The versatility of lamb is one of its greatest features. Whether you’re preparing Italian, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, French, or Scottish cuisine, a good roasted lamb dish can be the crowning glory of your meal.
Springtime and lamb meat have gone hand in hand since ancient times. The conveniences of our modern world enable us to enjoy our favorite ingredients year-round, and although that is a wonderful advantage, having foods always available to us makes us forget the important rituals that surround eating them. In antiquity, many cultures incorporated lamb meat into their Easter menus, just as people in the Mediterranean still do today.
I grew up eating lamb as part of our Greek Easter celebrations because my step-grandmother, whom I referred to as Yia-Yia, was a Greek American whose family hailed from Nafpaktos. Since my grandparents lived next door to us, I always had an opportunity to celebrate the holiday and enjoy all of its traditional foods.
The centerpiece of the feast would be a whole lamb roasted on a spit, as there is a great deal of religious symbolism around eating lamb at Easter in the Greek Orthodox tradition. I remember waking up early in the morning, getting dressed up in a new dress, and walking through our yard—past my grandfather’s garden—to find the air already being filled with the aroma of the roasting lamb. Decorations were everywhere, including large outdoor tables laden with the finest china and loaves of tsoureki, Greek Easter bread studded with ruby-red-dyed eggs.
As relatives started to arrive, I would always head to the kitchen to help Yia-Yia put the finishing touches on the rest of the meal while my grandfather tended to the lamb on the spit. I’m embarrassed to say that as a young girl, my appreciation for lamb, and meat in general, was not what it is today. I developed some crafty ways of making my family believe that I ate it, even though I never actually did. Well aware of my tactics, Yia-Yia would never tell me when she put meat or broth in a dish so that I would eat it.
My favorite recipe from the holiday was her roasted potatoes. I could never figure out why hers tasted so good. I used to ask her for her secret, but she would just smile and kiss me. Years later as an adult, I tried again. She pulled me into the kitchen and showed me the roasting pan in the oven: There was a generous chunk of lamb meat next to the potatoes, which was slowly giving them all of its flavor. We both laughed, and I became a lamb lover ever since.
Simple, Healthy, and Crowd-Pleasing
Nowadays, in my career as a Mediterranean lifestyle ambassador, I promote eating lamb meat on occasion, just as they do in the Mediterranean region. Traditionally, meat in general was reserved for holidays and special occasions, which were often preceded by long fasting periods (when the faithful avoid meat and dairy). For that reason, it was easy to incorporate meat into the diet without overdoing it.
Nutritionally, lamb is one of the best meat choices you can make. When I worked for the Tri-Lamb Group, I learned that, on average, a 3-ounce serving of lamb is lean—about 175 calories. Lean cuts including the leg, loin, and rack are easy to find and prepare.
Lamb provides many vitamins and minerals and is an excellent source of protein, which helps keep hunger at bay, preserves lean body mass, and regulates blood sugar. A 3-ounce serving has 23 grams of protein—nearly half of the daily recommended needs. The same serving size also offers a good dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and almost five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as found in beef.
This simple recipe for roasted leg of lamb—made in the oven, not on a spit—incorporates the sunny Mediterranean flavors of lemon, cinnamon, and extra-virgin olive oil, along with the ubiquitous additions of garlic, onions, and tomatoes. Try sprinkling 1/2-inch-thick potato rounds around the bottom of the pan during the last hour of cooking, taking inspiration from my Yia-Yia, and you’ll be sure to create your own crowd-pleaser.
Amy Riolo is an award-winning, best-selling author, chef, TV host, and educator. As a Mediterranean lifestyle ambassador, she is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine, and simplifying recipes for the home cook. Find her at AmyRiolo.com