I’ve been a fan of lamb (can someone pah-leez hashtag that and make it a thing?) since as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until college that I got to explore the culturally evolving Los Angeles food scene and try roasted leg of lamb in so many different ways, as: Indian curry, Morocan lamb tagine, Chinese cumin lamb, etc.; but it was the two ways I remember it fondly as a San Diego kid in cargos: leathery brown strips of ace-bandage-meat piled into my pita with tzatziki sauce, and roasted with rosemary and Dijon mustard—that really crystallized my love for lamb forever.
My favorite Gyros sandwich was at this Greek Family Restaurant in the strip mall across the street from my dad’s optometry practice. The few days a year when we were sick and couldn’t go to school, my father used to make us come to his office and work. He could always tell if we were really sick or not, because let’s face it, kids are about as convincing with their excuses for being sick as Jewish mothers are with their praise for your initial pounds of weight loss. Yes mom, I’m sure I could lose more. How sick my dad thought we were was usually a measure of how much work he made us do. A measly cold—cleaning and rearranging glasses in the dispensary. A fever or the flu—filing patent charts.
If my father could take a break from seeing patients, we’d grab gyros from the Greek place across the street. Even with cucumbers, onions and tomatoes sticking out of that iconic wrapper (the kind with paper on the inside and aluminum foil on the outside) I remember it being the best sandwich on earth. There was also this China Blossom lunch buffet he used to take us too in another strip mall that was amazing, but I’ll tell you those stories later.
My other fond lamb memories are with my mother’s roasted leg of lamb. My mother likes to think of herself as a good cook, but not a chef. She says it’s because she’s good at following directions and she knows her way around the kitchen, and not because she knows how to experiment with ingredients, and cook without a roadmap. I think she’s as good a chef as anyone else, but regardless, her roasted leg of lamb is one for the books.
A classic on all fronts. Nothing too taboo with this one, but it was all about the execution. She used to pierce the raw meat with a paring knife and stick slivers of fresh garlic into the lamb leg like she does with her brisket. Then she’d chop up a bunch of fresh rosemary mixed with Dijon mustard and smother the exterior.
It roasted low and slow for hours and when it came out, the lamb meat was moist, tender, and had the most flavorful crust. She served it with a dollop of neon green mint jelly, and I was in heaven. The hot meat with the cold jelly. The savory of the charred edges with the sweetness of the mint. I remember loving life the nights she made that dish.
And now flash forward 30 years and there are so many ways people are eating lamb. Dry smoked on a BBQ, and served up as lamb belly bacon. Grilled on skewers and served on a mezze platter. Unfortunately some of the best ways to enjoy lamb require some outdoor space, a fire, and a spit.
So if I want to have lamb in my tiny San Francisco condo with no balcony, it’s most likely going to be a roast leg of lamb that I’m doing in the oven. And to make sure I have a nice crust without the open flame, I tried a thick Greek yogurt marinade that will crisp up in the oven.
Here’s a recipe I developed that incorporates a ton of flavors that pair well with lamb: lemon, garlic, cumin, pepper, mint, cucumber, tangy yogurt, pickled onions and cilantro. All of these go well with roast lamb leg—and this is how I orchestrated their harmony.
Roasted Leg of Lamb in Yogurt Marinade
- 5-5 bls boneless leg of lamb
- 1 cup plain greek style yogurt
- 2 tblsp cup olive oil
- 2 tblsp finely chopped garlic
- 1 tsp toasted fennel seeds ground
- 1 tsp dried rosemary ground
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tblsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
Preparing the leg of lamb
Mix the yogurt, olive oil, garlic and spices in a bowl and set aside.
Trim any major globs of fat from the exterior of the leg. Don’t spend too much time trying to get rid of all the fat though, this is going to roast for a few hours and we’ll want some of that fat to render off and moisten the meat.
Unfold the leg of lamb. Notice there are some really uneven pieces. What we need to do is trim this leg and butterfly it so we end up with a single sheet of meat that we can pound out into a ½ inch thickness.
Pounding out the leg of lamb
Using a very sharp knife (I like the Global stainless steel Swedish filet knife from Japan) cut down into the meat on the side of the thicker pieces that’s closest to the center of the leg. While you gently slice (straight down) until you’re about ¾ – 1 inch inch from the cutting board you want to pull the rest of the large piece of meat outwards (away from the center). As you pull that turns the meat enough under your knife that your downward cuts are essentially slicing a ¾ – 1 inch layer away from the mass so it “unfolds,” becoming a larger, flatter, single layer of lamb leg.
Repeat this technique in the 2-3 places that need it, and remember to always pull the meat away from the center.
It’s okay if the meat isn’t a perfect rectangle as long as it’s one connected mass that’s relatively flat and the same thickness. It’s okay if there are a few gaps or holes.
Next you’ll want to cover the meat in plastic wrap (I ran out so I substituted parchment paper this time) and starting from the center out, pound the meat to about ½ inch thickness all around. Pound from the innermost meat towards the edges. If the meat goes over the edge of the cutting board don’t be afraid to pick it up and rearrange it on the cutting board until you’ve pounded the entire thing.
Notice you have a much larger piece of lamb leg meat than when you started, and now you have more control over the heating process.
Using a spatula (or if your kids are helping you in the kitchen—their hands) spread a layer of the yogurt spice mixture over the meat. Don’t worry about making it perfect.
Then from one of the shorter ends of the meat, roll it onto itself and into the shape of a log.
Tie the lamb roast with butcher string, place on a platter, and cover the exterior with the rest of the yogurt mixture.
Let the lamb roast refrigerate uncovered for at least 3 hours, or over night.
Why cool the lamb leg uncovered?
We’re purposefully not covering the lamb roast when we let it marinate, because we want the yogurt to dry out and create a little bit of a crust on the outside of the roast.
4 hours before you want to sit down to eat, take the lamb out of the fridge and let come to room temperature for 30 mins while the oven preheats to 325°.
Place your tied leg of lamb coated in yogurt paste onto a roasting rack in a roasting pan lined with parchment paper.
Start roasting the lamb on a rack at the lower third of the oven for 2.5 hours, rotating about half way through.
Depending on how you like your lamb meat (rare vs well done), you’ll want to start checking the internal temperature of the roast at about the 2 hours mark. If you like your lamb medium rare, you’ll want to take it out at 135°.
Adding vegetables while the lamb leg is roasting
I threw some baby eggplants drizzled in honey, salt, pepper, and olive oil into the roasting pan about half way through the cooking process to see what would happen. The eggplants were fully cooked when we pulled the lamb roast out, but they were bitter and needed some additional flavor. We ended up not eating these.
Next time I would try filling the roasting pan with potato wedges tossed in rosemary, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Those will fare better with the long roasting time, absorb the drippings of the roasted lamb and finish with crunchy edges and soft creamy insides.
Serving the lamb
Once the lamb roast has rested for 15-20 mins, you can slice it in quarter to half inch pieces and serve it with some cucumber and mint yogurt sauce (like this great recipe for tzatziki), tomato wedges, cilantro and pickled red onions. If you want to create your own gyros, add some pieces of pita bread and throw everything inside.