celery.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and sear lamb on both sides. Add orange-stock mixture, and bring to a simmer. Cover and place in oven for 1 hour or until cooked medium rare or medium (140-160°).

Cover loosely with foil and allow to rest at least 20-30 minutes before carving and serving.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Source: The idea for using orange juice and peel is from New West Cuisine, by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard

Tapenade-Stuffed Leg of Lamb

1 (4-pound) boneless leg of lamb

¼ cup tapenade, store-bought or homemade (recipe below)

3 garlic cloves, sliced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350°. Oil a roasting pan just large enough to hold the lamb. Put a rack in the pan.

Unroll the lamb and spread the boned-out side with the tapenade. Roll up the lamb tightly. Tie it at 2-inch intervals with kitchen twine. With a small, sharp knife, cut slits 2 or 3 inches apart in the top of the roast. Push the garlic slices into the slits. Sprinkle the roast all over with the rosemary, salt, and pepper.

Roast the lamb for about 1 hour and 15 minutes until medium rare or medium (140-160°).

Cover loosely with foil and allow to rest at least 20-30 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Source: Bistrot Laurent Tourondel, by Laurent Tourondel

Tapenade recipe on Page 5



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