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New rite of spring

Forget everything you know about leg of lamb. Roasted a bit longer than intuition dictates, it takes on sublime texture and flavor.

April 04, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THIS weekend being Easter, many Americans will sit down to a Sunday dinner of roast lamb. And that will be the last time they try the meat until the same time next year.

Lamb is to this holiday what turkey once was to Thanksgiving, something served once a year and, for many, eaten more for ceremony than for pleasure.

This isn't idle speculation; I've got statistics to back me up. Americans' annual per capita consumption of lamb stands at four-fifths of a pound. Because a 5-pound leg will serve about eight people, that works out to about a dinner a year, give or take a sandwich the next day.

But if it is prepared the right way, what a dinner that will be. There is no roast better than a leg of lamb -- golden brown skin, moist pink flesh. The flavor is a compelling blend of something like beef but with a distinctive, gamy note thrown in. The aroma is entrancing.

What's more, lamb marries so well with so many other flavors: Garlic seems to become sweeter when cooked with it and black olives meatier. Lamb wears capers like diamonds and the perfume of fresh herbs like some beautiful women wear Chanel No. 5.

This is the thing that has always puzzled me: Why is it that one of the most flavorful meats you can buy is so often ignored? If we have embraced turkey as a year-round ingredient, can't we do the same for lamb?

The reason more Americans don't love lamb, I have come to believe, is that most of the time that Easter leg is roasted wrong. That's not just the fault of the cooks involved, but also of many of the recipes they follow.

The problem is pretty simple: Most recipes call for leg of lamb to be served underdone. Thumb through your library -- you'll find cookbooks calling for a leg of lamb to be served at 120, 115 and even 110 degrees.

This, in my opinion, is horrible advice. Leg of lamb at these temperatures is stringy in texture, even gristly. To be at its best, lamb needs to be cooked to the high end of the medium-rare scale, even to low medium. That means temperatures from 130 to 135 degrees.

That may sound heretical -- somehow we've come to associate bloody meat with true gourmandism -- but give it a try.

The language of done-ness is notoriously vague -- one person's medium rare is another's nearly raw. So let's be explicit: When leg of lamb is cooked to around 130 degrees, the meat is still pink and moist but the stringy tendons have begun to melt and the spongy flesh has begun to firm.

So if this temperature works so well, why do recipes recommend lower ones? It's probably a combination of several factors.

First, in the United States, lamb had for years traditionally been over-, rather than undercooked, which is even worse. In reaction to decades of Grandma's gray, dried-out lamb (well-done in name only), cookbook authors (and therefore cooks) have more recently gone to the opposite extreme.

There might be anatomical confusion as well. Lamb chops are often served rare to medium rare, so it might seem like a good idea to do the same with the leg. But that's ignoring the differences between the two cuts.

Chops come from the loin muscle, which gets very little exercise and is naturally tender. Legs are heavily worked, even in lambs, and so they are full of fibrous muscles and connective tissues that need to be cooked to a higher temperature to become palatable.

Finally, there just might be some confusion about what exactly is meant by "lamb." Of course it means a young sheep, but just how young?

Especially around Easter, when people talk about lamb, they're often thinking of newborn or milk-fed lamb, the kind that is sometimes called spring lamb. These are only weeks old. They have very fine flesh (and very mild flavor), and they need to be cooked extremely pink -- to medium rare at the very most -- to avoid drying out.

A rare find

BUT spring lamb is very hard to find these days, particularly in the United States. In fact, unless you've got a connection in the wool or sheep's milk cheese business, you'll probably never see it. I have a friend in Northern California who has a friend who has a friend who ... well, anyway, he is able to get one spring lamb a year.

The loin chops are about the size of a silver dollar, and they are absolutely delicious grilled very quickly over hardwood.

The lamb the rest of us get can be as much as a year old. Different countries have different methods for determining the exact maturity. In the United States, inspectors check the degree of calcification in the knee; in New Zealand, where a rapidly increasing percentage of our lamb comes from, they count the number of adult incisors.

This isn't a lesser lamb. In fact, it has a more fully developed flavor than spring lamb. But it is lamb that has been around the block a time or two, at least enough to acquire fully developed leg muscles, which require a little more cooking.

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