Beyond the Recipe: Easter Leg of Lamb

Roasted leg of lamb is an Easter tradition, and getting it just right can be stressful. If you've ever screwed up a holiday meal, and desperately need to earn back your mojo, you're in luck. Chef Nate Allen takes us on a personal journey of culinary redemption, and walks us through his process of roasting the perfect bone-in leg of lamb.

Nate Allen is our favorite kind of chef — creative, energetic, and filled with contagious joy whenever he gets in the kitchen, or in front of a fire. His deep respect for conscientious agriculture not only shows in his thoughtful sourcing (often from his own yard), but in his beautiful dishes, using every ingredient to its full potential.  Each meal Chef Nate creates is permeated with history — of the local region, old culinary traditions, and of his own dining experiences. 

After attending culinary school, Nate lived in many places and worked in many kitchens, before opening the James Beard Award nominated restaurant Knife & Fork, in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. At Knife & Fork, Nate sourced all ingredients from within 45 miles — a testament to his dedication to supporting local agriculture and community.  He currently resides in Florida, surrounded by an abundance of fresh ingredients that make their way into almost everything he creates.

I tend to use many words where few would suffice. Whole roasted bone-in leg of lamb carved at the table is such a classic thing of beauty that everyone should experience. It is easy and I will show you. First, an overview:

Preheat oven to 300F. Rub down leg of lamb with salt and pepper all over. Add any other seasoning or aromatics you want. Sear all around in a hot pan or on a hot grill. Arrange a bed of herbs, onions, garlic, and sliced lemons in a roasting dish and place the leg on top. Roast in oven for 15 minutes per pound. Remove and loosely cover with foil. Rest the meat for 15 minutes. Transfer to a platter with more fresh herbs and serve at the table. Simple.

The first time I made a whole leg of lamb I really botched it. I wish I could have read that summary I just wrote first. I was just beginning my career in Los Angeles. A friend of mine was staying in the Hollywood hills with his dad who was an agent for famous chefs. He had brokered the deal that got Wolfgang Puck on TV, then on pizza boxes. I was asked to swing by and entertain and cook a leg of lamb on their Weber kettle outside. It was a glorious southern California fall day. The home was lovely and the family was warm. The product I had bought was superb. I had all the confidence in the world. I went on to the grill too hot. I had an elaborate plan. I had wrapped the leg in leek leaves and fresh thyme. Everything was burning. There was a correct way to do this but I wasn’t doing it. I had boxed myself in to a bad idea. I continued to smile and work on the accompaniments and tamped down the fire to low and covered the grill. When I pulled the lamb off the heat there wasn’t time for a proper rest. I carved and plated and the meat slices had the faintest pink blush to them. I served the best piece to the host. Everyone was kind but I knew the score. You may have noticed that my face is not on anything at your grocery store.

I want to share this with you because Spring and Easter are celebrations of rebirth and redemption. Hope always lies within the ashes of failure. After my first experience with leg of lamb I made it my mission to master it. By the time I opened my restaurant and purchased whole locally raised lamb I had mastered the alchemy of large muscle roasting. I still think of that first leg each time I roast one but I am overjoyed to be redeemed. What a gift to me that I have this opportunity to help you roast a perfect Porter Road lamb leg. Let’s celebrate Easter together. You have the bones of the business above. Now I will share more specifically how I prepared my leg of lamb.

Nothing in nature responds positively to a shocking change in temperature. When cooking meat it is good practice to allow it to come up to room temperature before throwing it in the fire. I pulled my lamb from the package and placed it in a pyrex roasting dish and subjected it to a massage with a spice rub. I used a mortar and pestle to mash up one tablespoon each of allspice, juniper berries, lavender flowers, kosher salt, and black pepper. Once these were smashed I added one toasted guajillo chile and ten cloves garlic and continued pounding until I had a rough paste.

This could also be done in a food processor. After the rub I let the lamb rest for ten minutes while I prepped six eggs. First I placed them into boiling water and let them roll for exactly eight minutes then moved them to an ice bath to cool. While they chilled out I combined one sliced red beet, one ounce rice vinegar, one ounce water, and a pinch of salt in a small sauce pan and brought it to a boil. I slipped the shells off the boiled and cooled eggs and put three each in two small Tupperware containers. I poured the beet vinegar over one set of three eggs and put it in the fridge. I then rinsed the sauce pan and added one teaspoon turmeric powder, one ounce rice vinegar, one ounce water, and a pinch of salt and brought this to a boil. This vibrant mix went over the second set of three eggs and they followed into the fridge.

Now the lamb gets seared! Into a large hot skillet I pour two tablespoons of olive oil. The lamb is laid gently down into the hot oil. A leg of lamb doesn’t really have clearly defined “sides” but let’s just say there are four. You want each side to get the benefit of the hot pan. Things are really smelling good at this point. I had never combined lavender, juniper, and allspice until this moment. It smells magical. It smells appropriate for a season steeped in ritual observance. Cue the Stravinsky. The leg can be rotated until it is fairly uniform in its browning. No two lamb bits are the same and we must allow nature to express their idiosyncrasies. After the searing the lamb is transferred to a roasting dish lined with herbs. In my case I used lots of rosemary and basil. To this I donated one lemon sliced into thin wheels, one small yellow onion also sliced thin, and about six whole peeled garlic cloves. Now into the oven it goes. My lamb leg weighed four and a quarter pounds. Earlier I said that we will roast at 300F for fifteen minutes per pound. I rounded down to an even hour. I flipped the leg over at the halfway point then squeezed it and told it how beautiful it was then I put it back in the oven.

This is a perfect time to whip up some herbaceous salsa verde. Place one cup each fresh dill, beet leaves, and basil into a food processor. Add two green onions, two garlic cloves, a half cup of fresh mint, and the juice of half a lemon and pulse until roughly chopped. Turn out into a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Drizzle in a half cup of olive oil and stir. I removed the lamb after an hour in the oven and tented it with foil and allowed it to rest for fifteen minutes. At that time I placed it on a platter with the colored, pickled eggs, a few beet leaves and sliced into its perfectly uniform pink center serving it with a bowl of the salsa verde. It feels real good to do right. I hope this brings you, your family, and friends so much joy.

If you run into any problems or just want to tell me how great it turned out then find me @natetellsyouwhytocook on Instagram. Happy Easter!

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