5 ways to celebrate spring by cooking lamb

Even though the warm weather and buds of green haven’t shown up yet, we can celebrate its imminent arrival with a classic lamb dish.

Julie Van Rosendaal offers up some fresh suggestions

There are many ways to prepare a leg of lamb. CBC's food and nutrition guide Julie Van Rosendaal offers a few suggestions. (Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Spring came in like a lion and went out like ... a lion. Even though the warm weather and buds of green haven’t shown up yet, we can celebrate its imminent arrival with a classic leg of lamb. 

There are many ways to prepare it: roasted, braised, pulled apart or carved. But here’s some inspiration for your next Sunday dinner, or if you’re planning ahead for Easter. 

Pulled Garlicky Leg of Lamb with Naan

Slow-cooked lamb is incredibly tender and flavourful. Try pulling the meat apart with forks and serving it wrapped in warm naan bread with a dollop of tzatziki.

  • 1 trimmed leg of lamb
  • grated zest of a lemon
  • 5 garlic cloves sliced or crushed
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh chopped rosemary 
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • red wine, chicken or beef stock or fresh water 
  • naan bread
  • tzatziki, for serving

Pat your lamb dry with paper towels. In a small bowl (or with a mortar and pestle) combine the lemon zest, garlic, rosemary, oil and salt and pepper and turn it into a pastel. Rub it all over the lamb. (If you like, do this ahead of time, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.)

Put it into the slow cooker and add about half a cup of wine, stock or water. Squeeze the juice of the lemon overtop, cover and cook on low for six to eight hours. Pull the meat apart with forks and serve warm, wrapped in warm naan bread with tzatziki.

Serves about eight.

(Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Roast Leg of Lamb with Mint Sauce

In this recipe, the lamb leg is roasted directly on the oven rack above the roasting pan full of potatoes, allowing the heat to circulate all around the roast with the drippings dripping over the potatoes as they roast. (If you like, add a few chopped carrots or parsnips to the potatoes too.)

Buy a leg of lamb trimmed of the shank end, which will help it cook more evenly. (Adapted from Jamie Oliver.)

  • 2 lb. thin-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
  • olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely crushed or grated
  • 2-3 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus a sprig or two
  • zest of a lemon
  • 2-3 kg trimmed, bone-in leg of lamb
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mint sauce:

  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • pinch salt
  • small handful fresh mint leaves, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes with water, bring them to a boil and cook for 10-15 minutes while you preheat the oven. (They won't be cooked through, just given a head start.)

Drain them well from the pot, then put the lid on and shake the pot to chuff up the edges a bit. Tip them into a shallow roasting pan and drizzle generously with olive oil; add a sprig or two of fresh rosemary and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, mix the garlic, rosemary, lemon zest and olive oil; pat the lamb dry with paper towels and spread the garlic mixture all over it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place the roast directly on the hot oven rack over the tray, so it will catch any drippings.

Cook the lamb for about an hour and 15 minutes (or an hour and a half for a larger roast) for medium-rare (the internal temperature should be 145˚F); longer if you want it more well done. Transfer to a cutting board and tent with foil for 10-15 minutes before carving.

To make the mint sauce, bring the vinegar, sugar and salt to a simmer in a small saucepan; remove from heat and add the fresh mint. Cool and refrigerate until needed.

Serves eight to 10.

(Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Slow-cooked Leg of Lamb with Mint, Rosemary and Garlic

Lamb and mint are best friends and fresh mint can make dinner taste even more like spring. Slow roasting will make the meat so tender, you won’t even need a knife.

  • 1 bone-in leg of lamb, without the shank
  • 1 small bunch fresh mint, chopped (discard stems)
  • Few sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped 
  • Few cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Glug of olive oil
  • salt
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock

Pat the lamb dry with paper towels, then combine the mint, rosemary, garlic and enough oil to make a runny paste, and smear it all over the lamb. Sprinkle with salt. If you have time, cover and refrigerate it for a few hours, or overnight.

Heat a large, heavy ovenproof pot with a drizzle of oil over medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Add the stock, cover with a tight-fitting lid and roast at 300˚F for three hours. (Alternatively, transfer to a slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours.) Pull or carve into chunks and serve hot, with mint sauce. 

Serves six to eight.

(Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks with Lentils, Garlic and Rosemary

Cooking just the shank end of a leg of lamb can be more manageable, especially if you’re not cooking for a crowd. A long, slow cooking time gives tough connective tissues a chance to break down, making them meltingly tender and amazingly flavourful. (From Spilling the Beans, by Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan.)

Olive or canola oil, for cooking

  • 4 lamb shanks (about 4 lb or 1.8 kg total) 
  • ¾ cup dry green or brown lentils
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic bulb, cloves separated and peeled
  • 2 to 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cup red wine (optional)
  • 1 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable stock

In a large, heavy skillet, heat a drizzle of oil over high heat and brown the lamb shanks a couple at a time, turning to brown them on all sides. (Don’t worry about cooking them through.) Put the lentils and carrot in the bottom of a slow cooker or large ovenproof pot and put the browned shanks on top.

Scatter with the garlic, rosemary and a sprinkling of salt. Pour the wine and stock overtop. Cover and cook on low for six to eight hours, or bake in a 325°F oven for three to three-and-a-half hours until the lamb is very tender. Serve the shanks alongside the lentils, with roasted or mashed potatoes.

Serves four.

(Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Crispy Lentils with Ground Lamb

Ground lamb is often overlooked for anything other than lamb burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This dish of crispy lamb and lentils can be made with fresh lamb, pulsed in the food processor, or as a way of using leftover roast leg of lamb. (Adapted from Mark Bittman via Food52.com.)

  • 1 cup dry green lentils
  • olive oil, for cooking
  • ½-1 lb ground lamb
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch dry red chili flakes
  • juice of half a lime (about 2 tsp.)
  • Chopped fresh cilantro 
  • thick plain yogurt, for serving

In a medium saucepan of boiling water, cook the lentils for 40 minutes, or until tender. Drain well and set aside. Meanwhile, heat a drizzle of oil in a large, heavy skillet and start cooking the lamb, breaking it up with a spoon as you cook it.

Once it starts turning brown and releasing its juices, add the garlic and season with salt and pepper and chili flakes. Continue to cook for a few minutes, then add the lentils. Cook until the lamb starts turning dark golden and getting crispy, and the lentils start to pop. Add the lime juice and cook until it evaporates. Season with salt and pepper, if needed, and serve hot, topped with fresh cilantro and a big dollop of good plain yogurt.

Serves four.

(Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.