Kitchen Basics: Lamb and the Cooking Techniques that Go With It

Friday, April 22, 2011

"What?! What you mean 'you don't eat no meat?' It's ok. I make lamb."

I'm always reminded of this scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding because it's so true if you're Greek or Eastern European. And as one of the few who doesn't prefer lamb for various reasons including an ill-timed honeymoon to Ireland in spring aka "Lamb Season," I actually have had family members including my own grandma tell me that exact phrase, almost verbatum.

Easter's coming up fast on us this weekend. If you're like me, at the very least you're obligated to do lamb. Well, let me rephrase that: you can always do something else besides lamb, but many people traditionally serve lamb (including my ethnic people) and so in the spirit of tradition, you do lamb. But despite so many people having eaten it and prepared it, most of the time we hate it. Why? Because it's usually done wrong.

First and formost, lamb is a gamey meat. This means it has a distinct, strong "meat" flavor to it. Specifically, it has a smell and taste unique to the lamb that makes you love it or hate it. Some recipes try to coax that flavor out by way of lemon-centric marinades, but in my opinion this only makes the lamb taste worse. Whenever you have to alter the basic flavor of something, perhaps it's best just not to eat it. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with eating chicken or ham or even turkey for Easter if you really detest the natural flavor of lamb. I won't judge you and you're probably not alone.

Second biggest mistake people make is they cook the lamb incorrectly. Lamb is a very tender meat, and is prized for that very tender texture. Tender meats are best served medium-rare, as it preserves that desired texture; anything more than medium goes into "tough" territory and then you're left wondering why you spent a small fortune on a tender meat when you made it into Rosemary-Flavored Shoe anyway! If your roasting lamb, like any larger roast meats, should have a crunchier crust on the outside, heavily seasoned with salt and pepper, and then a pink center. Period. End of discussion. If you like your lamb more than medium it's like having an aged-rib eye well-done: it's stupid. And then you're stupid. There, I said it. Just stick to chicken.

You can do lamb in a variety of ways. You can use leg of lamb, which is better to feed a larger crowd, lamb chops are wonderful grilled and can feed perfectly a party of 2-4, or rack of lamb which can be very elegant serve 4-8 people veyr nicely. If you're really into the taste of lamb, go with the leg or chop; if you're lukewarm on the flavor then I highly recommend going with the rack of lamb because they are the perfect 2 bites before you start to not like it .

Since most of you will be making the larger leg of lamb, here are some tips and techniques to help you along...

Bone-In or Bone-Out? THAT Is The Question!

I've mentioned it before: for large pieces of meat -- I'm talking roasts or BBQ meats -- if you can get it with the bone still in it then do it. The bone adds immense flavor to the meat, infusing it throughout, and often gives a more tender result. It's not to say boneless is bad. You can certainly achieve a wonderfully flavorful roast anything without the bone as well. Bone-in, however, will take a bit longer to cook. So if you're looking for a quicker, lower-maintenance lamb dish then boneless is what you'd want. You can find both easily at your local butcher shop.

Crust Is Key

Most people roast their leg of lamb. The same principle to roasting applies to lamb as to beef or other meats: a crust keeps moisture in. To achieve a good crust you need 2 things: a heavy hand of salt and pepper all around the outside of the entire meat (aka "a rub") and proper heat for cooking.

In terms of the seasoning, you want your lamb to have a good fat cap on it if you can. This means a good layer of fat around the leg. Not only will it help keep the lamb moist, it will also give it good flavor. Because fat is what tastes good. Next, you need the right salt and pepper. Course salt such as sea salt and a courser grind of black peppercorns is idea for a good crust because they will cover more surface area, and thus trap in the moisture better. I wouldn't use an expensive salt like fleur de sel for this; a good sea salt or even kosher salt will do you perfectly for this. And set your black pepper grinder on a larger setting if you can. If you don't own a pepper grinder for some God-awful, completely unjustifiable reason, then you can take whole peppercorns, place them in a sandwich bag, squish the air out, close it, then roll it with a rolling pin or bottle of wine until they're coursely ground.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

The idea is to coat the entire leg of lamb in this salt and pepper mixture. And by coat I mean coat. Like a carpet. Don't be alarmed at the amount of seasoning -- that entire 4-6 inches of meat inside remember is not getting any seasoning whatsoever; it's relying on the outside for that seasoning so make sure to give it some!

