My great-grandmother, for whom I was named, made wonderful leg of lamb. She used a lot of garlic. One time, as a kid, I was playing in my father’s garden, looking for something to eat, and I picked a sprig of what I thought was spring onion. I tasted it, and then turned to my dad, “What’s this? It tastes like lamb!” It was, of course, a sprig of garlic.
Nana Mom made wonderful leg of lamb; it was one of her specialties. She was the type of cook who didn’t measure, and who could make a meal out of nothing. Having lived through the depression, she kept the spare room in her house stocked with canned goods—hundreds of cans. Her house usually smelled like cooking—goulash, apple fritters, soups and stews—whatever it was, it was sure to be wonderful. Nana was a big woman--short, but wide--with a cozy lap and so much hanging down from her upper arms that I used to play like it was a punching bag. She believed in garlic and lots of vegetables and despite her weight she was rarely sick, so she may have been on to something.
A couple of years ago, I had lamb, and the next day I had vertigo. A year or two after that, I made lamb chops, and the next day I had another bout of vertigo. I don’t know if the two were connected, but the possibility that the dizziness and nausea were a result of something in the meat was enough to keep me away from the succulent meal. This year, on my birthday, there was lamb on the menu and I had no plans the next day, so I tried it. Delicious. Not as good as Nana Mom’s, but very tasty just the same. A week went by, and I cooked a leg of lamb. Still no negative side effects—wonderful! I took the bone from the leg of lamb and cooked it with lentils and onions. More lamb goodness. Another few weeks, and it was time to visit my parents for Easter.
I have developed this quirk of bringing lots of food when I go to visit my parents. I bring foods I think they may not have tried, but will like, and I bring old favorites. I often arrive with a bag of baking supplies; this trip, I made three types of cookies in the first 24 hours. (It's not such an odd habit, considering that Mom always sends us home with food at the end of each visit, and sends her mother home each night with a bag of leftovers for tomorrow's lunch.) I called on the way down to ask if they needed me to stop and get anything from the store; Mom replied that she was on the way out to get groceries, herself. She said she'd buy some lamb if I'd cook it. Deal.
Dad knew something about Nana’s leg of lamb that I had forgotten, or never known: she sprinkled cinnamon on the outside before roasting it. You didn’t taste cinnamon at the end, but Nana claimed it cut any gamey taste in the meat. I had been using black pepper and rosemary; to this I added a fine sprinkling of cinnamon. It was delightful, once again.
So here’s the recipe:
- You’ll need a leg of lamb, a roasting pan, a few cloves of garlic (I would use a minimum of one clove per pound of meat), cut into thirds or quarters, and whatever spices you’ll be seasoning the meat with; I used cinnamon, pepper, and rosemary. You’ll also need some flour and water to make the gravy afterwards.
- Heat oven to 325º F (older cookbooks call this a slow oven.)
- Place lamb in roasting pan, fat side up. (My 1953 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook suggests augmenting the fat with slices of bacon; both cookbooks consulted recommended putting the meat on a rack. I didn’t use bacon or a rack, and the lamb came out fine. I put enough water to cover the bottom in the pan, and added more when it started to cook off; I needed the juice for gravy.)
- Use a knife to stab holes into the meat; push a third or a quarter piece of garlic clove into each hole.
- Season the meat with a light dusting of cinnamon, pepper, rosemary, or your choice of spices. There will be no basting.
- Cook for approximately 20-35 minutes per pound. My great grandmother’s meat thermometer marks lamb as done at 165º F; by the time I got the lamb out the reading had climbed to 180º F.
- Remove the lamb from the oven and allow it to sit for 10-20 minutes before slicing. During this time you can make gravy if you wish.
- Of course you want to make gravy, right? I just added a few cups of water to the drippings in the pan, brought the mixture to a boil, and added a few tablespoons of flour that had been mixed with cold water. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc. can be added to taste, but probably very little will be needed.
Easter dinner also featured mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, edamame, lentils, rolls and bread. The next day we had leftovers. The four-and-a-half pound leg of lamb served five people the first time around and three the second. We'll be thinking fondly about the meal, and my great-grandmother, for some time to come.