Feeling a bit sheepish about carving leg of lamb

April 11, 2001|By Rob Kasper

EASTER IS approaching, and that means my palms are sweating. Soon it will be time to carve the leg of lamb, a task that regularly fills me with trepidation.

Unlike the familiar pot roast, the traditional ham or the ever-present turkey, a leg of lamb is a once-a-year entree that presents bumpy, unfamiliar terrain. The shank end of the bone juts out of one end. The flesh lurks on both sides of the bone. Where do I attack first? Where do I follow up? Cooking tomes I consulted offered various tactics.

One advocated the "V" method. I found this approach in "Kitchen Essentials," a book showing techniques used by chefs at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. Basically it calls for making a V cut in the meatier side of the leg perpendicular to the bone. However, it is not quite that simple.

Before getting to the V part of the carving, I first have to level the playing field. That means I have to make the leg of lamb stable. Lamb stabilization is achieved by taking a slice from the thin side of the leg. Then the leg is flipped over, making the thin, level side the "down" side, resting on the cutting board.

Next I make a V cut in the meat, in the thick side of the lamb, about one inch from the shank. After removing the initial wedge of meat, I continue slicing on the sides of the V. Eventually the V starts to resemble a straight line. When that happens, it is a signal to flip the leg back over and carve any meat lingering on the thin side of the leg.

It seems to me that the advantages of the V method are that it could produce plenty of pretty slices, and, thanks to all the flipping, could make it appear you know what you are doing. The disadvantage of the V method is that you have to wrestle a hot, slippery piece of meat. This presents ample opportunities to demonstrate that you don't know what you are doing.

Next, I looked at the American, three-step method, outlined in "Essentials of Cooking" by James Peterson. According to this postulate, I begin carving the meatier side of the lamb by making a series of cuts while holding the knife almost perpendicular to the bone. This leaves the slices attached to the bone.

The second step removes the slices by making a horizontal cut at the bone where the meat is attached. The third step, which removes the meat from the smaller side of the leg, consists of turning the leg over, tilting it upward and slicing the meat at an angle. Peterson's book also discussed what he called the European method of carving. Over there, I guess, everybody works at an angle, holding the lamb bone with one hand, carving both the thick and thin sides of the leg in slightly askew style.

It seemed to me that the American style is to carve lamb the way a guy cuts his lawn. You make uniform, geometric cuts, and you work in a pattern. By contrast, the European style advocates carving the way an artist paints a landscape. You let artistic impulses, not some preordained plan, guide you.

The trick with this style of carving, as with imitating so many European practices, is to look suave as you try to pull it off. You have to carve as if you were a character in a French movie, a guy in a turtleneck with a knife and an attitude.

I figure it would be hard for me to look suave while wearing a big, fat, insulated mitten on one hand. That is the kind of mitten I would wear when trying to hold a hot lamb bone in one hand and wielding the knife with my other. You never see insulated mittens in French movies.

Moreover, I figure the European technique would get tricky when I was trying to slice away those last smidgens of meat, the ones down near the bone. One slip of the knife, or one too many sips of the red wine, and I would be the one with pink meat showing.

While I am considering trying one of these carving techniques, chances are good that I will probably fall back on my old reliable, let-the--butcher-do-the-heavy--lifting approach to leg of lamb. I tell him to remove the bone, then tie the loose parts together with string. This means that there is no bone to get in your way when the slicing starts. You can wield that knife any which way- horizontal, perpendicular, diagonal - and lamb slices come out looking dandy.

The butcher calls this procedure "boning and butterflying." I call it keeping me out of the emergency room on Easter.

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