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Mary's Little Friend
Cooking lamb and barbecuing mutton

by John Raven, Ph. B.

In the words of the nursery rhyme, "Mary had a little lamb . . ." However, at least one little lamb didn't follow Mary to school. It was featured in one of Mary's dinners.

You don't find a lot of lamb on Texas menus. Although Texas raises many, many lambs, they just don't fit the Texas idea of stick-to-your-ribs food. Lamb may not be hearty fare, but it is delicious, and it lends itself wonderfully to grilling.

What Is Mutton?

Lamb is defined as "(a young sheep) . . . less than one year old." Spring lamb, which is a sub-classification, is a lamb between six and ten weeks old that has not been weaned. When a lamb reaches one year of age, it becomes a sheep which, when prepared for the table, is mutton.

In my part of Texas -- Central Texas -- mutton is barbecued. Cut into fist-size pieces before cooking, it is called chunk barbecue, and is quite good when properly slaughtered and prepared. I understand there is a lot of mutton on the menu in Kentucky as well.

We will concern ourselves here with the lamb. Occasionally I see lamb in the supermarket. It comes as lamb chops, breast of lamb and leg of lamb. Lamb chops look like tiny pork chops and come from the rib and backbone area. The breast of lamb is the lamb's brisket, and the leg is the hind leg or ham and shank portion. Butchers and lamb dealers divide lamb into four cuts: Shoulder, Hotel rack, Loin and Leg. The shoulders become roasts, the hotel rack is like the rack of beef ribs you see in a crown roast, only smaller, and the leg is still the leg.

Lamb is very tender and does not like to be overcooked. The word on lamb is think pink. Medium rare or medium is the way to serve it for maximum taste and tenderness. By checking the internal temperature, you can determine the doneness, with 145 to 150 degrees being medium rare, and 160 degrees being medium. In terms of cooking on the grill over a medium-hot bed of coals, a cut one inch thick will take ten to fifteen minutes for medium rare and a full fifteen minutes for medium. A large cut like a leg or roast will take forty to forty-five minutes or more.

The doneness of thicker cuts is best judged with a meat thermometer. When checking any meat for doneness with a thermometer, check the center of the thickest portion and make sure the probe is not touching a bone. With the larger cuts -- three pounds and over -- you want to take the meat off the grill with the temperature about five degrees below where you want it to end up. As the meat sets for fifteen or twenty minutes, as it should before slicing, the temperature will rise to the desired point.

The butchers in my part of the country nearly always cut chops and steaks too thin. I guess it's because the thinner you cut them, the more you can get off an animal. Don't buy any cuts of lamb less than three-quarters of an inch thick unless they are intended for stew or a stir-fry.

When we think lamb, we usually think of the Mediterranean area, and the favored seasonings there are rosemary and garlic. Rosemary is a very potent herb, so go easy on it the first time you use it. You can always put in a little more the next time you cook, but once it's in there, you can't get it out. You don't want to overpower the lamb with too much seasoning. Of course, you need the salt and pepper that goes on any meat. A little lemon pepper might suit your taste. Every person has his or her own personal likes and dislikes. You know better than anyone what your family and friends prefer. No recipe is written in stone, so do what you think best.

Lamb lends itself to marinade very well. Any mild marinade containing your favorite spices will do. Again, lamb is tender, so don't overdo the marinade. Two hours should be the maximum soaking time. Also, if you are grilling, stay away from the strong smoke of hickory and oak, try some pecan or fruitwoods. Be gentle.

How to Cook Leg of Lamb

The doneness of thicker cuts is best judged with a meat thermometer.
Now that we all have our mouths set for some lamb, let's do a butterflied leg of lamb on the grill. Obtain the leg of lamb. It will probably weigh five or six pounds. You can have the butcher butterfly it for you or you can do it yourself if you are handy with a boning knife. A slit is made in the narrow side of the leg all the way down to the bone. The halves are opened and you gently work the flesh away from the bone until the bone comes free. Remove any excess fat and tendons you find. When you lay the leg down with the cut side up and open, it will resemble the outline of a butterfly.

For my seasoning, I would put about a half-cup of onion and two or three cloves of garlic in the blender and reduce it to a paste. If you have trouble getting it to blend, add just enough olive oil to get it to work. Chop some rosemary needles just as fine as you can until you have about a half a teaspoon full. Add this to the onion garlic puree along with a half-teaspoon each of black pepper and salt. Mix the seasoning up well and spread it all over the inside of the leg where you removed the bone. Next, start at the small end and roll the leg into a compact shape using string to tie it, or use skewers to hold it in shape.

Mix up enough salt and fresh ground black pepper to season all the outside of the leg. Add just a tad of cayenne to the salt and pepper. Trust me. When you have the leg seasoned, brush it with olive oil and pop it on the grill which should be three or four inches above the coals. Close the lid. After about 45 minutes, turn the leg and give it a brushing of Italian salad dressing. Repeat the turning and brushing until your thermometer tells you it's done. Remove from grill and let the leg set for about 15 minutes before you slice and serve. You always want to serve lamb warm. When it gets cold, it loses a lot of its charm.

Have some of the traditional mint jelly to go with your preferred side dishes. Enjoy.

Kitchen tools you'll need
Meat Thermometer, Outdoor Grill
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