Reduction Gets More Out of Food

Leg of lamb reduced in lemon is easy to make and involves dry roasting in a sealed pot, guaranteeing deep flavors and a soft and juicy texture.

Leg of lamb reduced in lemon
Leg of lamb reduced in lemon. Perfect with a shot of arak. Dan Peretz

Reduction is the greatest asset in religion, literature, poetry and preparing food. There is a kind of distilled truth in limiting things to their essence − in faith and words as in a roast or a soup. Rabbi Isaac Luria (aka the holy Ari) of Safed told us about God who is found, as we know, in everything, and that everything is in Him. And that before the Creation, He filled the entire space until there was no room left for even a pin, not to mention the world and everything in it.

But I, who am not a believer nor even the son of a believer, find truth in the concept of reduction, since I’ve tasted and experienced it myself – from a large pot, as a continuing shaft of light that burst forth at Creation and was trapped in the tip of my fork. It was a piece of roast whose juices were reduced in lemon in a pot in an oven in Greece. Only one piece of meat. I’m not sure there was even garlic or a sprig of thyme there, but a great light burst forth from it and a great silence was heard, like the quiet before the storm.

When you dilute the essence, it changes form and its color gets dull, and often you want only to preserve a memory of it in food or drink. After all, we know we are unable to deal with the truth when it is distilled and reduced, and usually prefer it when it floats softly among the vanities of the world. And we’re happy with that. Butter on bread, whiskey in soda, love between the sheets.

This week, I have come up with an exercise in reduction: a few ingredients, a minimum of mixing and turning over, patience and resisting the temptation of the spices and the liquids until the flavor is reduced to the one and only truth: of lamb in lemon.

Leg of lamb reduced in lemon

The ease of preparation of this wonderful dish is in inverse proportion to its deep flavors and a texture that melts. The technique that constitutes the basis of the cooking is dry roasting, with virtually no liquids in a sealed pot, which, thanks to the meat and lemon juice, becomes a kind of sophisticated steamer-oven.

Before roasting, you sauté the meat in olive oil, so that the outside is seared thoroughly and assumes a pleasant texture and color. Then you allow the juices to do their work and melt the gelatin in the fibers of the meat until it softens and dissolves into itself.

In Greece, they seal the pot with wet dough or mud, and leave it in a taboun with smoldering embers overnight. However, the version of the recipe that we cooked, which actually uses high heat, turns out unbelievably juicy and soft, like cooking in a pressure cooker. Lately, almost everything I eat goes well with a shot of arak. This time I tried drinking cold water with the lamb. It’s nice, but it’s not arak.

1 boned shoulder or leg of lamb

juice of 3 lemons

6 garlic cloves

8 sprigs of parsley

1/2 cup (120 ml.) extra fine olive oil

Atlantic salt

ground black pepper

Place the meat on a work surface with the side that was near the bone face up. Pour juice from 1 lemon over it, and sprinkle 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves and the sprigs of parsley over it. Add generous amounts of Atlantic salt and ground black pepper, and massage everything into the meat.

Roll up the lamb parallel to the direction of the fibers, as though the bone were in its center. Tie with butcher’s string using loops or by winding it, and fasten tightly. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the outside of the rolled-up meat, and massage the grains into it.

In a heavy, oven-proof iron pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat the olive oil over high heat. Then place the meat in the middle of the pot, and sear well on all sides until it assumes an attractive brown color. Don’t cover the pot at all during this stage.

When the meat is browned all over, pour over the remaining lemon juice and add the rest of the garlic cloves; cover immediately. The juice will boil and splatter when it comes into contact with the oil and will evaporate in the pot. Closing the lid quickly will make it possible to retain the fragrance and flavor inside, and will help with the process of cooking and softening the meat.

Transfer the boiling-hot pot to an oven preheated to 200 degrees Celsius, for about 2 hours. After about an hour, open the lid for a moment, turn over the meat and cover again. Don’t be tempted to add liquids; if the pot is closed well, there is no need. After about 2 hours, check that the meat is soft enough by sticking a knife into the middle. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 5 minutes before slicing. Serve hot with slices of tomato, and enjoy the gravy straight from the pot with pieces of fresh bread.

The leg of lamb can also be stuffed:

Before rolling up the meat before cooking, you can add stuffing − the kind that will flatter the lemon, and add interest and flavor. In any case, make sure to massage the meat with lemon juice before adding the stuffing.

1. Using a sharp chef’s knife, chop 1 cup of pistachios and a handful of spearmint leaves, mix with 1/2 cup olive oil and spread in the center of the meat.

2. Sauté 200 grams smoked goose breast, chopped in a little olive oil until seared and the texture becomes crisp.

3. Carefully arrange quarters of hard-boiled eggs alongside the piece of meat with some scallions and cooked carrots next to them.

4. Sauté 1 cup bread crumbs in olive oil until they brown. Add 1/2 cup pine nuts and continue to sauté until they also brown. Transfer everything to the meat and roll it up.

In the same steaming pot you can also cook side dishes.

Place small potatoes on an iron skillet, of the kind used to sear eggplant, over a high heat but without oil. Turn them over occasionally until they become burned on all sides. This can also be done on a charcoal grill.

When you turn over the meat in the pot after about an hour, place the scorched potatoes around it and close the lid. The potatoes will be absorbed in the flavors of the meat and lemon, and will become soft. Some people say they are even tastier than the meat itself.