Last Chance Barbecue
Grilled lamb and watermelon-feta salad.
With a chill in the air and a few fallen leaves already skittering on the road, I feel the urge to fire up our barbecue as often as possible before the frost comes. I know more intrepid grillers and smokers get out in the cold with mittens and mufflers to get their char on, but in my house, BBQ (at least, the homemade kind) is strictly for hot weather.
My husband, who doesn’t cook, thankfully does grill. His bible is The Best Recipe Grilling & Barbecuing (Boston Common Press, 2001)*, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Like all Cook’s Illustrated titles*, this one is irresistible to the methodical cook. Bless them, those guys have tried every method you could ever think of, and some you couldn’t. If you follow their detailed directions, your food will be great. No questions asked. Even when using other grilling books, I tend to consult The Best Recipe Grilling & Barbecuing for procedural minutiae that others sometimes omit.
Take the recipe that follows, from a fantastic new book by Mario Batali, Italian Grill (HarperCollins, 2008). The book has Mario’s trademark enthusiasm, this time channeled into melding traditional Italian flavors with the all-American passion for backyard barbecue. This butterflied, boneless leg of lamb is ultra simple: a quick-to-assemble, highly fragrant marinade, followed by a rapid turn on the grill. It uses lots of fresh mint and rosemary, both exploding right now, even in my sorry excuse for a garden. But the recipe directions don’t address grill temperature, which any experienced ‘cue master will tell you makes all the difference, so I’ve added some specifics drawn from the the Cook’s Illustrated gurus. One more caveat: Mario’s recipe calls for the Tuscan dessert wine vin santo, available locally at Nejaime’s, which has three locations in the Berkshires. (You may want to call first to make sure it’s in stock.) While the flavor is worth a special shopping trip, in a pinch, you could substitute another unfortified white dessert wine such as Sauternes or even Tokaji—the key here is not only a bit of acid to tenderize, but sugar to help along the caramelization on the grill. (And as a bonus, you can serve the rest of the bottle with some biscotti and ripe peaches for dessert!) Whatever wine you choose, the result is highly flavored and succulent, and makes an impressive display, perfect for the last bash of the summer.
On the side, an unexpected salad from a source I spent years resisting, Nigella Lawson. Occasionally I’d catch her show on cable, and I’d find reason after reason to dismiss her ideas, her process, the calculated disarray of the “at home” set. But when she showed up in the New York Times food section a few years ago, she lured me in. I started with just a recipe here and there, until the fateful day I found myself browsing in the bookstore, looking for a cookbook to give as a birthday present. It was late spring, summer was just around the corner, and the light and heat couldn’t arrive soon enough. The book’s title was too tantalizing to resist, and as I’d soon learn, so are its original, delicious, hot weather recipes. Forever Summer (Hyperion, 2003) manages to provide recipes you want to cook on fiery days, and recipes that call to mind those fiery days once they’ve started to wane. She gets it right with everything from cocktails to curries in this book, and along the way, has you trying seemingly outlandish combinations that prove so delicious your friends heap compliments upon you and lick the platters clean. That’s the effect of this salad, which combines sweet watermelon, tangy lime and the richness of feta and olives, all punctuated with parsley and mint. It manages to be sophisticated and rustic at the same time—just what you want for a Labor Day dinner party.
Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Garlic, Rosemary and Mint
(adapted from Mario Batali’s Italian Grill, and incorporating grilling methods from The Best Recipe Grilling & Barbecuing*)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup vin santo
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
18 garlic cloves, peeled and bashed a bit with the side of a heavy knife
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
One 4-1/2- to 5-pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied and trimmed of excess fat (or one 7- to 8-pound bone-in leg, boned, butterflied, and trimmed—the butchers at Mazzeo’s Meat and Seafood in Guido’s are happy to prepare this cut with advance notice.)
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
Combine the olive oil, vin santo, mint, 6 of the garlic cloves, the salt, and the pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
Make 12 incisions, 3/4 to one inch long, in the fatty side of the lamb, and insert one of the remaining garlic cloves and some of the rosemary into each slit. Put the lamb in a large baking dish and pour the marinade over, turning to coat. Let stand at cool room temperature for 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, or overnight; turn the lamb occasionally as it marinates.
If the lamb has been in the refrigerator, bring it to room temperature. Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Once the grill is hot, set up your charcoal or burners so that you have one area of high heat, and another of lower heat. (With charcoal, you do this by moving all your hot coals over to one side of the grill**; with gas, you adjust the burners.)
Remove the lamb from the marinade, draining it well, and pat dry. Pour the marinade into a small bowl to use for basting.
Place the lamb on the less hot side of the grill, fat side down, and cook, covered, basting several times with the reserved marinade, for 5 minutes. Then rotate the meat 180 degrees so that the less cooked outer edge of the meat now abuts the hot side of the grill, and cook, covered, basting occasionally, for another 5 minutes or until the fat side is a rich dark brown. Turn over, staying on the medium hot side of the grill, and cook, covered, basting several more times, for 5 minutes longer. Then turn the meat 180 degrees again, and repeat. (At this point, on a charcoal grill, you can move the meat directly over the coals, as they will have cooled down slightly.) When finished, the meat should be well charred on the second side too, and the internal temperature should register 130F for medium rare. Transfer the lamb to a carving board, tent it with foil, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Carve the lamb into 1/4-inch-thick slices and serve immediately.
Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer)
1 small red onion, cut in half, and thinly sliced
juice of 2 - 3 limes (plus more to taste, as desired)
3 1/2 pounds ripe watermelon, cut into 1-inch chunks or triangles
8 oz, feta cheese, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley (one average bunch)
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint (one average bunch)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces pitted Kalamata olives
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put the onion and lime juice together in a small bowl and leave to steep for at least 15 minutes.
Combine the watermelon, feta, olives and herbs in a large serving bowl. Add the onions and lime juice, and then drizzle over the olive oil.
Toss everything together very gently, and then add fresh pepper to taste. (You may also want to add more lime juice, to taste.)
*A more recent title, The Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue (America’s Test Kitchen, 2005), is just as good.
**A great tip from Cook’s Illustrated: after you dump the coals in, position the rack over them and cover the grill for 5 minutes to preheat the rack. Then scrape it clean. The crud falls off without a struggle. Then, with tongs, take a wad of paper towel dipped in cooking oil and slather the rack. Now it is ready for no-stick grilling. —Paige Orloff