UNITED STATES (NYTIMES) - When it comes to choosing a large hunk of meat for a festive dinner, butterflied leg of lamb is not generally what springs to mind.
It isn't refined or impressive, like a rack of lamb or beef tenderloin. It lacks the grand, large-scale drama of a bone-in leg of lamb or a pineapple-ringed ham.
In fact, it's rather messy-looking - an ungainly slab of meat made up of divots and lumps.
But don't let its looks dissuade you. Richly flavoured, tender and quick-cooking, butterflied leg of lamb is an excellent choice for any cook willing to forgo the more obvious cuts in the name of ease and speed.
You can have a butterflied leg of lamb on the table in less than 45 minutes from the moment you bring it home, seasoning it with nothing more than a mash of salt, garlic and herbs, then roasting it at high heat. It will be divine.
Add a few more ingredients and some marinating time (but not much more effort), and you will have a memorable feast.
In this recipe, I added cumin, chilli and lemon zest to the usual garlic-salt-herb trifecta, which deepens the lamby flavour. If you have time to let the meat sit overnight, all the better. But even an hour makes a difference.
Then, for serving, I stir together an herb and olive oil sauce that is a bit like a salsa verde, studded with preserved lemon. If this doesn't fit your menu, leg of lamb works with pretty much any sauce you like: aioli, tapenade, tahini sauce, yogurt sauce, pesto, chutney, relish, anchovy vinaigrette. Anything with a bold flavour and a bit of acidity to stand up to the garlicky lamb will do the job nicely.
Because of the irregularity of its shape, butterflied leg of lamb will never cook evenly all the way through, delivering pieces at different stages of doneness. Consider that a bonus if you have a mixed crowd of meat lovers, some of whom like it rare while others prefer closer to medium. This cut pleases everyone at the table all at once.
Or, if everyone agrees on medium-rare, you can cut the meat into thicker and thinner pieces before roasting, pulling them out of the oven as they're done.
Arranged on a platter in perfectly pinkish slices, it's a stunning and satisfying meal.
Roasted lamb loves good red wine, so you will have many options. With the zesty salsa verde and preserved lemon, I would probably look for a red with lively acidity rather than a soft, fruity wine.
Sangiovese is a perfect place to start. Look for a good Brunello di Montalcino or Chianti Classico. Bordeaux is a classic match with roasted lamb.
With this dish, I would stick with cabernet-based wines from the Médoc or Pessac-Léognan rather than easier-going, merlot-based St-Émilions or Pomerols.
Similarly, if you want a California cabernet sauvignon, look for freshness rather than fruity opulence. Other areas very much worth exploring include Rioja reservas and gran reservas, also naturals with lamb, and good, age-worthy cabernet francs from the Loire Valley. You may also consider a malbec on the firmer side of the spectrum.
BUTTERFLIED LEG OF LAMB WITH LEMON SALSA VERDE
Total time: 45 minutes, plus at least one hour's marinating
1 boneless butterflied leg of lamb, 5 to 6 pounds, well trimmed
2-1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt, more as needed
1-1/2 tsp black pepper
7 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano or marjoram leaves
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp Turkish chilli such as Marash or Urfa (or use crushed red pepper flakes)
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2-1/2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, more as needed
5 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 Tbs minced preserved lemon, to taste
3/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1/2 cup chopped mint
2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1. Pat lamb dry with paper towels and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Season all over with salt and pepper.
2. Set aside 1 tsp of the garlic. In a bowl, combine remaining garlic with thyme, oregano or marjoram, cumin, chile, lemon zest and 2 Tbs lemon juice. Drizzle in about 1 Tbs oil, just enough to create a sandy paste. Rub mixture all over lamb. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate for at least 1 hour or, even better, overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Prepare the salsa verde: In a small bowl, combine a pinch of salt, the remaining teaspoon garlic, remaining 1/2 Tbs lemon juice, 3 Tbs preserved lemon, parsley, coriander, mint and scallion and stir well. Drizzle in remaining oil. Season with more preserved lemon, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Let the mixture sit for at least 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to meld and mellow.
4. Heat oven to 230 deg C. Roast lamb without turning for 22 to 35 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 49 deg C for rare and 55 deg C for medium. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving with the salsa verde.
Yield: 12 servings