The arrival of Spring means some wonderful things, like new harvests of ramps, peas, and asparagus. But it also means a new batch of tender, fatty, wonderfully flavorful lamb. Last week I shared about five spices to celebrate the union of chicken and grilling, but now let's talk about lamb.
Grilling lamb is all about maintaining a balance between the natural gamey, grassy flavor of the meat and the smoky, charred flavors of grilling. The best spices for grilled lamb negotiate that balance by emphasizing one or both of those flavors, or by adding brightness for contrast. Here are some of my favorites.
Brash, stinky cumin is the perfect spice for lamb. High heat mellows out its intense flavors into a pleasantly grassy perfume. Rub your lamb down with a light coat of oil and apply cumin seeds generously. Yup—leave them whole—they'll toast, crackle, and essentially fry in the lamb's rendered fat, forming a beautiful crust on the meat. I love doing this on kebabs, but it's great on larger hunks of lamb as well.
Rosemary's something of an obvious choice, but only because it's such a good one.* The alpine herb is beautiful with roast lamb, and so why not grill with it? Butterfly a leg of lamb and stuff it with crushed garlic, minced rosemary, and lemon zest—you'll be glad you did. Just don't expose rosemary to direct heat too much. It'll taste a little like burned tree sap.
*Yes, it's an herb, not a spice, but until we start a column called Herb Gathering we'll let it live here.
After cumin, vadouvan is my favorite spice for lamb. (Okay, it's a blend, and often has cumin in it. But still. Cumin is really good with lamb.) This French curry powder is rich with warm onion flavors, and is almost always superior in quality to more generic curry powder. Try a vadouvan-spiced yogurt marinade for lamb chops or chunks of shoulder. If you can, seek out a vadouvan blended with fennel seeds. Fennel is very, very good with lamb.
Harissa, the North African chile paste, is killer on lamb. Bright, fiery chiles, garlic, cumin, and coriander all do well in a marinade or a thinned out glaze. Or, if you're making lamburgers, whisk some harissa into your mayo and slather it over a toasted bun.
Before lemons made their way to the Old World, cooks in the Middle East frequently used sumac to add fruity sourness to a dish. After hitting lamb with a bunch of heavy spices like cumin, vadouvan, and black pepper, try adding some sumac to brighten things up. This isn't a spice to be cooked with; serve it in a small dish tableside.