A sheer delight: perfect leg of lamb

April 14, 1999|By Rob Kasper

EVERY SO OFTEN you do something right and you're not sure exactly how you pulled it off. That happened to me recently when I successfully grilled a leg of lamb.

My prior attempts at grilling lamb had produced results that were not pretty. Either I undercooked the lamb, ending up with a slab of meat so rare it would scare cannibals, or I overcooked it, ending up with meat so tough that it could plug holes in the Constellation.

But the other night the lamb was perfect. Crispy on the outside, pink and juicy -- but not cold -- on the inside. When the eating and "aahing" stopped, I began analyzing the forces responsible for the delicious lamb.

They were the butcher, the cooker, the recipe makers and the instant-read thermometer.

Baltimore is a city blessed with good butchers. I have become friendly with one of them, Henry Reisinger, who owns Fenwick's Choice Meats in the Cross Street Market. He procured a 6-pound leg of lamb for me, removed the bone, then butterflied it, a meat-tenderizing process that involves pounding. Once a leg of lamb has been butterflied, it has a uniform thickness, making it easier to cook over a glowing fire.

The cooker -- my backyard kettle grill -- provided the ideal kind of heat the lamb needed. It holds charcoal briquettes in two half-moon-shaped metal baskets. These baskets can be scooted around under the grate. This allows me to either put a piece of meat directly over the glowing coals (the direct-cooking method) or to scoot the baskets to the sides of the kettle and cook the meat near, but not above, the glowing coals. This is the indirect-cooking method.

The recipe makers, Chris Schlesinger and Chris Willoughby in their 1990 classic, "The Thrill of the Grill," called for rubbing the lamb with a mixture of herbs, then using both the direct- and the indirect-cooking methods.

I wasn't able to follow their instructions to the letter. I rubbed the mixture of herbs -- garlic, thyme, rosemary and basil -- on the lamb. And I seared one side of the lamb over the glowing coals for about 4 minutes. But when I flipped the lamb over and the lamb fat hit the fire, I had a major conflagration on my hands.

Before the neighbors called the Fire Department, I wanted to calm the flames down and switch to the indirect-cooking method.

So I removed the lamb from the grill and put it on a large platter. Using insulated mittens, I lifted up the kettle grate, and, with my set of tongs, scooted the baskets of coals over to the edge of the cooker. This meant I had a large area in the middle of the cooker that had no coals.

Then I placed the lamb back on the grate, making sure the meat was in the middle, positioned so that no hot coals were directly underneath it.

I let the lamb cook for about 10 minutes, then stuck a thermometer in it and checked its temperature. According to several cookbooks I consulted, lamb was medium-rare when it was 110-120 degrees. It took about 35 to 40 minutes for the meat to hit this temperature.

When it did, I lifted the lamb off the fire, put it on a platter and took it inside the house. I let the meat rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.

The results were wonderful, fragrant slices of lamb that were more medium than rare when I sliced the edges of the meat and more rare than medium when I got to the interior.

All the slices had a moist, juicy flavor. The slices of the sizzling lamb were served with a topping of feta cheese, roasted peppers and olives. It was quite a pairing. Maybe now that I have some idea how it happened, I will be able to do it again.

Butterflied Leg of Lamb

Serves 6 to 8

4- to 5-pound boneless, butterflied leg of lamb

3 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, salt and pepper to taste

Make a paste of garlic and seasonings by mashing them in a mortar and pestle or use a heavy wooden spoon and a bowl. Rub this paste into the lamb and allow to sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Build a fire on one side of your covered grill. Over high heat, sear both sides of the lamb directly over the coals until well-browned, about 4 to 5 minutes per side.

Move the lamb to the half of the grill with no coals, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, check the meat with an instant-read thermometer. When it hits 110 degrees for medium-rare, remove meat from heat and allow it to rest 5 to 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with marinated feta and roasted red peppers, black olives and thyme.

Red Peppers, Black Olives and Thyme

Serves 6 as an antipasto

1 pound feta cheese, diced large

1 cup fresh black Greek olives, pitted

2 roasted red bell peppers, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, diced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh thyme

salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

8 tablespoons lemon juice

In a large bowl, combine the feta, olives and red peppers. Add the olive oil and toss lightly.

Add the onion, garlic, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper, and toss again.

Squeeze the lemon juice over the mixture, and allow it stand 2 to 3 hours in the refrigerator before serving.

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