For a brief time in the 1980s, my family was very well to do. We went on family vacations while dad looked at properties across Western Massachusetts and parts of New York. We ate at well-known restaurants in matching flower dresses, amazing the waitstaff with our manners and general state of adorableness (having a daughter, I can say it’s genetic). Good food was part of the process. And while my dad was well and the real estate market unflinching, albeit briefly, we lived and ate like little princesses.
It’s also how we met a Greek-American family in Utica, NY that my dad met by way of his business endeavors. I didn’t know much about Utica other than it had a Sheraton, our friends lived there, and it had a Greek restaurant.
My parents’ love of ethnic cuisine isn’t terribly deep, but Greek food has always been a part of the lexicon along with Chinese and Italian and Vietnamese. One of our favorite restaurants in the Berkshires was called Sophia’s, and it served chicken souvlaki on soft, chewy pita, drizzled in tzaziki sauce, and obscenely dripping with juices. It was one of the most anticipated meals of my childhood, and I ate it with reckless abandon.
In Utica, it was different, though. Aside from being the birthplace of Annette Funicello, I’m not sure most people know about Utica. And those who do probably don’t exactly have life-changing experiences. But for me, Utica was magic.
It’s true that I had a definite crush on my dad’s Greek friend’s son, but other than that the memories are hazy. I have no idea what this lovey family is up to these days, but I do have them to thank for one very important moment in my life. The introduction of lamb into my culinary lexicon.
As it went, I was trying to impress their son at the restaurant. I couldn’t have been more than about seven, but I was absolutely smitten with this kid—who, if I recall correctly, was easily twice my age. He ordered the lamb kebob and I had absolutely no idea what it was, so I went along with the same order. Because I was cool like that. And my crimped hair and big glasses were a dead giveaway for how cool I was.
I remember being quite disappointed when the lamb arrived. It didn’t look like a lot of meat. And unlike chicken souvlaki, it wasn’t drowning in sauce. There were dolmas, another perennial favorite of mine, and plenty of salad. But the skewer of lamb seemed disappointing enough that I didn’t even dig in first.
But then I did. And it was as if the world tilted slightly on its axis. You think I’m being facetious here, but it really was a watershed moment. I had never, ever, tasted meat so delicious. So tender. So full of flavor and perfectly balanced. The lemon, the oregano, the garlic, the wine. Simple ingredients, I’d later learn, infused in the delicate, floral fibers of lamb.
I savored every bite. I let it linger on my tongue until there was scarcely anything left to chew. I rolled it around. I fell silent. I didn’t want the meal to end because I couldn’t for the life of me imagine that anything could be so good to eat ever again.
Crush? What crush? There was just lamb.
Not long after we lost just about everything, including those houses in Utica. Partially due to a con man that walked away with a good portion of Dad’s money, just as he was falling ill. You can’t make this stuff up.
Translating Memory to My Kitchen
I never forgot the lamb, though. As cooking became more and more of a hobby for me, I started making more complex dishes. And during one Easter break during college, I decided to come home and make lamb. Because, unlike pineapple ham nightmares of my childhood, lamb isn’t just an absolute staple of Easter fare but it actually tastes good.
This was before the internet made it big, and I dug up my copy of the Joy of Cooking and did a little browsing to cobble together what I thought was a good combination. The premise was pretty simple: get a leg of lamb, rub it with garlic and oregano, drown it in wine and lemon, leave overnight, and then cook.
I had never seen a full leg of lamb before. And the one I got was bone-in, like some prop from a horror movie abattoir. In fact, the leg was so long that the bone stuck out of even my mom’s biggest pan (in the years since I started cooking, the stock of her kitchen ware had not improved in the least).
But I was resolute in my work, and after an hour of so of wrangling I had the whole thing submerged, smothered, and marinating away.
I’m pretty sure the end result was overcooked, not to mention cut rather abysmally. Bad knives and an inexperienced hand, to be sure. But that didn’t matter. To my uncles and aunts visiting, it was a revelation. It didn’t quite mimic the lamb I’d had in Utica, but it had hints of it. With a better oven, with a longer soak, with fresher lemons. I knew where I’d steered wrong, and I knew where I wanted to go next time.
Indeed, since then I’ve made many different lamb dishes. My favorite is pomegranate lamb, but that’s another chapter. The recipe from that Easter wowed my family members, even those like my Uncle Todd who was accustomed to good food. So the goose I made the following Christmas was kind of a horror, a greasy and tasteless horror. But my lamb, that was something special.
The key to good lamb is fresh lamb. I’ve had bad lamb (or as we call it in the house, shit lamb) that’s spoiled and, well, diapery. Different lamb has different taste. I’m told that the Icelandic variety is the absolute best, but I’ve yet to have it. As it is, I like to get a bone-in leg when I can get it because I do think the bones add to the flavor, and certainly enhance the gravy if you go that route (and what kind of person are you if you don’t supply gravy).
Easy Greek Lamb
- 1 lamb leg, bone-in
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, more or less to taste (in my case, more)
- 3 lemons, sliced
- Large bunch Greek Oregano
- 2 TBSP salt
Enough wine to cover the lamb (usually three bottles in my experience — don’t go super cheap, but don’t break the bank here, either)
Prepare the leg by trimming excess fat and patting dry and placing in a deep roasting pan. Peel garlic and insert into meat through small slits using knife. Add a few of the remaining cloves to the bottom of the pan. Salt the skin liberally and add oregano, sliced lemons, and cover with wine.
Let sit overnight.
For the cooking part, you have options. A more rustic approach would be on the grill. Lamb grills up beautifully, and with indirect heat you’ll not just get a beautiful crust, but you’ll also impart a smoky layer of flavor. Depending on poundage, a few hours on the grill—indirect heat, remember, not directly on the flame or you’ll end up with some serious char—ends up with a rather impressive finished process.
If cooking in the oven, I use the same process as with roast beef and other red meats. Sear on a cast iron to brown on all sides, then put into a 250 degree oven until it hits 135 degrees. Why 135? Because the temperature will still rise, and the best lamb is kept from getting overcooked. The lovely part about roasts like leg of lamb is that you can accompany those guests who prefer a toastier, closer to shoe-leather approach by giving them the ends but, with a slow low roast, make sure most of the meat is medium rare.
Let it sit, covered, for about fifteen minutes before serving. Then prepare for bliss.