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Rich, bold flavors of roast leg of lamb will dazzle in seasonal suppers

Naturally tender and full of flavor, lamb makes an elegant and succulent centerpiece for springtime suppers, particularly on Passover and Easter. (Adriana Janovich)
Naturally tender and full of flavor, lamb makes an elegant and succulent centerpiece for springtime suppers, particularly on Passover and Easter. (Adriana Janovich)

A sure sign of spring is a roast leg of lamb, covered with fresh rosemary and stuffed with cloves of garlic.

Naturally tender and full of flavor, lamb comes from sheep less than a year old. With its crisp brown surface and juicy pink interior, the distinctive-tasting roast makes an elegant and succulent centerpiece for springtime suppers, particularly on Passover and Easter.

A religious and sacrificial food since ancient times, lamb serves as a symbol of renewal, new life, salvation and sacrifice.

But, despite its traditional significance, lamb is underappreciated in America. The per capita lamb consumption in the U.S. is very low – less than a pound per person per year – and has been waning for more than 20 years.

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University, U.S. per capita lamb consumption was 0.88 pounds in 2011, down from 1.6 pounds in 1990. That compares to 46 pounds of pork, 57 pounds of beef and 100 pounds of poultry.

People elsewhere eat much more lamb. In Australia and New Zealand in 2011, the per capital lamb consumption was 26 and 25 pounds respectively, according to the AMRC.

Other top lamb-consuming countries are Saudi Arabia, Ireland, United Kingdom, Greece and France. It’s popular in the Caribbean, Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, too.

High in protein, B vitamins, zinc and iron, lamb contains very little marbling. Fat congregates at the edges of cuts, making it easy to trim.

While the woolly animal is known for being docile, lamb meat asserts itself with rich, bold flavor. It’s not for everyone. A friend recently described the taste as akin to wet, woolly socks. Perhaps she was thinking of mutton, which comes from older sheep and is usually tougher and more pungent.

My favorite way to enjoy lamb is spit-roasted, but cooking an entire animal outdoors over open flame is not always an option. Roasting a leg of lamb in the oven is faster, easier and more convenient.

Bone in, a leg of lamb makes for a dramatic presentation. It’s usually cheaper than the boneless variety and cooks a little faster, but the bone can make it difficult to carve. I usually opt for boneless.

Sometimes, I’ll use a mix of fresh herbs – rosemary, oregano, thyme, mint – with crushed, dried lavender and lemon juice. Other times, I opt for ground nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, coriander, cardamom and paprika.

Typically, I prepare a leg of lamb with the classic combination of fresh rosemary and garlic, tucking sprigs and cloves under the outer layer of fat and into crevices I cut into the meat. I also rub a mixture of garlic, rosemary, cracked pepper, coarse kosher salt and olive oil over the entire surface.

The end result is a savory, melt-in-your-mouth main dish complemented by a hint of garlic and the delicate perfume of the fresh herbs, perfect for a spring celebration.

Roast Boneless Leg of Lamb

1 5- or 6-pound boneless leg of lamb

1 bunch of rosemary, stems removed

20 to 25 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Remove lamb from package, keeping the netting on. With a small, sharp paring knife, cut slits into the lamb, being careful not to cut the netting. Tuck garlic cloves into slits all around the lamb.

Make a deep slit through the fat layer on top of the roast and insert a piece of garlic and cluster of rosemary leaves. Repeat every 2 inches throughout the fat layer, using 15 garlic pieces in all and about a third of the rosemary.

In a food processor, combine the remaining rosemary and 10 cloves of garlic with olive oil, pepper and salt, processing until the garlic is finely minced. Rub mixture on the surface of the roast. Place in large roasting pan, cover and refrigerate overnight. (Or, let stand at room temperature 30 minutes to an hour.)

Bring lamb to room temperature. Place oven rack in lower third of oven so lamb will sit in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Roast lamb uncovered for 15 minutes at 450 degrees, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting uncovered until a meat thermometer reaches 150 to 155 degrees (for medium), about an hour and 15 minutes.

Transfer lamb to a cutting board (it will continue to cook, increasing the temperature by about another 5 degrees) and let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving.

Note: If sauce is desired, while lamb is resting, pour juices from roasting pan into a skillet. Add a cup of chicken broth, 1/4 cup dry vermouth (optional) and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pan. Cook until liquid has reduced and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with the lamb. For a “skinnier” au jus version, let the pan juices cool until fat solidifies, then skim fat off top before reheating, adding broth and vermouth, and serving.

Note: Make additional use of the oven by roasting potatoes or a medley of root vegetables – radishes, carrots, asparagus, onions or shallots, leeks, fennel bulbs – at the same time as the lamb.