After a 10 mile hike in Irvine on a Sunday we were positively famished. Valentine’s day had passed earlier in the week and we had agreed to cook during the weekend to celebrate the passing of another wonderful year. The problem with hikes, is that after you finish them, you (or at least I) merely want to go home, take a shower and pass out. We agreed to head over to Whole Foods to shop, under the assumption that if we had fresh ingredients on hand we would actually cook (versus resorting to Jack in the Box appetizers when we got hungry). We were thinking that rabbit might be a good choice (we saw a couple cotton-tails on our hike), but didn’t really know what we were going to cook. We decided to let Whole Foods inspire us.
We arrived and strolled through the produce section (which is magnificent if you’ve never been). We decided to first choose a protein and then base the rest of the dish around it. Colleen had found a recipe for pork tenderloin, but found that they didn’t have it in stock! No pork tenderloin? Whole Foods…you fail. Regardless we chose a delicious (and slightly gigantic leg of lamb). We found a recipe on Food52.com for Mint and Feta Stuffed Leg of Lamb and decided to run with it. For veggies, we grabbed rainbow chard, carrots, sweet potato, and regular potato. I had a crazy idea for a starch/carbohydrate side dish that I wanted to just kind of go with and figure out as we went along.
I butterflied the leg to start the process. If you’ve never done this before, it’s actually pretty hard to screw up. Sharp knife? Check. Leg of lamb? Check. Basically you just split it open and then hammer it down to thin it out. The idea is that you want to try to make the leg as uniformly thin and flat as possible so that it is easily “rollable” and will thus cook evenly. While I did the butchering, Colleen mixed together feta cheese and fresh organic mint leaves – accidentally leaving out the blood orange rind. We then collaboratively spread the mixture evenly over the top of the lamb.
I grabbed some cooking twine and after rolling the lamb up nicely proceeded to secure the roll with a number of strands. Some of the Feta tried to escape, but a length-wise tie kept most of it in. If you’re doing this, make sure your twine is nice and tight (when I seared the leg a bit later, some of the filling did melt out because I hadn’t really cinched it down). After cinching the lamb, I seared it on all four sides, six minutes per side.
Meanwhile… Colleen was working on the reduction sauce. Step one? Juice the blood oranges. If you’ve never squeezed blood oranges, you’re in for a treat. I didn’t know exactly how many we needed – just that we needed a cup of juice. Since I’d never had the pleasure of juicing them before, I didn’t know how many we would actually needed. I got lucky, because we bought about 12 of them and ended up with slightly more than 1/2 a cup. I recommend that you buy lots of them. More than you think you need. You can always end up just eating them.
Blood oranges look like red-speckled mini oranges on the outside – but it’s the inside that is really unique. When cutting them open, it’ll seem like the orange is alive. Don’t worry, the ruby-red “blood” that comes out tastes tart and delicious – like any other fresh squeezed juice you’ve had. Side note: if you squeeze them by hand, people may accuse you of murder. Check out Colleen’s hands:
We then moved on to the side dish and sauce. I washed and peeled the carrots, sweet potato and regular potato. I had thought that a mash might go great with the lamb. Especially one that was semi-sweet, but not sickly so. Colleen found a great addition to grow the “seed” of my concept. It was a delicious combination of cream, milk and butter infused with threads of scarlet colored saffron. It perfectly complimented the sweetness of the mash while adding a savory complexity.
I deglazed the pan that we had used to sear the lamb with a cup of Westberg Cellar’s Turtle Rock 2008 “Willow’s Cuvet” Pinot Noir and started reducing it. Westberg Cellar’s is a tiny, tiny, TINY winery that is open once a month in Paso Robles, CA. We lucked upon it after a friend’s wedding in 2011. When we stopped there it was an “off weekend” when they shouldn’t have been open. The gentleman pouring informed us that they were waiting for a limo that had arranged for a private tasting. The lightweights in the limo never showed, but we surely enjoyed the afternoon – and discovered the amazing varietals they create. I’m not generally a fan of sweeter reds – but this Pinot is an absolute exception. When you drink it delicious flavors of raspberry, strawberry, blackberry…and well…berries – lots and lots of berries dance on your tongue. Divine!
Back to the sauce! When it had simmered down by about half, Colleen added the blood orange juice, balsamic vinegar, and brown sugar, and the she let it simmer on low heat, stirring it often. It started to thicken up to a nice consistency about 20 minutes later.
The leg of lamb finished up its 40 minute stint in the oven. When I removed it, I discovered that we need a new oven mitt, because for the first time the Pyrex burned me through the mitt and I grabbed the other end of the pan with my bare hand in reflex. This was painful. Regardless, the lamb was perfectly cooked, and it sliced down nicely. The mash ended up a fantastic orange color with a light, semi-sweet flavor that was the prefect background to the more intense flavor of the lamb (although the potatoes were slightly undercooked). Colleen sautéed the rainbow chard with garlic, sherry, and sea salt. We plated the chard as a bed for the mash and lamb. Colleen drizzled the blood orange pinot reduction over the top as a final touch and voilà – gourmet cookin’ on a Sunday night. As we plated the meal, Colleen exclaimed, “the gremolata!” In all of the attention to detail that this dish required, it was forgotten along with the blood orange zest.
We sat down at our table and enjoyed our meal with the rest of the pinot. Colleen really enjoyed the lamb, but was slightly dissatisfied with the veggies (both the mash and the chard) being slightly undercooked (which is mostly due to the timing aspect of cooking that we are still perfecting). I raved about my meal most of the night. “Love, this is the best lamb dish I’ve had a in a very long time. It’s like restaurant quality!” All in all, this meal was a success. Future notes – don’t forget the rind, invest in a juicer, tie up the lamb a bit better, and start the veggies sooner, and remember the gremolata!