My Christmas Dinner, With Recipes

Roast leg of lamb recipe shared with permission from Barbara Kafka, from Roasting: A Simple Art.

My Christmas Dinner, With Recipes

Roast leg of lamb recipe shared with permission from Barbara Kafka, from Roasting: A Simple Art.

I know that for many, holidays are all about traditions.  But every year when I get to set the holiday menu, I get tempted to cook something different.  I suspect much of this is due to the fact that I've often spent Christmas away from home and this meant having many past holiday meals either in restaurants or at someone else's dinner table.  As a result, and despite a lifetime of Christmases, I still don't have any holiday food traditions. 

But this year we're home and I've been making myself a little crazy trying to finalize what to cook.  There is just so much in the food and cooking media about what to eat, what to drink, that we can get overloaded.  I finally decided that old favorites are often the best and so I decided on the classic combination of roast leg of lamb and tiny green flageolets cooked with garlic.

I like this menu for two reasons: first, the tastes and textures are perfect together.  Both are cooked with garlic and lamb's gamey flavor is complimented by the beans' muskiness.  The other reason to partner these two foods is that the lamb is roasted in the oven while the beans simmer on top of the stove.  Many of our holiday foods create appliance rivalries.  Things wanting to be in the oven at the same time. Or else we run out of stovetop burners.   But that won't be a problem here.

For this meal I chose a lamb roast with the bone.  It was 4.25 pounds, trimmed of its fat and tied.  It was gorgeous.

Now how to cook it.  I turned to my godmother in all things roasting, Barbara Kafka.  Her book, Roasting: A Simple Art, is one of my three favorite cookbooks of all time.  (The other two?  Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, and Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook.)  Barbara's is a favorite because every recipe I've ever made from it has worked and has taught me something.  Plus the book is comprehensive and eclectic.  I trust it.

So with my small, bone-in leg of lamb, here is how I cooked it:

Roast Leg of Lamb

Serves 4 to 6.

1 short leg with bone, (4 to 5 1/2 pounds), trimmed and tied
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut into little slivers
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

  1. Place oven rack so that the roasting pan will be in the center of the oven.  Preheat oven to 500° F.  You don't need a rack inside the pan -- the meat will sit right in the empty pan.
  2. Bring the lamb to room temperature by taking it out of the refrigerator about 45 minutes before cooking.  When ready to cook, using a small sharp knife, make small 1/2-inch slits every couple of inches all over the meat, top and bottom.  Place a sliver of garlic in each slit, pressing it past the opening so that the garlic is submerged in the meat.  
  3. Roast for 10 minutes.  Reduce the heat to 425° F and roast another 40 minutes. 
  4. Using an instant thermometer, check the roast's internal temperature.  Your goal is an internal temperature of 140° F for rare and 150° F for medium rare and 160° F for medium.  If the meat needs more cooking, check every 5 minutes so to not over-cook.
  5. Remove from the oven and transfer to a platter.  Let rest for 10 minutes before carving.

Here's a piece of roasting science that I learned from Ms. Kafka's recipe notes:  a boned leg takes longer to cook than one with the bone-in.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, it turns out that the bone helps disperse the heat through the meat whereas the density of the meat-against-meat of the boned roast cooks less quickly.  So you must always adjust the cooking time for your roast not only based on its size but also whether it's boned or bone-in.

A simple roast leg of lamb can be seasoned with an herb rub, a sauce can be made with the pan's drippings and lamb stock or wine, or you can partner the finished roast with a classic mint sauce.  Leg of lamb is very versatile but what's most essential is to buy a superb piece of meat and then cook it properly.

Thank you, Barbara, for letting me share some of your wisdom.

Flageolets With Garlic

Flageolets are small, dried French beans that resemble tiny lima beans or pale green navy beans.  They have a mild flavor, are not grainy like lima beans, become tender when cooked, and are a perfect partner with garlic.  In French cuisine these beans are a classic accompaniment to roast lamb or goose. 

You can find flageolets in many grocery markets and shops where imported foods are sold.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

2 cups flageolets (about 1 pound)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into quarters
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
6 cups water

  1. Pick through the beans to make sure there's no debris or stones and rinse in cool water.
  2. Place the drained beans in a large (4 to 6 quart) saucepan that has a lid.  Cover the beans with cold water but leave the pan uncovered.  Bring to a boil over moderate heat.  Drain.
  3. Rinse out the pan and return the drained beans to it.  Add the butter, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and 6 cups of water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover the pan and cook over moderately low heat until the beans are tender, about 2 hours.
  4. Drain the beans, reserving the broth.  Discard the thyme stems.

You can serve the beans immediately but you can also make them up to a day ahead and store in the refrigerator.  When ready to serve, reheat them in the reserved broth. 

With this menu I will start with smoked salmon and Champagne and to the lamb and beans I'll add a simple green and red salad of romaine and radicchio, with a small piece of cheese -- one made with sheep's milk, of course.  My husband loves a complex red wine with lamb, maybe a Chateauneuf de Pape or another Rhône.  But something special to mark the holiday. 

For dessert?  I'm holding off on that because I'm hoping that a friend who is a gifted baker will be dropping off her usual box of Christmas cookies.  And what could be a better holiday sweet than something made by someone you love.  Maybe I have a tradition after all. . . .

Enjoy the rest of the holiday madness!

Kate McDonough




HolidaysFrenchLambChristmasBarbara Kafka

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