To roast lamb is one indication of the end of winter. A homage to spring’s celebration of renewal, in the spirit of the Easter and Passover holidays around the globe. Christians, Jews, and Muslims for generations had in some way made a meal with spring lamb to commune with the spirit of the new season.
April, May, and June are generally considered the months of spring. Lambs born in February are readied for market by the end of March through late April, making them a perfect spring fare and the mainstay of many an Easter meal. From Naples to Athens, from Nazareth to Tel Aviv, from Providence to San Francisco, and from Jakarta to Cairo, spring lamb can be found in home-cooked meals and on restaurant tables alike.
Three to six months is the ideal age for spring lamb, much older than that and one might consider the lamb to now be a sheep. For example, a spring lamb’s leg should weigh between five to seven pounds, any more than that and the leg came from an older animal.
Lamb has a distinct, pronounced flavor, different from other meats such as veal, pork, or venison. Part of the reason can be attributed to where the lambs graze. For example, if the flock was raised in the western US states there might be a faint essence of clover, while if raised in Provence, France the flavor might take on a hint of herbs such as thyme and rosemary—you get the idea, a natural seasoning of sorts.
How best to cook a leg—bone-in or boned; butterflied left flat, or rolled and tied; fired on the grill, or slow roasted in the oven—there are many approaches.
Spring lamb requires gentler cooking techniques and less cooking time than older cuts. A butterflied leg of lamb cooks more quickly and is easier to carve than a whole, bone-in leg. However, the cut can have uneven thicknesses, so it is necessary to be attentive while cooking so that the thickest parts remain a light pink while the thinner parts don’t over cook.
One of the best ways to cook a butterflied leg of lamb is on the grill over a wood fire. With the leg boned, butterflied, and flattened out it is easy to observe how the meat is cooking. Initially seared on a hot grill for five minutes on each side, then over a slow fire for again five minutes on each side, and finally for thirty to forty-five minutes off to one side to finish cooking from the radiant heat of the coals. The flavor can’t be beat!
Since my grill wasn’t quite ready yet, I chose to gently roast a boned, rolled, and tied leg, on a bed of herbs, basting with red wine which became a flavorful pan gravy once the roasting was completed. The leg was prepared a day ahead of cooking so that the fresh herb and garlic rub along with the dry seasonings were allowed to mingle with the meat. To replicate the grill, I seared all sides of the rolled leg in the hot roasting pan to get a nice char, before placing it in the oven. The rolling and tying of the leg provides something for everyone and visually looks great once sliced, exposing the thin vein of the finely minced herbs.
The rolling compensates for the unevenness of the overall flattened boned piece, yielding less rare end sections while keeping the thicker center section light pink. The marbled, finely grained meat tightly rolled, remains moist throughout the roasting, aided by the periodic wine basting. In the end a succulent, herb and wine roasted leg of lamb is the prize to kick off your welcoming of spring. The following recipe is how I prepared my spring leg of lamb that we enjoyed on Easter Sunday.
Herb and Wine Roasted Leg of Spring Lamb
Ingredients (serves 4 to 6)
1 6-pound leg of spring lamb, once boned and butterflied yields approximately a 5- pound leg
3 large cloves garlic
1 bunch each fresh thyme, rosemary, and oregano
Salt, pepper, and a rub of bay-fennel seed-rosemary powder that was part of my dry seasoning, but is optional
Dry red wine (many options)
Purchase an already boned leg of spring lamb and either butterfly it yourself or have your butcher do that for you.
One day ahead of roasting, prepare the meat for seasoning, rolling, and tying.
Strip several springs of rosemary and thyme of their leaves and extra finely mince with the garlic, setting aside to be used as the fresh part of the rub.
If using the dry herbs as part of the rub, place equal amounts of dried bay leaves, fennel seeds, and rosemary leaves in a spice grinder and process into a fine powder, then set aside.
Take the remaining rosemary, thyme, and the oregano sprigs, and tie them together into two bundles that will be used under the lamb while roasting.
Spring lamb legs are generally butchered, leaving a generous fat cap that provides for natural basting during cooking. Since I was not going to grill the lamb I felt the extra layer of fat was not completely necessary. Before I seasoned and rolled the leg I trimmed off some of that additional fat layer; however, fat also adds flavor so I’ll leave that decision to you as either way would be fine.
Place the butterflied piece of meat on a flat counter surface or cutting board, cover with a piece of clear wrap, and gently pound out, if necessary, some of the thicker sections to even out the piece as much as possible.
Generously season with salt and pepper, and lightly dust with the dry herb powder if using. Next, evenly distribute half of the fresh herb and garlic mince over the dry seasoned side pressing down with your hands to adhere it to that surface.
Starting at one short end, tightly roll the butterflied leg until it resembles a large jellyroll. Using butcher twine, tightly tie the roll along its length until it stays together. Any seasoning that falls out while rolling can either be pushed back into the rolled layers or used on the outside.
Lightly rub a tablespoon or two of olive oil over the tied roll which will allow the seasoning to adhere. Generously season the outside of the rolled lamb with the dry and the fresh seasonings same as done on the inside. Place the seasoned roast on a plate, cover tightly with clear wrap and refrigerate overnight.
On the following day, before beginning the roasting, allow the lamb to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven or large roasting pan over a high temperature until it just begins to smoke. Working quickly, sear the rolled lamb all around, five minutes on top and another five minutes on the bottom, forming a nice char on the surface. Remove the rolled lamb to a platter and take the roasting pan off the heat. Check for and remove any burnt pieces of garlic or herbs that might have fallen off during the searing because they will make the basting liquid bitter once the roasting is complete. Deglaze the bottom of the roasting pan with ½ cup of the red wine.
Place the tied fresh herb bundles on the bottom of the pan and place the lamb on top of them. Pour 1 cup of wine over the lamb and place, uncovered, in the preheated oven to slowly roast for 1½ hours. Baste periodically, by pouring another half cup of wine over and around the lamb.
At the end of the initial 1½ hours roasting time, raise the oven heat to 425 degrees, add another half cup of red wine along with a half cup of water, and finish roasting the lamb for 15 to 20 minutes more.
Remove the roasting pan to the stovetop and place the roasted leg on a cutting board, tented with foil, to rest for 15 to 20 minutes so the meat relaxes and gives up some of its jus, which will be added to the pan gravy.
While the meat is resting, place the roasting pan over low heat, and discard the herb bundles. Add another half cup of wine and raise the heat just to a gentle boil. Using a wooden spoon or whisk, work the bottom and sides of the roasting pan to loosen and collect any browned pieces or coating that may have formed during the roasting which will add to the depth of flavor of the pan gravy. If you did not remove some of the fat cap from the leg before roasting, then the extra rendered fat that has collected in the pan may have to be removed before finishing the gravy, otherwise simply skip this step.
To finish the gravy add a generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard along with a generous teaspoon of dark molasses, stirring to dissolve and completely incorporate. Finally, pour any of the jus that has collected on the cutting board while the roast was resting, and mix that into the gravy. Check and correct the seasoning and keep the pan gravy warm for serving.
Carve the roast into thick slices and serve with the pan gravy ladled over. We enjoyed our lamb for Easter Sunday dinner accompanied by a roasted potato tart and a sauté of curly purple kale. Oh, and of course a lovely bottle of Pinot Noir!
One final thought, there is always left-over lamb from a dish like this, and so in the spirit of waste not—repurpose, I coarsely ground the remaining meat to be made into lamb burgers once I get around to firing up my grill.
Don’t let the months of the spring season go by without at least trying a lamb dish just once. Let me know what you come up with.
Be well. Eat well.
Eating well feeds the soul…..It is the perfect time to be someone who loves to cook!