Bake a leg
Australia used to ride on the sheep’s back but now we just eat its legs. A roast leg of lamb has been the staple of a roast dinner for a long time. Often it is just studded with garlic and put in the oven, which is delicious, but this recipe takes it to new heights.
I ended up wrapping the lamb in vine leaves to protect the meat and stop it taking on too much salt. As a result, though, the vine leaves have added a terrific, subtle flavour.
The salt is ground with a little bit of water so it can easily be shaped around the leg. When it’s placed into a hot oven, the salt sets like a clay crust – it creates a type of Dutch oven where the lamb steams in its own juices. The result, at the end of the cooking process, has the gelatinous meat falling from the bone.
When sourcing the lamb, it’s important to find a leg with a good, even covering of fat. The leg should be between two and 2.5 kilograms. Bigger than that and you are in the world of mutton, which produces a very different flavour.
The lamb falls off the bone. It can be shredded and put in pita bread to make a benchmark souvlaki. I also like to serve it with wet mashed potatoes flavoured with lemon and garlic, and a salad of parsley and bitter leaves.
The lamb is best served at the table, ceremoniously, asking a guest to hack away at the crust. A friend of mine cooked it once for her father, who is a geologist. He took great joy at breaking it open with an icepick.
The purity of flavour here is important and unique. It’s best not to get caught up in or distracted by mint sauces and the like. A wedge of lemon is all you really need.
– 1 leg of lamb
– 5kg rock salt
– 20 vine leaves in brine, rinsed and patted dry
– 8 cloves of garlic
– 1 tbsp oregano leaves
– pinch rosemary needles
– 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
If your rock salt has large crystals, blend it, in batches, in a food processor until it is a bit finer and is able to clump together when dampened with water.
Place all the salt in a large bowl and stir through 1½ cups of water to create a damp mixture. The salt should be just wet enough to be able to mould like clay around the lamb leg without collapsing.
Preheat your oven to 200ºC.
With a sharp paring knife make four deep incisions at different points around the leg of lamb. Push two cloves of garlic into each incision.
Spread some vine leaves on your work surface, vein side up and slightly overlapping. Remove any vine stem. Put the lamb leg on top and pull the edges of the leaves up around the lamb.
Continue to layer the vine leaves around the lamb until it is completely wrapped.
Line a heavy roasting tray with foil and cover the base with about one centimetre of wet salt. Lay the lamb on the salted tray and shape the remaining salt mixture on and around the leg, covering the joint well with a one- to two-centimetre layer of salt. Use your hands to gently compress the salt and pat it down.
Place the lamb in the preheated oven. Cook for one hour and then reduce the oven temperature to 180ºC and cook for a further two hours.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle, bash together the oregano and rosemary, then stir through the olive oil until you have a coarse dressing.
Remove lamb from the oven and place on a heat-resistant board in the middle of the dining table.
With a mallet, hammer or icepick, chip a small hole in the casing and prod at the lamb with a skewer or chopstick. The lamb should be completely giving. If not, plug the hole with more salt and return it to the oven for half an hour.
Repeat this process if necessary.
When cooked, crack the crust around the edge and remove the salt lid. Lift the lamb out of the roasting tray with a pair of kitchen tongs and place on a large platter. Gently pull away pieces of the succulent meat.
Spoon over the herbed oil and serve with a few lemons cut in half.
2012 Thick as Thieves The Gamekeeper nebbiolo, King Valley ($36) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Bake a leg". Subscribe here.