Pretty much everyone in my family is a card carrying nerd in his or her spare time. You may not perceive this on first glance. It’s a sort of internal nerdiness. Our spirits wear broken glasses, high water pants, and pocket protectors. We pick up on Star Wars references, and occasionally sing little songs under our breath about whatever it is we’re doing in the moment. Ok, maybe it’s actually just me who does that. But, whatever. (Have you seen New Girl? Kind of like that.)
One of my brothers has read famous political figures’ dissertations, for fun. The last time I spoke to my mother, she was gleefully reading a stack of dictionaries. (Some of them have fascinating material in their appendices. Seriously.) I have a certain propensity toward exploring the thesaurus. My reliance on it during college verged on the
religious, zealous, fervid, a little over the top.
As many of the food obsessed are wont to do, I also like to read through cookbooks. So, when my middle brother gave me The Flavor Thesaurus for Christmas, well it was clear that the book and I were going to need to get a room. I’ve been slowly savoring my way through it ever since. It’s truly a magnificent little oeuvre, informative, but not remotely boring.
In fact, there are times when I’d like to pull a literary Tanya Harding on the author (I mean that extremely non-violently, of course) so I can steal some of her turns of phrase and use them as my own. “Lobsters meaty enough to have rowed themselves ashore and smacked a longshoreman in the chops for his trouble.” Seriously? Why have I never thought to say something like that?
Anyhow, when we received a leg of lamb worthy of a Neanderthal dinner party in our meat CSA this month, it was my handy new compendium of pairings that inspired me. I had just read the entry on lemons and lamb, and learned that in Greece they sometimes slowly simmer lamb in lemon juice, serving the well cooked meat in the concentrated tangy broth leftover in the pot when all is said and done.
Sounded like a pretty good concept to me! Now, normally you roast a leg of lamb and serve it rare, saving braising for the lamb shoulder. But, I’m always a little stressed out when I roast lamb. When properly executed it’s sublime, so I don’t mean to deter anyone, but if you send it just past that rare point, well many will tell you that you just ruined yourself an expensive piece of meat there.
You can, however, braise leg of lamb just as well as you can shoulder. And, braising is kind of a culinary miracle worker. All you do is brown your meat well, throw in aromatics and some flavorful liquid, then leave the pot to cook at a low temperature for a couple of hours. After the waiting period is over, uncover the pot and voila! You will quickly convince yourself and anyone you are feeding that you are a cooking genius!
Such was the case, and then some, with this lamb. I split it into several large chunks, too lazy even to cube it properly, and after browning it so that a rich, flavorful crust formed on the outside, I removed it from the pot and added in lots of garlic and onion, a couple of anchovies (anchovies are actually lamb’s mysterious best friend! They add meaty richness without making it taste fishy. Like lamb daydreaming of the ocean. But you can leave them out if they make you uncomfortable.), and a small handful of rosemary for piney aroma that augments both lemon and lamb.
Next, went in the juice of several lemons and a small amount of stock. You want enough liquid that the lamb will cook into meltingly tender, spoonable pieces, but not too much because you want it to cook down into an intensely flavored sauce. I put the lamb back into this mix, covered it well, and left it in the oven for a couple of hours.
The lamb and the sauce come out amazing together. The sweet, rich, gaminess of the lamb is cut by the vivid acidity of the lemon. Succulent, and nicely balanced, especially with the perfume of the garlic and rosemary. Fancying myself to be thinking rather Greek thoughts, I also made a cucumber yogurt sauce, spiked with a kick of cayenne and cumin (oops, not so Greek), to serve on the side.
I have a problem with forgetting condiments I’ve made and leaving them in the fridge until about halfway through the meal, then frantically rushing to the kitchen and toting them back out to add to whatever is left on our plates. The first half of the meal was delicious. The second half, sublime. The creamy cool of the yogurt and cucumber ran and swirled into the meaty, lemony lamb juices and made it all even that much better.
In Greece – according to my reference book – lamb and lemon is traditionally served with either white beans or roasted potatoes. I opted for roasting small cubes of potatoes in plenty of olive oil and salt, plus a sprinkling of thyme and sesame seeds to mimic za’atar spice (I was out), until they were crisp and golden as honey. They really were the perfect complement.
I don’t know what I will cook next of the many things I’ve been inspired to dream up by my book. But, if they’re anywhere near this good, I can promise you’ll be hearing about them too.
Lemon Braised Lamb with Rosemary (serves 6-8)
If at all possible, it is by far the best to make dishes like this (short ribs fall into this category too) a day ahead of time. That way, you can refrigerate the pot over night, and the next day you can remove the layer of fat that will have solidified on top. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the fat in the sauce, but it can make the dish feel oily to eat, and removing it gives you even more splendidly concentrated flavors.
- 3 lbs. boneless lamb leg or shoulder meat, cut into about 4 large chunks
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 oil-packed anchovy filets (optional)
- 1 Tbs. dried rosemary
- the juice of 3 large lemons
- 1 cup chicken stock
- Preheat your oven to 325F.
- Generously salt and pepper your lamb pieces. In a large oven safe pot (a Dutch oven is an invaluable tool for braises), heat a big splash of olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add in the lamb and cook until well browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. If you need to, cook the lamb in batches. You don’t want the pieces to be crowded because then they’ll steam instead of browning, and browning is what seals in all the good flavor. Transfer the browned lamb pieces to a plate.
- Add the onion, garlic, anchovies (if using), and rosemary to the pot. Stir and cook until the onion is softened, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and chicken stock, then add the pieces of lamb back to the pot. Cover the pot tightly and transfer it to the oven.
- Cook for 2-2 1/2 hours, or until the meat is extremely tender. Remove from the oven. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.
- Optional but recommended: allow the pot to cool, then refrigerate it overnight. The next day, remove the hardened fat from the surface of the sauce and discard. Gently reheat the remaining sauce and lamb until the lamb is heated through.
- Serve warm, accompanied by the cucumber yogurt sauce (below) and roasted potatoes or smashed white beans.
Cucumber Yogurt Sauce with Cumin and Cayenne
- 1/2 an English cucumber, washed and cut into small cubes
- 1/2 cup Greek style yogurt
- 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- a pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
- Stir all ingredients together. Chill until ready to use. You’ll need to stir it up again if it has sat for any period of time because it will have separated. Serve alongside the braised lamb.