Leg of lamb: Rustic or the rough diamond of modern cooking?
I am currently on a cullinary journey to discover the new and classical uses of the delicious cuts of lamb and mutton and to experiment with it. Join me in this four part series as I discover delicious recipes and easy cooking methods a long the way.
On any farm the “tannie” in the kitchen will without a doubt be comfortable with the different meat cuts from a lamb carcass, not even to mention that the recipes for these delicious cuts are known by heart. But what happens to these cuts of meat, when it ends up on the counter of the modern house-cook, glamour chef or cyber kitchen? I am embarking on a culinary journey to find out what is trendy and new, but still true to classical roots and fool proof methods, when preparing these favourites. First up in this “Cut by Cut” series, we will be looking at the old favourite… leg of lamb.
When she got married to my grandfather, my dear grandmother Bester, wasn’t very nifty in the kitchen. Luckily, my grandfather knew how to prepare and cook a few dishes and could (like any smart man) teach my grandmother how to cook these dishes just like his mother. These recipes became the staple dishes she cooked week after week. I am convinced that Oupa, might have forgotten a few steps in the leg of lamb recipe, or the meat just stayed in the oven a bit too long while we were in church on Sundays. Whatever the reason, nobody ever said a word to Ouma about the dry and stringy meat and just drowned the plate of food in gravy. After a lot of Christmas, birthday and family dinners, I was not in the least motivated to ever cook a leg of lamb, until I discovered that the leg does not need to be in the oven for ages or dry! A leg of lamb is actually a very tender and lean (for the health conscious home cooks) meat cut and does not require long cooking times for it to remain tender and juicy when cooked. Due to the lower fat content of this cut, the leg of lamb as subtle flavours and will quickly dry out in the oven. I delved into the vastness of the internet to find and discover some secrets from modern home cooks and restaurants to prepare and cook the perfect leg of lamb.
A delicious leg of lamb boils (just kidding) down to two basic principles; shorten the cooking time to prevent the meat from drying out, or boost the moisture and or flavour content of the meat. Let’s first talk about the cooking time. To shorten the cooking time is as easy as deboning the leg to either cut open, fill and roll the meat or dice it up in smaller cubes. From our very own YouTube sensation, The Bearded Chef, and well known health-cooking food personality Heleen Meyer, I learned about cutting open the leg of lamb to cook on the braai. The cooking time for this method is between 60 to 80 minutes to be medium to well done. The Bearded Chef uses white wine soaked wood shavings to smoke the meat in while it cooks in the Weber. The meat it rubbed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper before placed in the Weber. Instead of serving it with the traditional mint jelly, he makes a pumpkin puree which complements the smoked meat perfectly (recipe and method on Cooking with Lamb’s YouTube channel). Heleen prefers to add a bit more flavour with a rosemary, garlic, thyme, and lemon zest herb mixture. She then rubs the herb mix, avocado oil and lemon juice on the meat, before it is placed in a closed Weber to be cooked for about 80 minutes. Because the leg of lamb is cut open, the meat is much thinner and will cook faster and more evenly than compared to a whole leg in the oven.
Chump steaks are smaller lamb leg products and are very convenient for the modern home cook, to quickly cook in a pan, in the oven or on the braai. Mini-roasts are cut from a main muscle from the bigger leg cut and are normally the rump or top side cuts. The portion sizes of the mini-roasts are enough for two people to enjoy and really cooks extremely well and tender, without losing moisture and flavoursome juices. Another discovery I made is that any good butcher or restaurant makes their lamb-kebabs from the tender meat of a leg of lamb, and not the offcut pieces.
A whole leg of lamb in the oven isn’t that old fashioned and still impresses when it is served at a big gathering on a beautiful plate. This perfectly fits into the rustic look and feel, which are dominating the glossy food magazines. The most important thing to remember when cooking a whole leg of lamb in the oven is to keep moisture in. I know you are probably thinking about the hassle of larding the leg with oils and chunks of fat, but that is not necessary at all – I mean who still owns a larding needle? Can you even buy it at Mr. Price Home or yuppychef.com? I found a fool proof secret to cook a juicy whole leg of lamb in the oven. The method receives a lot of commendation and is super easy and uses a salad dressing marinade. On a very popular South African recipe site, www.foodloversrecipes.co.za, people chatted about this “slaaisous” marinade. A lot of people prefer the whole leg to marinade in a Greek or Italian salad dressings overnight, while others prefer to cook the whole leg in the dressing and basting it from time to time throughout the cooking process. A very important, classical cooking tip, is to rest the meat for 15 minutes before cutting. This allows the meat juices to evenly disperse through the meat. Never cut your meat during the cooking process, as the moisture with all the flavour will evaporate and leave the meat stringy and dry.
I had the opportunity to enjoy the best lamb I have ever tasted at an Indian restaurant in Johannesburg called Ghazal. This medium curry, a Lamb Korma, had ingredients such as coconut milk, ginger, chillies and nuts in. The coconut milk is perfect for adding a bit of fat to the lean meat of a leg of lamb (some recipes uses yoghurt) and compliments the other ingredients. The flavours all married well, while the meat kept its natural flavour. From now on this is the only way I will be serving my leg of lamb. How will you be doing it?