Now, depending on how fat or skinny your leg (of lamb) is, you may have to introduce some olive oil as well. Not each leg is created alike -- some butchers will automatically take off the fat, some leave it, some really trim any fat so that none is there. Again, LEAVE THE FAT to the extent that you can! If you find you've bought a leg that's trimmed already, dont' despair. Simply coat the entire leg of lamb in olive oil first and then season it with the salt and pepper. The olive oil will be able to create that barrier and help form that crust you're looking for as well. If you have the fat, during cooking that fat will simply melt and caramelize naturally during the roasting process.

Roasting Or Grilling??? Or Better Yet: THE SPIT!

You can cook lamb a variety of ways, but the most popular are roasting, grilling, or rotating on the spit like our ancestors did. Ok, my Greek ancestors did. And many of them still do. Because it's effing good.

A few notes on the manner in which you cook...

1) Roasting:
If you're planning to roast your leg of lamb which will be 99.9% of you, remember you need to recreate the searing technique for optimal success. To do this, you need your oven on pretty high -- 400-450 degrees depending on your oven's power -- to get the proper roast. The idea here is to sort of create an open grill in your oven. The outside of the lamb where you put your seasonings will melt and caramelize quickly at the higher heat, locking in the juices inside by way of creating a crust, then the inside can finish cooking to achieve the perfect medium-rare middle.

If you're planning to do rack of lamb you'll be roasting for sure. Take advantage and use a fabulous crust to infuse the lamb with flavors. I've included a wonderful recipe from Ina Garten for an excellent and easy basic rack of lamb.

2) Grilling:
I love grilled lamb. It's wonderful. You can add even more flavor by way of wood chips and smoke flavor to infuse into the lamb that is intoxicating. And it seems more legit than making it in the oven, doesn't it? A big downside is such a large piece of lamb will require multiple charcoals and chips and a constant eye because it will cook faster than the oven. If you go the grill way, I highly recommend oak chips for a nice touch to the lamb. And if you do grill, despite fat or not on the lamb, you will want to give it a nice coating of olive oil for nice lubrication anyway. Don't drench, just brush some all over the leg.

Conversely, for a quicker way you can use lamb chops instead of the leg. They will cook much faster than the leg if time is an issue for you. And especially if your Easter looks like it's going to be a blistering day, perhaps grilling is the way to go instead of roasting at 450 for an hour to warm the house up.

3) Spitting:
This is considerably more involved so I won't even go into much detail. Chances are if you are spitting your lamb you're not even reading this posting because you know what you're doing. But for those of you curious: wet rub with garlic, herbs, salt and pepper; set up spit, fire, beer, consume the goodness.

Resting the Lamb Before Slicing

Another huge mistake people make with any roast meat is they take it out of the oven and slice it right up. WRONG! No beuno. When heat is applied to meats, it gets the natural juices inside going and they're literally running around the entire meat. When you take it out of the oven the juices are still running, and if you slice it too soon they will run right out of the meat and onto the plate! And this will leave a dry meat, as if a vampire sucked out all the moisture. To avoid this, let you meat rest for 30 minutes after you take it out of the oven, 15 after the grill so that the juices can settle down. Then slice it up.

The Right Slice

All meats, red or white, should be cut against the grain. If you look closely you'll notice that meat runs in linear patterns. These are called "grains." The way the texture of the meat works is if you cut "with the grain" you'll get a tougher piece; if you cut "against the grain" meaning cross to the grain, you'll get a much more tender cut. Don't ask me why, it just works out that way. I swear. So if you are planning to present your roast to your guests already sliced, then make sure you're slicing it the right way!

Final Thoughts...

If you like, you can incorporate even more flavor into lamb by way of seasoning the crust or offering a side sauce. Three ingredients go famously with lamb: fresh green herbs, garlic, and lemon. That's it. You can add some finely chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary and oregano to the salt and pepper mixture when you season the outside. Or, you can create a lovely sauce on the side, a sort of gremolata of sorts that I personally love. Recipe to follow.

You can also venture into the land of Asia for a wonderful lamb. Try masala spices for an Indian flare, or adding ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and paprika for a Middle Eastern version. So good.

And you can do mint jelly. I don't know why you would, but I've been told that is classic. It scared me.

