Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Test Kitchen: Basil Crusted Leg of Lamb

This month’s Test Kitchen is a promise of Brazil and Provence — two very exotic food destinations. And the recipe, from the April edition of Food and Wine magazine, is courtesy of Daniel Boulud, the famous New York chef.

Chef Boulud’s Leg of Lamb with Lemon Vinaigrette recipe beat out other choices in this month’s poll. 41 percent of you went for the lamb, which I admit is a great choice for spring, over marinated sardines (30 percent) by Chef Mario Batali and mussels with piquillo rouille (27 percent) by Bay Area’s own Chef Chris Kronner. (Maybe I should have based the poll on the names of the chefs and then it would have been a popularity contest?)

I admit the photo of the lamb in the magazine (pictured to the right) looked especially enticing. So it was going to be a challenge to duplicate it.

What I also realized is that chef’s recipes (not surprisingly) are a lot of steps and work and equipment. And I should have read the recipe more clearly before putting it up for the poll because Chef Boulud’s lamb recipe required a lot of equipment I didn’t have (namely a food processor and a flame-proof roasting pan). But because I always follow through with my promises, I powered through and the following is how it all went down in my kitchen.

Just a reminder, as the Single Guy, I wasn’t about to cook a 5-lb. leg of lamb for myself. So I cut the recipe in half. As always, you can get the full recipe at the Food and Wine Web site.

I started off by toasting some pine nuts in my oven. Why are pine nuts so expensive? Luckily, I bought it at the bulk section of Whole Foods so I only got the small amount I needed instead of a whole bag.

Next I had to prep the basil leaves, blanching them first and then pulverizing them in a food processor. Like I said, I don’t own a food processor but I remembered that I had a food chopper attachment for my hand blender. So that’s what I used to create a puree with the basil and olive oil. (It might not be as smooth as it was supposed to be, but I think it does the trick.)

The basil puree now needed some toast and pine nuts. (Also, the recipe said to add a clove of garlic and lemon zest but I have to admit I forgot the lemon zest.) For the toast, Boulud specifically calls for three slices of packaged white bread. Since I was doing just half the recipe, it meant I only needed 1½ slices of white bread. I don’t eat white bread, and I wasn’t about to buy a whole loaf just to use 1½ slices. So I just used the whole grain bread I typically buy and used a slice of that. I’m sure the white bread was more for aesthetics because it’s white and will show up better than the brown whole grain bread.

After pulsating the ingredients, I spread the puree onto my flat leg of lamb. The recipe calls for a boneless leg of lamb, and the one I got was about 2 pounds. So more a stub than a leg.

Then you’re supposed to tie up the lamb with kitchen string. I’ve found that the only reason for doing this when cooking any leg or loin is to just keep the nice round shape of the piece of meat instead of it looking flat and spread out. Here’s my handiwork with the tying. (I didn’t have to tie it that many times since the lamb was such a short leg.)

Now the recipe called for browning the leg of lamb in a flame-proof roasting pan, which I don’t have. These are the type of roasting pans you can place on top of your stove and cook with. I think it works best with a gas stovetop but I have an electric stove. So I improvised by browning the leg of lamb in a large pan and then transferring it to my aluminum foil-lined cheapy roasting pan.

I was supposed to cook the lamb for 1.5 hours, but I thought since it was just half the size of what the recipe called for, it might not take as long to cook. So after 45 minutes, I checked the temperature using my instant-read thermometer and it was at the 130 degrees for medium rare. Then I was supposed to cut off the strings, and when I did, the lamb fell apart and unfolded, showing the inside parts were still pink. Ugh, so I had to push it back into somewhat shape (no way to re-tie it when it was so hot) and shoved it back into the oven.

After another 30 minutes, I was pretty sure it was done, and then I spread the remaining basil puree to create the crust on the top. Then I set the lamb under the broiler for five minutes like the recipe said. Then I was supposed to take it out and let it sit for 20 minutes before cutting into it. When I serve it, I was supposed to create the lemon vinaigrette using lemon juice, Dijon mustard and olive oil.

But what the recipe didn’t say was to sprinkle a whole bunch of bread crumbs on the top of the leg of lamb, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the Food and Wine editors did because if you look at the picture above, no way was that lamb simply encrusted with the basil puree, right?

So I got some croutons that I had leftover from a salad, and I just broke them up into little pieces and topped my cooked leg of lamb with it. The result is pictured below. Again, my photo is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t depict a whole leg of lamb, so it might look stunted. But what do you think?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. Like I said earlier, you probably want to sprinkle some bread crumbs (with maybe some chopped pine nuts) on top of your leg of lamb before serving, just for better presentation.
  2. Swapping out the white bread with my whole grain bread didn’t seem to make a difference, I think, because you hardly could taste the bread in the puree.
  3. Lamb lets off a lot of oil when cooking, so you might want to use a splatter guard when you’re browning it on your stovetop before placing it inside the oven.

Ease of cooking: The recipe was easy to follow, but it felt like a lot of work — from roasting the pine nuts to pulsating the basil to tying up the lamb and then searing it on the stovetop. And I sure had a lot of things to wash in my sink after I was done cooking.

Taste: I don’t know if I’ve made leg of lamb before (I’ve made lamb meatballs and lamb chops), but this part of the animal is so tasty and tender! My lamb came out very soft. Not sure if it was where I got it or if all leg of lambs are tender, but it was tasty. As for the recipe, I realized while eating that the basil puree really just sounded like pesto. So I wondered why he didn’t call this a pesto-encrusted leg of lamb? The basil flavor, though, was really subtle after being pureed and cooked in the oven. So I’m not sure how much it added to the overall lamb-eating experience. The lemon vinaigrette you drizzle at the end is a nice, fancy, cheffy thing to do and did add a nice zing.

Overall grade: B- because it was a lot of work and created a lot of dirty dishes and overall I didn’t feel the basil came through. But I love eating lamb and this seemed like a fool-proof recipe.

Don’t forget to vote in the poll on the upper right-hand column to let me know which recipe I should test from the pages of the May edition of Food and Wine.

Previous test kitchens:
Pork Tonkatsu
Winter Vegetable Chili
Penne Rigate with Spicy Braised Swordfish
Five-spice Glazed Sweet Potatoes and Walnut Toffee


River-Rose said...

Brazil and Provence? The combination with lamb sounds delish! Really enjoy your post and a look in on the Bay Area{:)

Carolyn Jungw said...

I love leg of lamb. Ya know, even if you are Single Guy, you can roast a whole leg of lamb, and just freeze the leftovers. That way, it'll be a nice surprise to find a few weeks later that you don't have to cook during the week -- you already have great lamb ready to go.

agent713 said...

Huh. Way too complicated for me but it sounds yummy. Good job on the improvising too.

Hungry Dog said...

This looks and sound great. You did a great job! Sounds like more work than I'd be interested in putting in, though.

Chris and his Sweet Basil said...

Hello there! Intriguing recipe. Your post reminds me of my own cooking attempts: lots of missing ingredients and equipment. But we make do with what we have, right? I think I'll adopt this recipe and use chicken breast fillets instead. I wonder if it works just as well.