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Look to the Mediterranean for imaginative recipes, especially Greece, where the succulent meat is a highlight of the holiday

When It Comes to Easter Lamb, It's Greek to Us

By John Edward YoungSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 1996



WOBURN, MASS.

WHENEVER I serve a leg of lamb, I'm reminded of my favorite episode from the old TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents":

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It seems this lovely elderly lady performed a coup de grace on her unfaithful husband, bludgeoning him with a frozen leg of lamb. When a team of detectives came to her home looking for the weapon, the little lady insisted they have dinner before they started their search. She, of course, served them the roasted lamb with a demure smile and a bit of mint jelly.

Lamb is so versatile.

But, even so, it has never achieved the same popularity in the Americas as in much of the world. In northern Africa, the Mediterranean, southern and northern Europe, (for some reason its popularity escaped Germany), the Middle East, and Australia, it is a staple.

Part of the problem in the States, I suspect, is that it's been treated better in the barnyard than in the kitchen. Overcooking it to the color of a battleship, and serving it with that ubiquitous glop of neon-green mint jelly, didn't do much to enhance its reputation.

Today lamb is cooked more imaginatively. Some shade of pink is the preferred color of doneness these days, although you may have a hard time convincing your grandmother of this.

Technically lamb is the young of sheep, not more than a year of age. The favored being the milk, or hothouse lamb, only about six to 10 weeks of age. These are not only hard to come by but very expensive.

As spring is the season sheep drop their young, lamb has become a favored meat at Easter time. Fortunately, it's also when supermarkets lure you to their stores with sales on this most succulent of meats.

Lamb meat (especially visible in larger cuts like legs) is covered by a silvery, papery membrane called the fell. I was taught that all visible fat, along with this membrane, should be carefully removed, especially when the meat is to be marinated. Others disagree, stating that the fell helps the meat retain its shape and juiciness as it cooks.

To marinate lamb, seal it tightly, squeezing out excess air, in a plastic bag with marinade. Then refrigerate.

Something else I learned is to purchase a fresh leg of lamb about five days before you plan to cook it. The plastic wrap is then removed and the lamb is placed on a plate in the refrigerator covered loosely with a tent of aluminum foil.

This allows time for the collagen to break down, and the lamb's tenderness and flavor to develop. Again, others disagree, believing lamb should be cooked the day it is purchased. The choice is yours. In any case, remember that lamb always makes a better meal than a weapon (Alfred Hitchcock excepted).

Many years ago, I was served the following elegant lamb dish at the grand Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. It is said to have been a favorite meal of Winston Churchill, who was a frequent guest there. It is flavored with chermoula, the classic, boldly flavored Moroccan seasoning used on everything from fish to camel. Its spicy sweetness works especially well on lamb.

MOROCCAN GRILLED LAMB WITH CHERMOULA MARINADE

One boned leg of lamb, 4 to 5 pounds (Have your butcher bone the lamb if you're uncomfortable doing it. But save the bone for soup. See recipe below.)

CHERMOULA:

2 large onions, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 1/2 teaspoons powdered cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron (optional)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme