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Back to tradition and lamb – and no Food Police allowed


French-style roast leg of lamb ready to go

There’s this thing that has happened, this rule that has somehow been applied to our cooking and eating lives. Perhaps it was decreed by the Food Police or, more likely, the bejangled Jezebels of Posh Galore, who reign over our culinary lives, chivvying us to eat the thing on the cover of that month’s issue and chiding us when we err and eat spaghetti Bolognese or prawns Marie Rose.

It used to be that if lamb was on a restaurant menu it was leg, it was roasted, and it was served with mint sauce. Nothing more, nothing less. With it would be roast potatoes, gravy, and two vegeteble accompaniments, most likely carrots and peas.

Then we became inventive, we started trying new things, and that was good and well, and has made our palates much more adevnturous, made our culinary lives far more interesting. But somewhere along the way it all got out of hand and some got it into their heads that the old ways were somehow plain, boring, even wrong. There were other rules too – lamb HAD to be pink in the middle, and no arguments about it. And if you’re so out of touch as to serve it with mint sauce, hey, you’ve been reading the wrong magazines. Like, Gourmet circa 1972.

And there are cool lists now. Anchovies are cool. Capers are cool. Fennel bulb, tatsoi, olives (but not green ones), limes, extra virgin olive oil and cos lettuce are cool.

But admit to using iceberg lettuce in a salad and eyes will be raised, noses will turn up and disdain will drip from furrowed brows. Perhaps I’d better not tell them, then, that recently I’ve taken to using iceberg again, because for ages now I’ve been missing that crisp shock of icy freshness that you get from no other lettuce when you bite into it.

Oh, and white pepper. This has of late been rediscovered, if only to a point. Thirty years ago it was all white pepper, never black. Since then it’s been all black pepper (freshy ground, of course), never white. It’s only a matter of time now until it swings back the other way. Whereas there never needed to be a rule, or a raised eyebrow. There never needed to be fascism in food choices.

Anything in a tin is not cool (don’t mention chopped tomatoes or those little tins of French Paté de Foie Gras you find at snooty food markets). Galangal is cool, ginger is not quite up there in the flavour-of-the-month leagues. Even though they are very nearly the same thing, merely different varieties.

In recent years I have come back to making the dreaded prawns Marie Rose, because whether you admit it or not, that supremely tangy little pink sauce of mayonnaise (homemade, surely!?), tomato sauce (the sky will fall on our heads) and brandy (oh, surely you mean Cognac!) is utterly delicious and madly moreish. And nothing goes better with a cold prawn than Marie Rose sauce.

As for good old spag bog, when my daughter’s in town, it has to come out at least once, and I always relish the day, because if the sauce is well-made and the spaghetti is just al dente, this is one of life’s most satisfying meals.

And as for the once ubiquitous roast leg of lamb, if I do not make it at least once while she’s around, she’d disinherit me, and I do have my old age to think about.

Traditional roast leg of lamb with mint sauce

1 x leg of lamb, about 1.5kg

12 small young rosemary sprigs

3 fat garlic cloves

Olive oil

5 or 6 sprigs fresh mint

3 Tbs balsamic vinegar

1 tsp soft brown sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

Trim excess fat (not all of it) away from the joint, wash and pat dry. With a sharp small knfe (not serrated) make deep incisions all over the meatier parts of the leg, turning the knife 45° to the side while it is still inserted. This makes a deep pocket.

Smash each garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife’s blade (place the flat blade on the back of the clove and punch the blade with the lower side of your fist), peel off the husks, and then slice each into 4 and insert into the cavities. Pick 12 rosemary sprigs, the youngest on the bush, this being a good time of year for rosemary as it is growing strongly. Insert into the cavities with a third of the sprig sticking out, because it looks good and also adds more rosemary flavour to the basting juices.

Brown the joint well on all sides in olive il on the stove top, season all over with salt and pepper (it won’t kill you to use white pepper, Daisy, but either will do), and roast in an oven preheated to 220° for 10 minutes. Then turn the heat right down to 150 and cook for five hours. Halfway through, cover loosely with foil. Baste about once an hour.

This will be meltingly tender, pale in colour but not pink, and the pan juices are all you need instead of the old-fashioned gravy mom or gran used to make. That’s one area where I’m a stickler for a pure reduction sauce rather than one enhanced by ‘packet gravy’, on which I grew up. All I did on this occasion was pour off the pan juices, leave it to settle in a saucepan while the fats rise to the surface, scoop off the excess fat and then reduce down the juices for a few minutes. Every last vestige of flavour from the meat’s cooking is in those juices, and it needs no more.

For the mint sauce, dead easy: finely chop the mint leaves (no stems) and place in a ramekin. Spoon in the balsamic vinegar and sugar, stir to dissolve, season with salt and pepper, and leave to macerate for the flavours to develop. You can do this a day or more ahead if you like.

First published in Weekend Argus winter 2012

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