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Vines & Vittles: On the lamb with Sparky's Revenge

By John Brown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lamb gets a baaaad rap. I know, I know, my attempt to use this sophomoric pun doesn't play as well to the eye as it does to the ear, but you have to admit, it does ring true.

And in all honesty, how could anyone abide the traditional English leg of lamb, which is roasted (without any other spices save salt and pepper) in its own gamy juices and then served with huge dollops of mint jelly to obscure the awful taste.

In my own case, I could never get over the traumatic early-life experience of finding out that my pet goat Sparky had not really run off, but rather was the featured centerpiece of an Easter meal that my Italian grandparents prepared decades ago.

For whatever reason, though, lamb is still mostly unappreciated by we all-American beef eaters, who have been "steer"-ed toward and force-fed cow meat from the time we could use a fork and knife without hurting ourselves.

Hey, believe me, I am a beef addict too, but years ago I was introduced to a marinated and grilled leg of lamb that was so off-the-charts spectacular that I was able to disremember the day we ate Sparky.

And I can't help but think that some of our aversion to mutton has to do with our Wild West forebears who saw sheep as competition to cattle for the huge tracts of land it took to raise beef.

I'm often reminded of the cowboy's disdain for sheep that was recorded for posterity by Johnny Cash on his album "Ballads of the True West." A verse from one of his songs of his songs says it best:

A sheep herder come once and put up a fence,

We seen him that time, but we ain't seen him since,

But if your needin' mutton, we got mutton to sell,

Cause we're cow punchers and we're mean as hell.

Well, despite that old song, the truth is, lamb has come of age and is widely available on most fine dining room menus. Lamb is raised all over the world -- even here in our state, where I regularly get it from the Monroe County Farm Co-op and Sandy Creek Farms. I also get New Zealand rack of lamb at Sam's Club.

Today, I'm going to provide you with my recipe for leg of lamb that is a perfect holiday season alternative to those roasted meat dishes we traditionally prepare. Of course, nothing marries better with roasted lamb than full-bodied red wine, and I'll suggest several for your consideration.

Sparky's Revenge

My favorite wines for grilled leg of lamb are big and red. Here are some that should make Sparky sing: 2011 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($17); 2010 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel ($32); 2011 Molly Dooker Maitre D' Cabernet Sauvignon ($25); 2010 Brancaia Tre Rosso ($20); 2011 Ciacci Piccolomini Toscano ($16); 2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon ($32); 2008 Zonin Amarone Della Valpolicella ($42); 2011 Vu ja de Outlaws, Rebels and Renegades ($29).

1 boned and butterflied leg of lamb, 5 to 6 pounds

1 half bottle of good dry red wine

6 ounces extra-virgin olive oil

2 ounces of red-wine vinegar

8 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon of dried mustard

3 tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary or 2 tablespoons dried rosemary

2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon of salt

2 lemons, juiced and cut into quarters

TRIM some of the thickest fat from the lamb.

COMBINE the salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and mustard into a mixture.

RUB the mixture all over both sides of the lamb.

PLACE lamb in a large container or gallon plastic bag.

COMBINE the wine, lemons, vinegar and juice and pour in and cover lamb.

PUT in the refrigerator overnight or for at least 8 hours.

PREPARE a charcoal fire or heat up the gas grill.

REMOVE meat from the marinade and pat dry.

PLACE meat directly over the fire four minutes per side until seared.

COOK meat indirectly for 30 minutes or until inside temperature reaches 135°.

ALLOW the meat to sit covered loosely with foil for 20 minutes.

SLICE and serve immediately.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.


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