Lamb has ancient connections to Easter, Passover and springtime in general.
Apparently, I’m eating for 30.
Most Americans barely eat a lamb chop a year. Last year, our consumption dropped below a pound of lamb per person for the first time since such record-keeping began. Since a quick review of grocery bills and dinners out shows that I ate at least 30 pounds by myself, that means at least 29 of you ate no lamb at all.
This is no way to live, and we are here to help. This easy roast, which feeds a crowd, is the perfect introduction.
We start here and now because lamb has ancient connections to Easter, Passover and springtime in general. In preindustrial agriculture, most lambs were born in the spring, and the male ones — of whom few were needed on farms — were quickly butchered for spring feasts.
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Now is also the moment because lamb’s earthiness is ideally paired with sharp spring vegetables, like asparagus, dandelion greens and artichokes, and because lamb makes a welcome change from winter’s turkeys and roast beef at the new season’s holiday dinners.
So, why the resistance to it? One possibility: In the last century, standard cookbooks like “Joy of Cooking” told cooks to roast lamb to an internal temperature of 175 to 180 degrees. This is an excellent recipe for a chew toy, and it may explain why many people don’t like lamb — they’ve never had it done right.
Equally, the blood-rare lamb served by some meat-centric restaurants can be alarming and stringy. (The sweet spot for lamb doneness, a comfortably large range, is anywhere from 140 to 155 degrees, tested after resting; a feature of the lamb leg is that its different muscle clusters cook differently, so you can serve everything from medium-rare to medium-well-done meat from a single roast.)
Or it could be that the word most associated with the taste of lamb is “gamy,” which is a pity because good lamb does not have the liverish flavor associated with wild game. Instead, it has a savory, mineral taste, like that of a raw oyster or an aged steak.
Anchovies and butter
The particular genius of this recipe, adapted from British chef Simon Hopkinson, is that it brings lushness to that minerality with two ingredients: anchovies and butter. And the addition of garlic and rosemary is a no-brainer in the kitchen — those strong, piney aromatics set off the meat.
Hopkinson grew up on the traditional Sunday roast when garlic was considered exotic, fresh rosemary was unheard-of and pairing anchovy with British lamb would have been grounds for treason.
The unlikely marriage of anchovies and lamb works subtly and beautifully, most commonly in central Italy.
“I personally think it dates back to Roman times and the use of garum,” the Romans’ liquid essence of salted anchovies, said Elizabeth Minchilli, an expert in Roman food and the author of “Eating Rome,” which is being published in April.
Like Asian fish sauce and MSG, she said, “anchovy adds the umami element, as well as salt,” which makes roast meat so satisfying. (If you can’t stomach the anchovies but still want to take a stab at lamb cookery, mustard makes a fine, savory substitute.)
In this recipe, the anchovy butter caramelizes the outside of the meat as it roasts and melts into the pan to enrich the drippings. “I want those juices to be swish and elegant,” Hopkinson said.
Garlic and rosemary
Hopkinson has you stuff pieces of garlic and whole rosemary sprigs into the meat, but I kept finding those chunks and twigs jarring on the plate. By crushing them into a paste, I forced the aromatics to melt and surrender to become part of the roast.
This recipe works perfectly for Easter as it is, but the leg is not considered kosher for Passover unless the sciatic nerve is removed. The butter can be replaced by duck or goose fat, or olive oil, but the gravy (made from pan drippings) would need to be adjusted.
Confusingly, the lamb on today’s market is often bewilderingly expensive or strangely cheap. Lamb used to be a reasonably priced staple — grilled chops were a standard weeknight dinner, and stews and soups fed the frugal. But now you can spend $55 a pound for rack of lamb (which, let’s not forget, is mostly bone) at a fancy New York butcher shop, or $11 a pound for the same cut at Costco. What gives?
In Australia and New Zealand, the world’s main producers (where, by the way, each citizen eats about 25 pounds of lamb a year — come on, people!), the lambs on commercial farms have been bred to be smaller and are slaughtered younger.
This type of lamb is plentiful and inexpensive, and the chops are particularly good for searing, but many butchers say that the meat is more cottony in texture, with less taste. Size, breed and feed can all affect the flavor of the meat.
For roasts, they (and I) prefer American lamb, which is generally raised on both grain and grass and allowed to grow larger than Australian and New Zealand lambs. It is more expensive, but our homegrown meat is also fine-grained, earthy and mild.