Mary Beth Clark

Culinary Educator · Consultant · Author
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Roast Leg of Lamb, Tuscan-Style

Coscia d'Agnello Pilottato al Forno

Tuscan farmhouse wives, the Massaie Toscane, use an easy preparation method for flavoring lamb/d’agnello, kid/capretto, and wild boar/cinghiale. Quite popular for roast leg of lamb or shoulder, in particular, lamb that is not suckling lamb/abbacchio, it transforms a simple joint into savory succulence. Finely chop together fresh rosemary, sage, garlic, and pancetta or fat from prosciutto crudo, making a flavor base called battuto. Season with sea salt or kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. If you do not want to include pork fat although it is traditional, add any type of fat you prefer, butter, or oil. Make tiny incisions down into the meat with a sharp paring knife, and fill them with this battuto.

The technique of making tiny incisions then filling them with a fragrant battuto of fresh herbs-garlic-seasoning is called pilotare (cioe pilottato). This verb means “to manipulate or influence, to steer or guide”. This stuffing technique is known also as steccare, (cioe steccato), meaning "to insert, to stick" (with the battuto).

Many years ago, The New York Times asked me to work with two of their journalists on articles for duckling, and for chicken. In creating recipes for these articles, I developed a two-step method for air-drying poultry and meat prior to roasting that always produces a superb roast, tender and juicy. My method is included in this recipe for roast leg of lamb. It is roasted in the oven, but can be roasted on a spit, or grilled outdoors when placed to the side of the heat source so it is cooked by indirect heat, for a similar amount of cooking time. Near the end of cooking, apply a typical Tuscan technique; using a rosemary sprig, brush olive oil all over the roast. Mmmmm…perfume the air and lamb.

Most Italians like their roast, especially lamb, with a well-seasoned crust and meat well done, not rare or medium as is preferred in some other countries. It is a matter of personal taste. This recipe’s roasting time produces slightly-pink lamb that is very juicy.

6 to 8 servings. 2 hours air-dried, then 2 hours roasting, then 20 minutes resting before serving.   

Boneless Leg of Lamb:
5-pound (2.25-kg) boneless leg of lamb

Battuto di Pilota: Makes 1/4 cup (2 ounces or 60 ml volume)
5 peeled garlic cloves
2 large fresh sage leaves
2 fresh rosemary sprigs, about 4-inches (10-cm) long, remove needles
1 thin slice pancetta
Sea salt or kosher salt
Cracked or coarsely ground black pepper

Preparation for Roasting:
Extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Cotton kitchen string or butcher’s twine for trussing
Roasting rack
5 fresh rosemary sprigs, about 4-inches (10-cm) long, divided
2 fresh bay leaves

1/2 cup (4 ounces or 120 ml) Italian fruity or dry white wine, divided
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 120 ml) vegetable, chicken, or lamb broth

1. Preparation and Air-Drying: Under cool running water, rinse the lamb. Pat dry. Trim off excess fat, gristle, etc., and discard trimmings, which reduces the weight up to 6 ounces (up to 170 g). Place the lamb on a rack placed on a sheet or plate, spread out the boneless leg so air circulates. Place it in the refrigerator uncovered, so the lamb air-dries for 1 hour. Expect a small amount of juice/water to drip onto the sheet or plate, and the lamb loses a few ounces (28 g+) of excess weight. Discard the juice or add it back into the pan during roasting. This drying creates a seal which helps maintain the juices inside the lamb during roasting.

2. Battuto di Pilota (photo above): During the first hour of air-drying the lamb make the battuto. Chop together the garlic cloves, sage leaves, rosemary needles, and pancetta. Make it as coarse or fine as you wish; since this battuto is inserted into the lamb, smaller pieces are easier to work with and taste more pleasing. Place in a mixing bowl, and liberally season with salt and pepper. Reserve.

After 1 hour of air-drying, remove the lamb from the refrigerator and from the rack. For whole leg of lamb with bone-in or a shoulder of lamb, make deep tiny incisions in the meat with a sharp paring knife, and fill them with this battuto mixture. For boneless leg of lamb, tuck a generous pinch of this mixture between the natural sections, and make a few deep incisions then fill them. Lay down 2 rosemary sprigs. Lightly sprinkle the remaining battuto mixture over the entire lamb, photo below.

Roll-up the boned leg and truss. Tuck 2 rosemary sprigs and 2 fresh bay leaves beneath the trussing, placing these herbs at intervals for even enhancement of the meat. Place the lamb back on the rack above a sheet or plate so air circulates around the entire roast. Put it back into the refrigerator to air-dry for 30 minutes. Remove the lamb from the refrigerator and place it on a roasting rack placed inside a roasting pan. For 30 minutes, leave the lamb at room temperature to get the chill off; this helps create even roasting.

3. Preheat the oven to 425 F/220 C/Gas Mark 7. Roasting time is 2 hours. Timing varies depending on weight and shape of the lamb, how cold the lamb is when put into the oven initially, how long the oven door is left open when removing the lamb causing heat to escape, etc. Lightly drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over the lamb for flavoring and as protection from drying-out since lamb is so lean. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the lamb in the center of the oven and roast for 20 minutes to sear its surface. To keep the lamb moist, baste it with wine and broth as follows:
* Pour 1/4 cup (2 ounces or 60 ml) white wine over the lamb, turn it over, and roast for another 20 minutes. Pour a small amount of water or broth into the bottom of the roasting pan to prevent smoking or burning. Later, this liquid makes delicious pan juices.
* Repeat with the remaining 1/4 cup (2 ounces or 60 ml) white wine, turn the lamb over again, and roast for another 20 minutes at 350 F/175 C/Gas Mark 4. Chances are the oven temperature already dropped to this point with opening the oven door. (1 hour roasting time at this point.)
* Pour 1/2 cup (4 ounces or 120 ml) broth over the lamb and continue roasting at 350 F/175 C/Gas Mark 4 for 20 minutes.
* Remaining rosemary sprig, dip its top into olive oil then brush the entire surface of the lamb. (If not, use a pastry brush.) Turn the lamb over, continue roasting at 350 F/175 C/Gas Mark 4 for 40 minutes. The internal temperature should register about 145-150 F/63-65 C for medium lamb with a touch of pink, clear pink juices. (2 hours roasting time at this point.)

4. Resting (photo above): For a juicy roast it is crucial to rest the roast for several minutes before carving. When exposed to heat, juices leave the edges and travel to the center most part of the roast. When cooling down, the roast relaxes becoming more tender, allowing the juices to redistribute evenly. Remove the roast from the oven and let it rest on the rack for 20 minutes. It benefits from even longer resting, if you have the time.

* Top of Page: The photo shows a boneless roast leg of lamb roasted as written, with a rest period. Please look at the slice with its gorgeous burnished surface surrounding juicy, slightly pink lamb, studded with the perfect battuto counterfoil. With this air-drying and roasting technique, the sliced lamb shows almost uniform roasting inside.
(Some other techniques make sliced roasts reminiscent of wood slices, with obvious rings ranging from dry and over-cooked, melding into well-done, melding into medium, etc. Only the very center is juicy.)

Meanwhile, strain the pan juices, pour into a saucepan. Reheat just before serving. Remove the trussing, carve. Serve on warm plates and enjoy succulent Roast Leg of Lamb, Tuscan-style, perfumed with fresh herbs, garlic, and olive oil.


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