While I have not officially created a bucket list, I have in my head a sort of culinary list of things that I would like to try before my time is through here. My list is a mix of eating at different restaurants like The French Laundry, trying ethnic cuisines in their respective countries, cooking a variety of recipes and using different techniques. One such thing on my list was roasting a whole lamb over an open pit and, as an added bonus, to do this specifically on Easter. This past week, I got to check that one off the list.
I have to say, this was no small feat or feast. Over the past couple years, I have tossed the idea around and poked around to investigate what all it would entail, each time getting a little discouraged by the amount of preparation and work it appeared to entail. First off, where do you even do such a thing? It is not like I have an open fire pit in the backyard. And my barbecue, while an impressively large BBQ, still can not accommodate a whole lamb.
This year presented a somewhat rare opportunity though in that my yard, in steady decline over the past few years, is pretty much a goner. After just a little bit of gentle nudging from my wife, I have resigned to the fact that we are going to have to do some landscaping sometime this year. So with that, I realized it was probably now or never so I started making plans on how to make this culinary dream come true and immediately put the kids to work in preparation.
In doing my research, I knew finding the lamb was going to require a few calls and at least a weeks notice. I did find a site online that sells them ready to go, but I wanted to try and buy local. After a few calls, I found out that a local butcher/smokehouse, Los Gatos Meat Company, was able to get them in and, as I suspected, it would take one week. They were able to find me a nice little 30lb’er that cost a cool $290 after tax, about the same as the online store.
With the hole dug, a lamb on order, and guests invited, I set out to figure out just how I would be cooking this beast. With the help of a good friend, we concocted makeshift rotisserie stands out of pipe & fittings we bought at the local hardware store. The plan was to just use the spit and motor from my BBQ so we rigged it to hold these pieces. Not much too look at, but with a few tweaks, it tested out just fine.
The Saturday before Easter Sunday I swung by the butcher and picked up the little lamb. It comes fully cleaned out and minus a head – the one demand that my wife made when she agreed to let me do this. From there it went straight home and into a marinade of olive oil, rosemary & thyme, garlic, and salt & pepper. I rested it in a small case of ice overnight, with just one flip early in the evening.
Easter morning we started the fire by first lining our pit with bricks and then stacking on cherry wood and oak as well as one bag of hardwood briquettes. We aimed to get a nice big base of hot embers to roast the lamb over. Just prior to putting the lamb on, I stuffed it with garlic, lemons, bread, and splashed it with red wine – a method I read about while researching online. I sewed it up with twine and on to the rotisserie it went.
In retrospect, here is where I think we made our first mistake – we put the lamb on too high of a setting. We roasted it here for about an hour and a half and then lowered it to the next setting. Again, probably too high for this point of the cooking. All the while, we kept basting the lamb and adding more small pieces of wood to keep the embers at a maximum and the smoke at a minimum.
Luck was on our side throughout the day with no rain and little wind (we were forecasted for rain all day). About an hour or so longer into it though, our luck ran out as did the rotisserie motor. It was back to real basics from here on out with us manually rotating the lamb every few minutes a quarter of a turn.
3 hours in I realized we just were not cooking this low enough so I hammered the stakes down further and further for the next two hours. The last hour we had to pile a great deal more wood on and that is about when the wind picked up so it was more flame and smoke than I would have liked, but by now the little bugger was late for his own dinner. Also, the temps I was getting off the thermometer were fairly inconsistent so I had to move the fire around a little to get hotter spots.
We finally got enough 135 F plus readings from every spot that we decided it was done so we took it off the spit and set it to rest for 30 minutes while we prepped for carving. I am a bit sad to admit that after 5+ hours of working over the fire, I didn’t even feel like eating lamb anymore. As I was getting ready to cut it up, I thought back to one time that my Mom cooked fried chicken for a large party and, afterwards, she couldn’t even stand the smell of fried chicken for an entire year after that. I wasn’t sad for the lamb or grossed out by it, just something to do with smelling the lamb all day plays a weird effect on your appetite I guess. And of all the meats, lamb does have that distinct “lamb smell” that is hard to escape.
One other thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was the carving. I didn’t have any “oh the poor little lamb” issues with doing it, I just wasn’t prepared for what all was required. Physically, I was pretty whooped from cooking all day, turning the spit, tending to the fire, and a couple right hand 12 oz curls. Also, I didn’t realize that you really need more than just a sharp knife to get through the entire carcass. Up to this point, I had let the kids witness and even participate in the whole event, but I spared them for what I had to do next. Reader beware – the next part isn’t for vegetarians : After taking off the leg sections, I was pretty much underpowered for removing the rib sections. About 2 minutes into it and only a rib or two in, I snuck back and grabbed the hatchet and cleavered the ribs section off the spine. Within a minute, I had both slabs of ribs clean off. None of the research I had done mentioned anything about that – so if you are going to undertake this job, keep this in mind.
Now, the real shame is that some of the lamb was a little too rare in spots. Enough of it was edible as it was, but a a little bit needed additional time so I put some into the oven to finish up. There was more than enough to start our feast though and with all the sides everyone else brought, we ate like kings.
All-in-all, this was a fantastic experience. Getting to work withmy kids from the very beginning when they helped dig the hole and then their awe at the entire lamb being roasted over an open fire. My son even said it was the best steak he ever had – I think he may have just been being nice, but it sure made me feel good. And of course, getting to spend time with family and friends, sharing the whole experience with them makes this even more memorable.
While I am very glad I did it, I am not sure that I will venture to do this again. It is a tremendous amount of work and the amount of food you get is ridiculous. There was enough left over for everyone to take a bit home and then some. I think a nice roast leg of lamb may be in order for future Easters. Or maybe next year, I will attempt another bucket list item – rabbit stew. Going to tell the kids I cooked the Easter Bunny!