Italian-style Roast Leg of Lamb
Sheep are among the most economically significant species on the planet. They would be valued even if they were inedible and offered only wool. But when 19th century food and “household management” authority Isabella Beeton wrote that, “Of all wild or domestic animals, the sheep is, without exception, the most useful,” food topped her list of reasons to appreciate sheep. A lot of people would agree with Mrs. Beeton, most especially those of the Middle East, where the dominance of lamb started soon after sheep were first domesticated. The nomad populations of Central Asia, where sheep herding is one of the foundation stones of their entire way of life, would also give her statement a nod. Of course, why stop at meat and wool when there’s ewe’s milk, the basis for some of the world’s finest fromages?
The wild sheep from which our current breeds descended once roamed untended across the Middle East, Nepal, Tibet, and Central Asia. Archaeological evidence indicates that sheep were likely first domesticated in about 9000 BC at Zawi Chemi Shanidar in present-day Iraq. Interestingly, most of the bones discovered at the site were from sheep under one year of age—so Stone Age peoples had already developed a preference for lamb over mutton.
Since domestication, sheep have spread worldwide, two things contributing to their popularity: large herds of animals can be maintained in a wide variety of environments at relatively low costs, and a highly developed flocking instinct makes it possible for a single shepherd to control large numbers of animals. Both of these make sheep extremely cost effective.
Additional archaeological evidence of domestication has been unearthed at sites in Libya dating to 4800 BC After that, recorded evidence begins to increase, from paintings in Egyptian tombs from 2500 BC to frequent mentions in the earliest sections of the Old Testament. Sheep were in Mesopotamia by 2000 BC at the latest, and there were shepherds in prehistoric Greece and Italy. While Italy’s taste for lamb lasted only through the lifetime of the Roman Empire, switching later to veal, lamb is still the favorite meat in Greece.
The spread of Islam had an effect on the spread of sheep. Lamb is the meat of choice throughout the Arab world, and can be found in areas that have been influenced by or ruled by Muslims, including North Africa and southeastern Europe. Lamb is also important in the Muslim areas of India, though it is also enjoyed by non-vegetarian Hindus.
France took a while to be convinced, and lamb fell into and out of favor through the Middle Ages, but today, lamb is held in high regard. Sheep seem to have leapt over Central and Northern Europe. It is eaten there, but not much, and rarely with enthusiasm. However, the British Isles are almost defined by fields of grazing sheep, warm wool sweaters, and lamb or mutton chops down at the pub. Farther north still, in Iceland and Greenland, if they say “meat” they mean “lamb.”
Though lamb traveled the world during the Age of Exploration, it took off more in some places than it did in others. While most of South America favors beef, Uruguay adopted lamb as its meat of choice. In the United States, lamb comes in a distant fourth, after beef, pork, and veal—though this might be a byproduct of the battle between sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers in the 19th century, rather than because of any real distaste for the meat. In the U.S., lamb is more likely to be eaten in the East or Great Lakes region than in the West. Also, U.S. consumption is increasing as the country’s ethnic diversity increases.
The recipe below is one I learned from my mom, who is a fabulous cook. But as a “look at what I’m doing” recipe, it is a little less exact than some. But trust me, you can’t ruin it, unless you just forget it’s in the oven. Enjoy.
(Italian-style Roast Leg of Lamb)
1 leg of lamb, approximately 5 lbs.
ground black pepper
1 can Hunt’s tomato sauce
2 cans artichoke hearts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder evenly on all sides of the leg of lamb, then rub the lamb with a generous handful of dried oregano, pressing the herbs into the flesh.
Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan. Add ½ inch of water to the pan.
Pour tomato sauce over the lamb, covering as completely as possible. While cooking, baste frequently. Add a little water or additional tomato sauce if it looks like the roast or the pan is drying out.
After 1½ hours (or 2 hours, if leg of lamb is larger or if you like it well done—idea is to do this about ½ an hour before lamb is done), add the two cans of artichoke hearts to the pan. Baste at least one more time before done. Bake until a meat thermometer shows that the lamb reached the degree of doneness you prefer.
You can just use the pan juices as they are, or you can add a little flour to make a proper gravy. Serve artichoke hearts and gravy with sliced lamb.