The Breakout Barbeque (lamb Provençal)
There comes a time in every grill guy’s (or gal’s) life when it’s time to step up your game. You’ve developed a little reputation for your finesse with flame, and now its time to prove to yourself and your posse that you can do more than burgers, ribs and chicken thighs. It’s time for the breakout dish.
The breakout dish has to be something challenging, new (to you) and eventful. It has to have some pizzazz. Marinated and grilled tofu is not a breakout dish, no matter how much you dress it up. A whole ox, however, would qualify. For my breakout dish I decided on a slow roasted leg of lamb. Growing up, we never ate lamb and it’s something I now eat only in Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants. It seemed a challenging meat to conquer. It has strong flavor, and if cooked correctly, a pleasant chewiness. But if not handled well, the chewiness can easily become overly tough and eating it can feel like your mouth is doing time on a Stairmaster. In other words, it’s a meat that takes some skill to cook correctly.
Being summer, I wanted to use fresh herbs to flavor the lamb and so I decided on a Provençal theme. I set about to do my research. In an recent Cook’s Illustrated magazine, I found this recipe. It recommends buying boneless, butterflied lamb shank. I felt like that was too wussy for my project. I wanted to present a smokin' huge hunk of meat on bone. But from this recipe I got the idea of brining and pasting. From Food and Wine Magazine, I found Steven Raichlen’s recipe for Tandoori lamb leg. Not the flavor I wanted this time, but I learned a basic plan for cooking a whole leg on a Weber. Finally, I found a great recipe on Grill Guru’s blog for a whole leg of lamb Provençal. The Guru calls for a rotating spit (perhaps my next fun purchase), but a very helpful email exchange with him helped me to focus my strategy of cooking on the grill over indirect heat.
To compliment the lamb, I thought I’d cook a couple of whole chickens. If you want to make the most succulent fowl on the grill, go out right now and buy, pick or steal some juniper berries and allspice berries. Those are the only two uppity, hard to find ingredients in Alice Water’s brine for pork and chicken. It completely changed my relationship to barbequed chicken. Soaking a fowl in this solution overnight not only imparts a deep and delicious flavor, it moistens the bird enough to give you a greater margin of error when barbequing. Even the breast meat won’t dry out on an Alice Waters's brined bird. And the leftovers are beautiful for sandwiches and salads. Some folks have complained that the color of the skin looks anemic when cooked this way, but I came up with an easy solution. After brining, I rubbed the birds with a mix of brown sugar, coarse sea salt, fresh ground pepper and Turkish paprika in equal parts (my friend brought me fancy paprika back from his trip to Istanbul- you can use Schilling’s just fine). The paprika gives the bird great color, even before cooking.
To get a nice, crispy skin, I decided to spatchcock the chicken. Spatchcock has got to be the best word in the grill-nacular. Go ahead, say it out loud, “Spatch-cock.” It’s a way of preparing a whole bird that involves removing the backbone and keel bones so that it lays flat on the grill over direct heat, allowing for quick, even cooking and crispy skin. When you’ve brined it overnight, you really don’t need the support of slow roasting or beer can sodomy. So cut that puppy open and throw it right over the fire! Unfortunately, I don’t know how the hell to locate a keel bone, so I called my favorite butchers; the gents over at Drewe’s Bros on Church Street (San Francisco). They’d never heard of spatchcocking, and just saying the word seemed to make them nervous. “You mean, like, you wannit buttah-flied?” they asked. Sure, butterflied would be fine, maybe it’s even the same thing, but their lack of critical grill vocabulary put a chink in the armor of their renowned expertise. Their meats are still top notch and the lamb leg and free range chickens I got from them were no exception.
I cooked the lamb, I cooked the fowls, the guests arrived, I served them food. I first presented my guests with a barbequ’amuse-bouche of Grilled Nectarines:
4 fresh, ripe nectarines
one wedge Brie cheese
1/4 pound Parma prosciutto
Halve and pit the nectarines. Place a slice of Brie on the open faced side. Wrap with two pieces of prosciutto. Grill, round side down, over direct heat for about 2-3 minutes. Serve to incoming guests and accept their compliments graciously. Serves 8.
