11/03/2011 12:01 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012


Maybe it's not saying much, but generally speaking, of the major domesticated land animals - I'm considering cattle, pigs, and chickens - most sheep are raised in the conditions closest to traditional.

As it happens, lamb is also a distant fourth in popularity. There is no reason for this, especially if you compare lamb to beef. OK, lamb is more expensive; that's in part because the animal is smaller and in part because it's generally raised more humanely.

But it's also more flavorful, more forgiving (more on that below), more - for want of a better word - special. Even the term "spring lamb" retains a bit of meaning, because indeed most sheep (and goats) still produce offspring in the early part of the year, and therefore the meat of the young animals is available a few months later. (Freezing has made this largely irrelevant, and of course ewes can be forced to bear their young at other times of the year, but for a variety of reasons, some traditional, spring remains the season for lamb.)

When I was growing up, lamb meant mostly chops, and the chops were cooked well done. When I said lamb was "forgiving," this is what I was referring to: lamb is good rare, medium, and well-done, and its exterior develops a crispness that rivals that of the skin of pork and chicken, or the exterior of perfectly grilled beef. And it will do this without much fuss on your part.

Growing up on chops meant no lamb stew, or roasts, or braises, and no grilled lamb either. These, as I've since learned, are among the meat's primary pleasures. And the primary cut, the one that comes most quickly to mind among experienced cooks (and eaters), is the leg. Before I learned to cook, the leg was something you in restaurants, usually badly cooked and served with (usually pretty bad) mint jelly.

Since then, I've discovered boneless ("butterflied") leg, the joys of grilling, and even steaming. But if spring lamb is one tradition that's carried over, roast leg of lamb is another. The trick is getting it right. First of all, unless you're a leftover fanatic, buy a half-leg (the butt end is meatier, and takes better to roasting). If you're serving six or more people, a whole leg is fine, though you should try to buy a leg without the shank (think of it as the lower part of the shin and the ankle), which does not roast particularly well (it's amazing slow-cooked by almost any method, as you probably know) and makes the leg ungainly, often too long to fit in a roasting pan.

What you need to produce great, really great leg of lamb, leg of lamb that's so good you don't need to kill its overcooked flavor with mint jelly, is high heat - real roasting heat - and a bit of a rub. Do this, and without much work (without even much time - say an hour and a half, much of that spent doing other things), you can put a serious crust on a leg of lamb and make nearly every bite incomparably delicious.

There's another option I like: Roast the leg on a mound of root vegetables. This accomplishes two things at once, but there's a tradeoff: The moisture released by the pile of veggies somewhat detracts from the crust I crave on the leg. When I want to make the meat itself (and its crust of course) the absolute top priority, when I really want to showcase it, I take a page out of the book of the people of southwest Asia, who have been cooking it this way for at least 10,000 years (though maybe not in an oven). I crack - or very coarsely grind - black pepper and coriander, and I mix that mixture with salt and rub it all over the meat. Then I just roast the thing until it's done.

Sometimes I mix the pepper-coriander-salt rub with minced garlic and fresh coriander, poke holes in the meat, and stick the rub in there; I love that flavor, too. But usually I stick with the dry rub by itself. Because I'm after that crispy exterior; in fact it makes my mouth water just to think of it.

Coriander-Pepper Crusted Leg of Lamb
Roast Leg of Lamb with Root Vegetables