Springtime. It's a time of daffodils and tulips, budding trees, and dead baby lambs.
Yeah, you read that right. Spring, with all of its glorious signs of rebirth and renewal, is also the time of year when oh so many little lambs are shipped off to the slaughterhouse. As heartless and bloodthirsty as it sounds, I really enjoy this tradition. To mark it this year, I decided to roast a whole leg of lamb and serve it to a couple of good old friends who are about to welcome their own little lamb into the world. (I'm twisted like that.)
The cooking method itself was easy enough—I just followed our extensive guide to cooking leg of lamb, which has you start by cooking the lamb in a low 275°F oven until it's about 130°F inside. After resting it, you put the lamb back in the oven, this time cranked all the way up, just long enough to brown the exterior. It's an easy, low-pressure way to cook the roast: Not only is it difficult to overcook the roast at such a low temperature, but you're also guaranteed an even span of nice pink meat inside.
For this recipe, I happened to get my hands on a bone-in leg of lamb, which I enjoy for its naturally tapered proportions—there's just something extra grand about a roast that still looks like the part of the animal it came from. A boneless one will work too, it'll just cook a little faster than one with the bone, and has the added benefit of being easy to slice since there's no bone to work around.
The main decision I had to make was how to season the lamb. I thought it would be fun to use the hot and numbing flavors of cumin, Sichuan peppercorn, dried chilies, star anise, and fennel, a flavor combination often paired with grilled or stir-fried lamb in Chinese cuisine. It originated in the Muslim-influenced northwestern provinces of China but has since spread to everywhere from Xi'an (check out Kenji's tour of Muslim-influenced food in Xi'an) to Beijing. In the U.S. you're most likely to see it listed on Sichuan restaurant menus.
I knew the flavor combination would work, but I'd never seen it used on a whole roasted leg of lamb before. I decided to give it a shot.
To prepare the spices, I first toasted them in a skillet in order to develop more flavor...
...then crushed them in a mortar and pestle. A spice grinder will work too, though I've found that crushing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle is more effective at fully releasing flavors and aromas than a spinning blade is.
After mixing the blend with a bit of brown sugar (the sweetness helps balance out the heat of the chili), I rubbed it all over the leg of lamb that I'd seasoned with salt then let it rest in the fridge for a couple of hours in the fridge to ensure that the spices are really well adhered. As the lamb roasts, that spice blend darkens into an irresistibly aromatic crust.
With the lamb sorted, I whipped up a very simple, refreshing salad to go alongside it, loaded with thinly sliced celery and cucumber, radishes and carrots, and plenty of mint and cilantro. They're all flavors that complement the lamb while balancing the tingly heat of its Sichuan peppercorn-chili spice rub.
How well did it work out? Well, my friend who's about to give birth told me before dinner that she'd been having issues eating red meat during much of her pregnancy. And then she went back for seconds. I'll take that as a sign of approval.