Spring is a time of rebirth and festive celebrations. It’s often associated with spring lamb, although lamb is available year-round.
In many parts of the world, lamb is as common as chicken is in the United States. But we associate lamb with celebratory meals, which is why sales jump 50 percent around the spring holidays of Easter and Passover, according to the American Lamb Council. The season accounts for 20 percent of total U.S. lamb consumption, the council says.
You can hardly go wrong with a classic leg of lamb, cooked to perfection for a holiday showpiece, as long as you cook it properly. Its shape – larger at the top and narrow toward the shank end – means you can cook it to different degrees of doneness.
You can gussy up lamb with herbs and spices. Rosemary, thyme, garlic, coriander, cumin and paprika are natural fits for lamb. It also takes well to marinades and rubs.
So, if leg of lamb is on your holiday menu, here’s a guide.
Buying: Many grocery stores sell bone-in, semi-boneless or boneless legs of lamb. The latter is the easiest to carve and takes less time to cook, but it costs more. You can buy a semi-boneless leg and have the butcher remove the bone for you. It’s less expensive that way.
Preparing: Many butchers will cut the bone away from the meat, season the meat and then reroll the meat around the bone. Kitchen string holds the roast in place. You can also marinate or season the lamb to your own liking.
Judi Hannewald of Hannewald Lamb Co. in Stockbridge, Mich., recommends keeping the bone and not removing any fat before cooking. “You can trim it (the fat) away as you like after you cook it,” Hannewald said. “The fat helps keep the meat from overcooking and moist.”
Cooking: Have an instant-read thermometer ready. Bring lamb to room temperature before cooking.
For a bone-in or semi-boneless leg, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place the lamb on a roasting rack. Make sure there is liquid (wine or broth) in the bottom of the pan. Roast 20-25 minutes or until browned on the outside. (If the leg is small, sear it until browned on all sides in oil in a large skillet and put it in the oven at 350 degrees.)
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting about 1 to 1 1/2 hours more. After 1 hour, start checking the temperature. When it reaches 130 degrees in the thickest part of the leg, take it out.
Slicing and resting: Tent lamb with foil and let rest 10 minutes before slicing. The temperature will increase another 10 degrees. The thickest part of the meat should be medium-rare. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
Leg of Lamb with Parsley Garlic Crust and Honey Mint Sauce
Adapted from “Real Simple: Easy, Delicious Home Cooking” by Real Simple magazine (Real Simple Books, $24.95).
To substitute a boneless leg of lamb, brown lamb on all sides in a large skillet, about 15 minutes total, depending on size. Pat crust on top and transfer to a preheated 400-degree oven. Cook about 25 to 30 minutes for medium-rare (internal temperature of 125-130 degrees). Let rest before slicing.
1 semi-boneless leg of lamb (about 7 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, at room temperature
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
4 large cloves garlic
2 cups coarse bread crumbs from about 4 slices firm bread or, for Passover, crushed matzo
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth or water
For the sauce:
2 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
6 green onions
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the leg of lamb, fat side down, on work surface. Cut the meat partially away from the bone on each side, leaving the bone attached to the bottom. In a small bowl, combine the coriander, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Rub half of the spice mixture all over the inside of the meat. Roll the meat back onto the bone tightly and tie at intervals with kitchen string. Rub the remaining spice mixture all over the lamb. Set lamb aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a food processor, pulse parsley leaves and garlic until coarsely chopped. Place in a bowl and add bread crumbs or crushed matzo and 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil just to moisten. Do not overmix; mixture should be loose. Set aside.
Add wine and broth or water to bottom of roasting pan.
Place the seasoned lamb on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side up. Place in the oven and roast 20 minutes or until it starts to brown on all sides.
Carefully turn lamb over and pat the crumb mixture on top. Some will fall to the bottom of the pan.
Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue cooking another 1 to 1 1/2 hours for medium rare, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 130 degrees in the thickest part of the leg without touching the bone. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and allow it to rest 10 minutes before carving.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. In a food processor, puree all the sauce ingredients until almost smooth. The sauce should be the consistency of a thick vinaigrette. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. The sauce should have a mild mint taste with a mild citrus finish.
Yield: 8 generous servings, with leftovers
Approximate nutrition per serving: 519 calories, 29 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 48 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate, 153 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 501 milligrams sodium.