The quixotic temperatures of spring can make planning a challenge for a celebratory dinner this time of year, such as Easter or Passover.
What will be green and fresh from the garden, and what will have been snuffed out by a cold snap? It is always easy to change a menu and add green vegetables and a salad, but the main course must be a sure thing to calm a cook's mind. For me, that means leg of lamb.
Whenever I write about lamb, it makes me sad there are so many who have never eaten good lamb. Well-done lamb is not well-cooked, but overcooked. Lamb should be treated like beef, which is at its very best when rare, but still quite a pleasant meal when leaning a bit to the middle.
Leg of lamb is ideally no more than 5 or 6 pounds for the whole leg with the bone in, including the shank bone. Although it can be purchased frozen, at this time of year, it is readily available fresh.
It is easy to cook with or without the bone in, but without the bone, it is much easier to carve and serve. In addition, a boned leg of lamb varies in thickness, so there are different degrees of rareness to please everyone. I would much prefer having any fiddly part of serving a meal done ahead of time. For lamb, that means removing the bone before cooking so slicing is easy.
A good store will have a butcher to remove the leg. As always, when you want special service, call ahead to request it or be prepared to return several hours later to pick it up after the bone is removed.
You can take out the bones yourself. It took my new intern, Lisa Moore, around 15 minutes with the phone turned off and a sharp knife in hand.
Boning requires a little knowledge of anatomy. Lamb legs are much like ours, only smaller, so it is easy to figure out the structure. Determine if it is a right or left leg, which will make it easier to follow the bone. Pick it up, find the bone, and wiggle it. The slant of the bone will give a rough idea of which part it is, as will the size of the meat in relation to the bone.
Keeping the knife to the bone while working is important. But it's impossible to make a mistake of any consequence, as pushed-back-together meat will knit as it cooks.
Hold a sharp knife (I like a knife a bit larger than a paring knife; others like a boning knife) to the bone, scraping the bone and pushing the flesh away from it. Work around to the other side. Snap any sockets if possible. If not, look for a streak of fat that shows where the bone goes and sever the joint there. (Lines of fat are there to help ease the motion of the bones and joints, so they are good indicators to follow.) When finished, the chances are there will be a pocket in the lamb. In that case, cut the shorter piece of meat down the center all the way through.
“Open” the meat so each side is even, with two large side pieces as the wings, hence “butterflied.” Make sure the “fell” (the shiny outer skin), fat and gristle are removed before rubbing or marinating.
Since the meat is not cooked long enough for the fibers to become tender, the longer, the better for marinating, from 1 or 2 hours to overnight.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathalie@dupree.com.
1 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds, roughly crushed
1 tablespoon ground cumin seed
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste
1/2 cup orange juice
5- to 6-pound leg of lamb, boned, butterflied and trimmed
Whisk mustard, coriander, cumin, garlic and orange juice together. Rub onto both sides of the meat. Refrigerate in a large plastic sealable bag or covered container, overnight if possible.
When ready to cook, remove and shake slightly, and move to a heated oiled griddle, grill rack, or oiled pan if going under the broiler, reserving any marinade separately. Cook at medium-high about 5 inches from the heat for about 15 minutes, until slightly charred on the top. Turn the meat and cook on second side until the meat registers about 130 degrees in the thickest part.
Allow to rest 10 minutes, during which the temperature will rise about 10 degrees. The thinner portions should be well-done and the center rare.
Slice the meat against the grain. Bring any remaining marinade to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes. Pour over the meat or serve on the side.
Accompaniments for lamb can include cubed and roasted rutabagas or turnips, carrots and other root vegetables, as well as sides of Brussels sprouts and greens.