Here is a great recipe for Roasted Leg of Lamb from Ina Garten that's simple and very straight forward, AND give you an instand side dish with the potatoes. This is wonderful for your Easter dinner:

Ina's Roasted Lamb with Potatoes
12 large unpeeled garlic cloves, divided

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 (6-pound) boneless leg of lamb, trimmed and tied
4 to 5 pounds small unpeeled potatoes (16 to 20 potatoes)
2 tablespoons good olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven so the lamb will sit in the middle of the oven.

Peel 6 of the cloves of garlic and place them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the rosemary, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and butter. Process until the garlic and rosemary are finely minced. Thoroughly coat the top and sides of the lamb with the rosemary mixture. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Toss the potatoes and remaining unpeeled garlic in a bowl with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place the lamb on top of the potatoes and roast for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature of the lamb is 135 degrees (rare) or 145 degrees (medium). Remove from the oven and put the lamb on a platter; cover tightly with aluminum foil. Allow the lamb to rest for about 20 minutes. Slice and serve with the potatoes.

I LOVE this yogurt sauce from Bobby Flay for lamb. He writes it to go with grilled lamb chops, but you can serve it on the side for leg of lamb also:

Orange Mint Yogurt Sauce
8 ounces yogurt

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the yogurt in a medium strainer lined with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. Alternatively, buy thick Greek yogurt, which does not need to be drained. Scrape the drained yogurt into a clean bowl and discard the liquid that has drained. Stir in the remaining ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving

If you're cooking for a smaller crowd, say 4 or less then my recommendation is to go the rack of lamb route. Not only will it serve the right amount of people perfectly, they will cook up way faster. How about in a half an hour?! Can't be that. I love Ina's recipe that does lamb prepared in the classic French way:
Ina's Rack of Lamb Persillade
3 small or 2 large racks of lamb, frenched

Good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups loosely packed fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon chopped garlic cloves (3 cloves)
1 cup fresh white bread crumbs
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the racks in a roasting pan, fat side up. Rub the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Roast the lamb for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the parsley and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until they're both finely minced. Add the bread crumbs and lemon zest and process for a second until combined. Take the lamb out of the oven and quickly press the parsley mixture on top of the meat. Drizzle with the melted butter and return immediately to the oven and roast for another 15 minutes.

Take the lamb out of the oven and cover with aluminum foil. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes, cut in double chops, and serve

What the Hell Goes with Lamb?!?
Classic pairing is potatoes for starters. You could do mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes with butter, gratin potatoes, any potato you wish but my personal favorite from over the years is oven roasted new potatoes. It's just my personal favorite. I love the crust on the outside, the tender inside, the fresh me it's perfect but you do whatever potatoe you like. I'd personally stay away from cheese-centered potatoes but that's just my own personal opinion. If you love it, do it. 
Virtually any spring vegetable goes with lamb: artichokes, carrots, potatoes, leeks, asparagus, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, ramps, mushrooms, etc. A vegetable cassoulet would be lovely with a roasted or grilled lamb, or simple grilled or roasted asparagus is what I always do. I go by the rule of Throw It On/In Too -- meaning, if I'm roasting and the oven's already on, the vegetables will get baked or roasted too; if the grill is already fired up, the asparagus is getting grilled this time too. A fun side dish is to do a spanikopita, but make it like a pie rather than triangles. The crunchy phyllo and the spinach are fantastic, and feta cheese does go with lamb. It's the only cheese that does in my opinion. A nice spring salad with tender greens, thinly sliced radish, scallion, dandilion greens, and a dill sauce would be lovely with lamb. I would say to keep it simple though and not go too over the top with creams and sauces and seasonings. Baby carrots lightly boiled then sauteed in butter are lovely and very spring. Sauteed spinach with lemon and garlic is great. And you could of course always just slice the lamb thinly, make a cucumber tzaziki sauce and roll it in a pita for a really fun Easter!
What Wine?
The wine appropriate to lamb is as varied as the preparations. You can go from white ot red depending on how you're serving it. Grilled with vegetables would take a lovely very chilled sauvignon blanc or even rose, same goes for a lamb pita with cucumber sauce. Shiraz is a safe bet for any roasted lamb, especially if you're going the rosemary route in seasonings. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are also good options for roasted or braised lambs.
Hope this helps! And remember, if it doesn't work out, you can always order Chinese!
Happy Easter!

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