Let Your Grill Do The Work

Photo: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr

We all have favorite recipes. The tried and true that we turn to time and time again.

One of my favorite summer dishes is grilled butterfly of lamb. I like to marinate the meat in red wine, garlic and lots of fresh herbs and throw it on the grill ’til it’s almost charred on the outside, pink and tender within. I’ve been grilling lamb this way for decades. And I’ve been more than happy with the way it comes out every single time.

So why mess with a good thing, and change something that doesn’t need fixing?

I had no intention of altering my grilled lamb recipe, but somehow it happened. A friend down the street raised lambs last year and we bought one. I took the leg out of the freezer last weekend, thawed it and figured I’d proceed the way I always do. I would bone the leg of lamb (with the bone removed the two flaps on either side resemble a butterfly) and then marinate the meat for a full 24 hours, infusing it with garlic, olive oil, fresh rosemary and mint. But when it came time to cook the meat, the weather turned unexpectedly warm. The cool day morphed into summer-hot, and I ran out of energy. I didn’t feel like boning the meat and chose to leave it whole. And then I thought: what if, instead of the usual high-heat, quick grill technique I always use, I cooked the whole leg of lamb really slowly over indirect heat?

Indirect heat is a method of grilling where one side of a grill — charcoal, gas or wood– is lit, and the other side is left cold. The food is placed over the unlit section of the grill and cooks from the residual heat offered from the lit side. It’s more akin to outdoor roasting than grilling. And the result — usually favored with lesser cuts of meat like ribs, brisket, or tough cuts that require slower, longer cooking times — can be fantastic. But leg of lamb grilled slowly?

I lit the fire on one side until it reached about 325 degrees. I seared the meat on both sides over the hot side of the grill, then placed it on top of a piece of foil over the unlit section. I poured some of the marinade on top, covered the grill and walked away. I took the dog out for a walk and took my time, feeling no need to rush back and check the meat.

After two hours it looked gorgeous. I brushed the lamb with the remaining marinade, closed the lid of the grill and let it cook another hour. It was the most leisurely grilling I can recall. I used my meat thermometer to tell me when the meat would be medium-rare and, after just over three hours of long, slow cooking, the lamb looked just right. The smoky scent of the meat, mixed with the fresh rosemary and mint from the marinade, made for some serious hunger. I placed the lamb on a platter and surrounded it with fresh mint from the garden.

It seems strange to describe the texture of lamb as buttery, but I will. It’s hard to admit that doing something the same way for 30 years isn’t necessarily the best way — tradition and long-time habits aren’t easy to break. But sometimes, when you least expect it, you have to admit that change is gonna’ come.

Slow Slow Grill-Roasted Leg of Lamb

Serve with crusty bread or warm pita bread and a sauce made from Greek-style yogurt mixed with a grated cucumber, chopped fresh mint, pine nuts and scallions.

1/2 leg of lamb, about 3 to 4 pounds, trimmed of excess fat
1 cup red wine
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
A generous grinding of freshly ground black pepper
Fresh mint for garnish, optional

Place the lamb in a large, non-porous bowl or plastic bag and pour all the remaining ingredients on top. Stir well to make sure all the ingredients are incorporated. Marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

Light the fire for indirect heat. This involves lighting one side of the grill and leaving the other half unlit. If you are working with charcoal you want to pile the charcoal in a chimney and light. When the charcoal is red hot place them on one side of the grill, leaving the other half empty. If using gas, light one side of the grill leaving the other half unlit. The grill temperature shouldn’t be allowed to rise over 325 degrees.

Remove the lamb from the marinade and place on the hot part of the grill. Grill 3 to 4 minutes on each side to give the meat a nice golden brown and remove. Place a large piece of foil on the indirect part of the grill. Place the lamb on top of the foil and add half the marinade on top. Do not wrap the foil around the meat, but let it act as a base for the meat and the marinade juices. Cover the grill and cook for 1.5 hours. Baste the remaining marinade on top and cook another 1 to 1.5 hours, or until the internal temperature of the meat is 125 degrees in the thickest part for medium-rare, and 140 degrees for medium-well.

Remove from the grill, let rest for 5 minutes, then carve and serve with the marinade juices from the bottom of the foil. Garnish with fresh mint. Serves 4.