The nectarines tided us over for a few seconds but people were here for the meat. Finally both bird and beast were cooked and rested. We carved them up and served them some yummy au jus made from the lamb drippings and wine. I call this Sauce of the Fire Gods- see below for recipe. Chris grilled some great new potatoes with rosemary and chives to complement the lamb and chicken (click here for a video recipe). I had several different bottles of Cotes du Rhone wines to complement the Provençal theme. The best to pair with the lamb was surprisingly the cheap-as-heck 2004 Bonny Doon Domaine des Blagueurs Syrah-Sirrah. Make sure it’s the 2004 bottle if you are going for the southern France theme. The 2005 vintage is great, but the jokers from BD switched to a Cali wine in 05.
My Provençal theme was loosely held together until my friend Jaedon wanted to bring homemade lumpia. Lumpia is a Filipino spring roll. “Is it okay if I bring that?” he asked. Lumpia is welcome at any party of mine! Neil and Eric made a delicious cake with summer pluots, and Arthur toted another dessert that finished things up deliciously. All in all, my almost French barbeque was remarkably successful.
Leg of Lamb Provençal Recipe
Lamb and Brine
1/4 coarse sea salt (or kosher salt)
1/4 cup sugar
12 medium cloves garlic , crushed
One 5 – 7 lb leg of lamb
Combine salt, sugar, and crushed garlic with 2 quarts water in large bowl or container; stir until salt and sugar dissolve.
Score lamb leg in diamond pattern. Poke holes into the meat with a knife down to the bone. Use your finger to make the holes larger. This will allow the brine to fully flavor the meat and later, you will stuff Provençal paste in here. Submerge lamb in brine, cover, and refrigerate for 3 hours, turning the lamb over once, halfway through.
note: all the recipes that discuss brining lamb suggest 2-4 hours, whereas brining pork or chicken is often done overnight. Does anyone know why we should brine lamb for such a short time? If you know, please post and share with me.
While the lamb is brining, prepare your paste.
1 bunch fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh oregano
1 bunch fresh savory
1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt
6 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
Smash garlic cloves with flat of knife. Remove skin. Remove the leaves from the twigs from half of the rosemary, oregano and savory. Reserve the rest of the herbs on the twigs to make your basting brush later. Place herb leaves, garlic and salt in a mortar and pound with pestle for about one minute. Stir in olive oil and mix/pound for another minute. Watch the splash. If you are lazy or mortar-less, you can use a food processor on the lowest setting.
Remove the lamb from the brine when ready. Pat dry with paper towels. This is important as you do not want the residual sugar on the surface of the lamb when you cook it. It can impart a burnt marshmallow flavor that is yummy in s’mores but bad in lamb.
Rub the paste all over the lamb leg, making sure to get it inside the holes you poked earlier.
All of this can be done the day before, if you want. If that’s the case, after rubbing the lamb, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Take the lamb out of the ‘fridge half an hour before grilling.
Hickory or mesquite wood chunks (I wonder what kind of wood they would use in Provençe. Tell me, if you know!)
Chimney starter and old newspaper
3 cups of dry white wine – preferably something from the south of France
The reserved herbs on twigs
A foot long dowel and some twine
Half a cup of olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Make sure the grill is clean.
Fill a BBQ starter chimney with hickory wood chunks (I purchase mine from a hardware store), stuff the bottom of the chimney with paper and light. When the top chunks have a low fire, bank the wood on one side of the kettle to create an indirect fire.
Place a drip pan on the other side of the kettle (it will go beneath the lamb leg). Pour a cup of the white wine into the pan. This will moisten the air in the kettle as the meat cooks. Pour another cup of wine into a bowl to use for basting. Pour the third cup of wine into a glass and toast your lamb before he goes on the grill.
Place the grill in the kettle. Oil the grill by crumpling a paper towel, grabbing it with tongs, dipping it in olive oil and then rubbing it against the grill. Place the leg of lamb on the hot side of the grill for three minutes on each side to sear. While searing, season the up-side with salt and pepper (you do this last minute because you want it to stay on the outside becoming part of the meat crust).
Move little Wooly to the other side of the grill. Cover. About every 20 minutes, grab your snazzy brush and baste with white wine.
Remove lamb from grill when the interior temperature registers 140 degrees on a meat thermometer. It takes about an hour and a half to cook. Loosely cover with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving and serving.
Finally, eat like a Provençal Prince!
Sauce of the Fire Gods
While meat is resting, pour the contents of the drip pan (don’t burn your hands!) into a sauce pan. Pull off the herbs from your basting brush and throw them in the sauce pan as well. Add a couple crushed cloves of garlic. Simmer for 5 minutes then pour through a strainer. You could dip Styrofoam in this sauce and it would taste good, but with the lamb it will take your tongue to a higher plane of taste consciousness.