OK, it's confession time. The Garland professional oven in my New York house has been on the blink for more than a year, and with all of my to-ing and fro-ing, I just can't seem to find the time to get it repaired. I miss it, but I also recognize that these days, I do most of my entertaining in New Orleans, or in the Instagram-perfect carpenter gothic "gingerbread" house that my parents bought almost 60 years ago in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. There, the dining table is an antique oak one that is even more venerable than I am, scarred with rings from untold glasses of red wine and marked where the bread knife sawed through the tablecloth one evening. I love it because it wears its age well, and each imperfection is a testimonial to the decades of meals shared and friendships made. It is my summer table.
When the weather ratchets up to sweltering in New York City, I look forward to my annual migration to that home on the Vineyard: rented SUV, filled to bursting with boxes of books for my latest project, the current generation of squalling cats, enough condiments and staples to stock a pantry for a family of twenty, CDs, DVDs, and more — I am not a minimalist! Each year, I celebrate my arrival on island with a Bastille Day dinner: the red, white, and blue theme still works, and some Independence Day–themed items are even reduced at the local party shop. Plus, I've got ten additional days after the Fourth of July to settle in before it's "showtime"!
A whole leg of lamb is always the meal's centerpiece, and for many years I noodled around with the recipe. One year, I added dried lavender flowers from my garden to the spice mixture and garlic with which I normally season the lamb. Another, I came up with the stupid, simple, but wonderfully delicious sauce that combines traditional mint jelly with rum and jalapeño chilies. A few years back, my friends told me to stop playing around — perfection had been achieved. So now I stick to the recipe and serve it accompanied by whatever fresh vegetables I find in the farmers' market, crusty bread from my favorite bakery, and several bottles of a good Pinot Noir.
It's my start-of-the-summer salute to memories of the past and friends of the present. It's not static, though, because each year I try to include a new guest or two at the table. For while I honor the past and celebrate the present, I look forward to the future and want to keep my tradition going.
Leg of Lamb With Spicy Mint Sauce
Serves four to six
1 shank-end, half-bone-in leg of lamb, 4 or 5 pounds
6 large garlic cloves
1½ teaspoons dried lavender flowers
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1½ tablespoons finely ground sea salt
2 tablespoons mixed peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
Preheat the oven to 450°F. If the butcher has not already removed the fell (parchment-like membrane) from the lamb leg, trim it away along with all excess fat. Using the tip of a sharp knife, make 15 or so small incisions in the leg, spacing them evenly.
Place the garlic, lavender, and thyme in a small food processor and pulse until you have a thick paste. Poke a bit of the paste into each of the incisions in the lamb. Place the salt, peppercorns, dried rosemary, and herbes de Provencein a spice grinder and pulse until you have a coarse mix. Rub the mix all over the lamb, covering it evenly. Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan.
Roast the lamb for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350°F and continue to roast for about 1 hour, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part away from the bone registers 130°F for rare, 140° to 145°F for medium-rare, or 160°F for well-done. Cooking times will vary depending on the shape of the lamb and the consistent heat of your oven. Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.
Carve the lamb parallel to the bone in long, thin slices and arrange the slices on a platter. Transfer the warm sauce to a sauceboat and serve immediately.
Spicy Mint Sauce
Makes about 1 cup
1 (8-ounce) jar mint jelly
1 small jalapeño chili, seeded and minced, or to taste
¼ cup dark rum, or to taste
While the lamb is resting, combine the mint jelly, chili, and rum in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the jelly liquefies and the sauce is warmed through.
Excerpted from My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir, by Jessica B. Harris. Copyright © 2017 by Jessica B. Harris. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Jessica B. Harris is a professor, lecturer, and consultant who lives between New York City, New Orleans, and Martha's Vineyard; her most recent book is My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir.