One of my brothers, Marc, lives overseas and is fond of cooking what the French call a “gigot” (leg of lamb) for Sunday dinners. I’m always amazed how much Dijon mustard Marc slathers all over the gigot before roasting it in his ancient but marvelous AGA oven.
Mustard is one of the more ancient of food flavorings. A member of the cabbage family, mustard seeds come in white, brown (“yellow”) and black and contain enzymes and other compounds that, when crushed and soaked in a liquid (commonly water, wine or verjus, the unfermented juice of unripe grapes) release piquant and volatile esters. Our eyes, palates and sinus cavities know all about that.
Heat (as with Marc’s gigot and the recipe here) also tempers mustard’s own native “heat.” Indeed, a commonplace in Indian cooking is to fry mustard seeds in a small amount of oil or ghee in order to turn the seeds mild and render them into nutty wee polka dots.
It’s traditional for me, in this space and at year’s end, to offer a roast leg of lamb recipe for holiday dinners. Here you go. The second part of this posting honors Hanukkah.
Christmas Lamb 2022
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coarse-grain Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground hot red pepper flakes (such as Aleppo, Espelette or Urfa)
1/4 cup full-fat whole milk yogurt
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
6 cloves garlic, peeled and well crushed
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3-4 pound boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat
3 tablespoons peanut oil
Mix together well all the marinade ingredients (everything but the lamb and peanut oil). The marinade will be thick and pasty. Let rest for 30 minutes for the flavors to combine.
Place the marinade either in a large plastic zippered bag or a non-reactive container large enough to hold it and the lamb together. Slather the lamb with the marinade, making sure the marinade reaches all over. Close up the plastic bag or cover the container and place the lamb in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
To cook the lamb: Remove the lamb from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature (at least 1 hour). Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat the peanut oil over high heat. Remove the lamb from the marinade, scrape it clean of the marinade (but reserve this marinade and any from the bag or container) and sear the lamb on all sides, 2-3 minutes per side. Put the lamb in a roasting pan and slather the reserved marinade all over it.
Place in the center of the oven and roast for 15 minutes, uncovered. Lower the heat to 375 degrees, flip the lamb over in its pan and roast an additional 20 minutes per pound (total roasting time for 3 pounds would be about 60 minutes), turning the lamb another couple of times as it roasts.
About 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time, check the temperature of the lamb at its thickest point with an instant-read thermometer. For medium-rare, remove from the oven at 135 degrees. For medium, at 140 degrees. Remove the lamb to a platter and loosely cover with foil. Let rest anywhere from 10-30 minutes. (Its temperature will rise 5-7 degrees.)
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: Place the roasting pan over moderate heat, scraping up any bits that cling to the bottom. Cook for 2-3 minutes, scraping and stirring until any liquid is almost caramelized. Do not let it burn. Spoon off and discard any excess fat. Add several tablespoons cold water to deglaze (hot water will cloud the sauce).
Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. While the sauce is cooking, carve the lamb and place on a warmed platter. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve.
Serve the lamb with the sauce and any accompaniments. If for Christmas dinner, an assortment of green and red vegetables (green beans, broccoli florets, halves of Brussels sprouts and grape or cherry tomatoes) is festive.
I remember reading a story about Ruth Reichl, the food maven and longtime editor of the now-defunct “Gourmet” magazine. Before “Gourmet” and while she oversaw the food pages at the “Los Angeles Times,” she published a recipe for roast leg of lamb for a Pesach (Passover) seder and got dozens of complaints because no observant Jew would roast meat (much less a leg of lamb) during Passover.
So, when Hanukkah (also know as Chanukah) came around and Reichl assembled her newspaper’s menu of recipes, she asked an expert in Jewish dietary law to look it over. He chuckled and said, “Ruth, Chanukah’s not a real holiday; your menu can include anything.”
Despite that you can cook any food for Hanukkah, many Jews definitely do cook specific foods in honor of this not-a-real holiday. They especially whip up batches of latkes or go to the extent of fashioning jam-filled doughnuts called “sufganiyot.”
The most signal element of Hanukkah is oil, and that is why so many Hanukkah foods are fried in oil, such as latkes or doughnuts.
“Chanukah” means rededication and harkens back to the rededication of the Second Temple in the 2nd century B.C.E. After the Maccabees took back the Temple grounds from the Syrian Greeks who had disallowed Jews their religious practices, the triumphant Maccabees sought to re-light the Temple menorah but could find only sufficient unsullied oil to last one night.
Here’s where the “not-a-real-holiday” gets its gas because these stories are recounted outside the canon of the Bible and are disputed even to have occurred.
Miraculously, the menorah burned for the eight nights of its candelabra. Hence, Hanukkah also is called “The Feast of Lights.” For the holiday, Jewish families ritualistically light a home menorah for eight evenings.
A frighteningly interesting story is the origin of the popularity of eating cheese for Hanukkah and foods such as blintzes, kugels and knishes that may contain cheese. Another extra-canonical book, that of Judith, recounts the story’s main lines. At a banquet, Judith, a daughter of the Hasmoneans (descendants of the Maccabees and hence, the story’s lone Hanukkah connection), fed salty cheese to Holofernes, the general of the army of Nebuchadnezzar, Israel’s archenemy.
Holofernes became so thirsty that he drank copious cups of wine to slake his thirst—and passed out. In short order, Judith took the general’s sword from his scabbard and lopped off his head, leading to a Jewish victory. In commemoration of this, Jews eat cheese at Hanukkah.
And drink moderately.
Gerard Rudofsky’s Potato Latkes
In 1989, in downtown Denver, Gerard Rudofsky inaugurated the much-beloved Zaidy’s Delicatessen which, throughout the ensuing years, has had three incarnations in three locations. This is his recipe for the sought-after latkes on the menus of those restaurants, scaled down for the home cook. Makes 6-8 depending on size.
For these latkes, the cook grates potatoes in the traditional way but also binds the mash with a sort of mortar made of matzo meal, a potato/onion mix and egg. The fried latkes merely hint at onion and pick up a beautiful tawny crust out of their pan. They are what a pancake wishes it tasted like.
3 medium- to medium-large russet potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
A few grinds white pepper, to taste
1/4 cup matzo meal
1 large egg, whisked in a small bowl
Canola or other neutral oil for frying
Sour cream and applesauce (see note)
After peeling the potatoes and before proceeding to grate them, be sure the whole potatoes are soaking in cold water. (For example, you may peel them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator, whole, covered in water.) When ready to cook, set up a wire cooling rack over a brown paper bag in a baking tray near the heat source.
Pat the potatoes dry and grate them on the large holes of a box grater, keeping back 1/3 of the grated potatoes. (If they are particularly moist, squeeze handfuls of them of excess liquid.) Proceed quickly with the remainder of the recipe so that the grated potatoes do not oxidize (turning grey or reddish brown).
To a food processor, add the 1/3 of reserved potatoes, the onion, salt and pepper and matzo meal and pulse 7-8 times to mash them coarsely together, but do not purée the mixture. In a large bowl, add the contents of the processor bowl to the remaining 2/3 of grated potatoes. Add the egg and fold in everything well, but do not overwork.
Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, warm a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast-iron or stainless steel are best for browning) and into it pour 1/4-1/3 an inch of oil. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Drop a small bit of the potato mixture into the oil to see if lively bubbles form around it as a test of the temperature.
Scoop 1/2-cup portions of the latke mix and gently slide them into the hot oil. With a spatula, flatten each into a patty no more than 1/2 inch thick. Do not crowd the pan; you will cook more than one batch. Fry until the edges begin to brown, 3-4 minutes. Flip and fry for another 3-4 minutes. It may be helpful to use two spatulas to flip or move the latkes.
Watch the temperature of the oil: too hot and the edges will darken before the middles cook through. Too low and the latkes will become soggy with fat. Also, you may find it helpful to wipe off the back of the spatula, from time to time, on paper towels.
Before making the next batch, check the oil. If it smells “off” or is dark brown or is filled with many small bits of cooked latke, pitch it, wipe out the skillet with paper towels (taking care not to burn yourself) and begin a new batch with fresh oil.
Note: Rudofsky “pinks up” his latke garnish of chunky applesauce with a few thawed frozen strawberries, crushed, and a spoonful of canned chunky pineapple.