Dress up the grill with versatile lamb

The rich flavors of lamb can be made elegant by marinades or kept simple for burgers.

By , / Correspondent

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    A lamb burger topped with tzatziki sauce.
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We all have those indelible food memories that stick out like spinach between our teeth.

I've had my share of the good (Grandmother's Toll House Cookies), the bad (finding out there was tripe in Philadelphia Pepper Pot Soup), and the ugly (discovering that one of my favorite sandwiches Mother stuffed in my school lunchbox was actually boiled beef tongue).

And then there was the Disaster Dinner Date.

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I had recently met an attractive, smart, sweet young woman. And funny? This lady made Phyllis Diller look like Madeleine Albright. But the first dinner date at her apartment was no laughing matter.

The setting was out of a chick flick: candles, a perfectly set table, flowers (my contribution, thank you) and classical music. Perfect!

Then dinner! Bring it on! The simple, green salad had enough vinegar to make my eyes water. The mashed potatoes were just a tad lumpy, but at least they weren't out of a box. There were green beans almondine. Now I've never been crazy about warm, soggy nuts in food, but otherwise, they were just fine. Then the pièce de résistance – lamb! I think. But what cut? I didn't think sheep had elbows. Kneecaps, perhaps? They kind of looked like chops but were thin, gray, gristly, and laughed at my steak knife. "But Goodyear already discovered vulcanized rubber a century ago," I thought. And wherever did she buy them? Home Depot? I tried. I really tried to put on a good face, but Sir Laurence Olivier couldn't have pulled this one off. There was nothing I could do to fake it. The frozen smile on my face did nothing to fool my dear, wounded date.

Maybe dessert would sweeten the evening. After she excused herself from the table, I buried as much of the "lamb" as I could hide under the mashed potatoes.

The clash of steel against tile brought me abruptly to the kitchen. The chocolate mousse she had made in metal ice cube trays had slipped out of her hands, and the dozen squares of chocolate were bouncing around the floor like Silly Putty. My date was sitting on the floor in a shower of tears.

Although the dinner was a disaster, it was indeed memorable, and the source of much laughter we shared over several years to come.

We have both moved on, and I understand that my friend is an exceptional cook, and the dinner from hell did nothing to change my fondness for lamb. Its complex flavor and versatility continues to make it tops on my list of favorite dishes.

A butterflied leg of lamb is one that is boned and spread flat when grilled. It can also be stuffed, rolled, tied with string, and roasted. When grilled, it should be crusty on the outside and tender and juicy inside. Although it's not particularly difficult to bone a lamb leg, if you find it somewhat daunting, have your butcher do it.

I find the best method to marinate this, or any cut of meat for that matter, is to place all ingredients in a large, plastic zip-lock bag, squeeze out the excess air, and seal. This way the marinade is always in contact with the meat. If done in a bowl or pan, it should be turned every few hours.

GINGER-SESAME BUTTERFLIED LEG OF LAMB

Serves 8 to 10

3 large cloves garlic, finely minced

3 tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/3 cup Asian (dark) sesame oil

3/4 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 butterflied leg of lamb, about 4 to 5 lbs.

Olive oil for brushing grill

Mix all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl, or large zip-lock bag. Add lamb and cover with plastic wrap if using a bowl. Refrigerate overnight, or up to 2 days. (The longer the better.)

Heat grill to medium-high. Lightly brush grill with olive oil to prevent lamb from sticking. Spread lamb on hot grate, fat side down. Grill 10 to 15 minutes per side. Check temperature in thickest part of meat. For medium rare, temperature should read 145 degrees F.

Let lamb rest 10 to 15 minutes before carving.

MOROCCAN LAMB BURGERS

Serves 6

1-1/2 lbs. ground lamb

1/4 cup minced fresh mint leaves

3 cloves garlic, minced

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large, ripe (soft) avocado

2/3 cup yogurt

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

6 quality rolls, such as ciabatta, onion, or bulky

Dijon mustard

Lettuce

In a large bowl, combine lamb, half the mint, half the garlic; add salt and pepper to taste. Divide mixture into 6 patties.

In another bowl, mash the avocado with yogurt, remaining mint and garlic; add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat grill to medium-high. Grill lamb burgers until just barely pink inside.

Lightly toast rolls on grill.

Serve burgers on rolls topped with sliced onion, yogurt-avocado sauce, mustard, and lettuce.

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