My first experience with lamb was a disaster. Halfway through my first year at the University of Wisconsin, I had become accustomed to meals that ranged from good to excellent prepared by skilled cooks at Van Hise, the dining hall for my dormitory. Having eaten in UW-Madison cafeterias since then, I can understand why you might think I am delusional when I say we had some great meals, especially on Sundays.
There was a dress code for Sunday dinner meant to teach students the proper way to enjoy a special meal. Men dressed in coats and ties and women wore dresses or skirts and blouses. Sunday menus included items such as steaks or shrimp. We often had chicken or pork roasted and served with some delicious sauces and interesting vegetables followed by at least a couple of good choices for dessert.
But then came the Sunday when we had roast leg of lamb. I went to the meal with what I still think was an open mind. After all, I had learned to enjoy some pretty weird sauces and underdone (by my mother’s standards) steak and vegetables. From my reading I knew that people ate mutton and, if they could afford it, leg of lamb. Closer to home, George the Turk made lamb shish kabob that attracted hundreds of diners to the Turk’s Inn every Easter. Leg of lamb was a delicacy.
However, this meat tasted to me as if it had been wrapped in an old army blanket and left outside in the rain for a week. I couldn’t eat more than a few bites, though some of the guys I knew said it tasted pretty good to them. Maybe I got meat from the one bad leg in the whole dining hall. Whatever the case, after that, when leg of lamb appeared on the weekly menu, I found a coed to invite me to her hall for Sunday dinner.
Fast forward to my first visit to the home of Jerri’s oldest brother, Theron, and his wife Phyllis. Jerri and I had been married for nearly two years, but we had not had a chance to visit them at their home in southern Kansas. After talking with us for awhile, Phyllis excused herself to “put together a little lunch.”
As the newest and youngest member of the family, I was trying to be on my best behavior, so I left Jerri with her brother and followed Phyllis into the kitchen to see if I could help. On the counter were two large platters of meat she had put in the oven to warm when we drove in the yard. When I asked what kind of meat it was, she said, “Oh, we had leg of lamb last night and I roasted some extra so we could have a good lunch today.”
I don’t think she saw me blanch or maybe she thought I was just a little overcome by the masses of food she was piling on the table. When I went back into the living room I told Jerri what we were having. “Just eat a little and behave,” she said. She knew how I felt about lamb.
As I was finishing my fourth or fifth slice of some of the best meat I had ever eaten, I got up the courage to admit that this was the first leg of lamb that I liked. Theron’s explanation was simple. Their daughters were raising sheep for their 4-H projects, so they had lots of lambs on their seven acres, there was a very good slaughterhouse in town with a butcher who knew how to process lamb, and Phyllis knew how to cook it.
I have never looked back. Roast leg of lamb is always the main course at our Easter dinner and occasionally on other special occasions. Friends who told me that they did not like lamb have been known to ask for seconds and even nibble cold snacks after dinner. Still, I do have a sister who says that she prefers ham for Easter…but that’s her problem.
The garlic and breading mixture below are enough for a small boneless leg of two to four pounds. Just increase the quantities as necessary.
1 boneless or semi-boneless leg of lamb, 2 to 4 pounds
1 large or two medium cloves of garlic
1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. paprika
Preheat the oven to 450º. Pat the leg of lamb dry with paper towels and set it aside on a work surface.
Clean and slice the garlic into twelve to fourteen slivers. Pulverize the basil, rosemary and pepper in a mortar or crush it as best you can with a spoon and a cup. Put the flour on a dinner plate and mix in the spices and salt.
Pierce the leg with a narrow bladed knife and insert slivers of garlic spaced about four inches apart on the entire surface.
Rub a teaspoon or two of olive oil over the roast and roll it in the seasoned flour. Pat the flour evenly on the roast. Put the meat fat side up on a rack in a roasting pan and place it on the middle shelf in the oven. Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the roast or use an instant reading thermometer when the roast is nearing completion.
After ten minutes reduce the heat to 325º and roast approximately twenty to thirty minutes per pound. The only sure way to know if a three pound roast is done is to check it with a thermometer after the meat has been in the oven for an hour. Remove the roast from the oven at 135º for medium rare or 145º for medium. Lamb should never be cooked to well done.
Let the roast sit for ten to fifteen minutes before carving. Boneless roast will often have string or netting to hold the roast together which should be removed before slicing.
Serve with dinner rolls, a garden salad, fresh green peas and mashed potatoes for an elegant dinner. If you like to serve wine with meals, pinot noir goes very well with leg of lamb.
NOTES: Save the drippings from the roasting pan to make gravy for hot leftover lamb sliced to serve with potatoes or open sandwiches.