- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I can’t think of a single time my mother cooked lamb when I was growing up. She served beefsteaks and roasts, adored pork and ham, and cooked chicken a million ways, but lamb never appeared on our table.

She was unfamiliar with this meat, I think, because lamb was not very popular in the South and so not readily available in our markets.

My introduction to lamb came when I spent my junior year of college studying in France. There, I tasted pan-seared lamb chops that were juicy and pink inside, sampled a glorious roast leg of lamb, and swooned over a fork-tender lamb stew. It didn’t take me long to realize what a sublime meat I had been missing all those years.

When my husband and I were newlyweds, he gave me Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Volumes I and II, and I cooked my way through the treasure trove of lamb dishes, making up for lost time. Now lamb is one of my favorite meats for both family and company meals.

Recently, I served a butterflied leg of lamb as the star attraction at a small dinner party. I asked the butcher to butterfly the lamb — a job he is far better at than I. Butterflying involves cutting a boned leg open so that it becomes a single, long piece of meat.

Butterflied leg of lamb with fennel tomato olive relish

1 cup dry red wine

½ cup olive oil, plus extra for oiling grill rack

3 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 tablespoon dried plus a few sprigs for garnish

2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed (see note)

Salt and pepper

1 3½-pound butterflied leg of lamb (see note)

Fennel-tomato-olive relish (recipe follows)

Whisk together wine, oil, garlic, chopped or dried thyme, fennel seeds, and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a medium bowl.

Place lamb in a shallow nonreactive dish, and pour marinade over it. Turn meat several times to coat well, then cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight, turning several times. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before grilling.

To cook meat, oil a grill rack and arrange 4 to 5 inches from heat source.

Prepare grill for a medium fire (medium temperature). Grill meat, fat side down, until well seared on that side, about 10 minutes.

Turn and cook until seared well on other side, about 10 minutes. Watch carefully, as cooking time can vary depending on the type of grill used. When done, an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into center of lamb should register 140 degrees for medium-rare. You can also check lamb by making a slit with a sharp knife in center; meat should be rosy pink when done.

Remove lamb and let stand 5 minutes. Cut meat into ½-inch-thick slices. Arrange overlapping slices on a serving platter and garnish with fennel-tomato-olive relish, and, if desired, some thyme sprigs.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Have the butcher butterfly the leg of lamb and remove all but a thin layer of fat from the skin side of the meat.

Ask that the lamb be trimmed to an even thickness of about 1 inch to ensure that it will cook evenly. If the butterflied lamb is thicker than 1 inch, either ask the butcher to pound it to this thickness, or do it at home using a meat pounder or a heavy rolling pin.

Crush fennel seeds in a small electric spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. You can also place seeds in a resealable plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin or meat pounder.

FENNEL-TOMATO-OLIVE RELISH:

The relish can be prepared 6 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature an hour before serving.

1 medium fennel bulb

1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered

1 cup pitted green Mediterranean olives, chopped

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

Scant ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Cut off and discard fennel stem. Halve bulb lengthwise, then cut out and discard the tough triangular core.

Chop the fennel halves to yield 1 cup, and place them in a medium nonreactive bowl. Add tomatoes and olives; toss to mix.

In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, salt and red pepper flakes, and pour over fennel mixture. Stir well. Stir in parsley when ready to serve.

Taste; season with more salt, if desired. Makes 3 cups.

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