Part of lamb’s appeal is its strong, gamey flavor, even if younger spring lamb tends to be milder. In regions where lamb is eaten more frequently, such as the Middle East and Mediterranean, the meat is met with equally assertive spice blends.
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For its smoky aroma, cumin is an obvious choice, but the flavor mellows a little once on the grill, allowing the taste of the lamb to come through. Either work a dry rub of salt, cumin powder and black pepper into the lamb before grilling, or mix whole cumin seeds with olive oil and baste the meat, essentially toasting the seeds on the grill.
Cumin is a key component in Moroccan lamb, even if the dish’s dominant spice is harissa paste. Made from hot chili peppers, harissa not only adds a fiery heat, but gives the meat an appetizing red finish. Turmeric and paprika round out the spice blend for a mellower background heat and deeper color. Rub the paste into a lamb rack or leg, wearing plastic gloves if using a heavy dose of harissa paste, as the chili pepper can irritate your skin.
Grilled chops tend to go best with a herb marinate, rosemary being the conventional choice, with marjoram and oregano close behind. Particularly if using young lamb chops, where the aroma is more subtle and the chops often served with a pink center, herbs should take the lead over spices.
If broiling lamb chops, where the meat can dry out, try an Indian-inspired wet rub of yogurt with chilis, cumin, fennel and cloves for a strong aroma and moist finish. Marinate the chops first for up to an hour in the refrigerator, and use freshly ground spices if possible, toasting them first in a hot skillet to unlock the essential oils.
For leg of lamb, a tougher joint with stronger flavor, aromatic spices such as fenugreek and cinnamon work well, with turmeric and mustard seeds for color, and cardamom for a lingering hint of aniseed. Mix the spice rub with olive oil and massage into the meat.
Prepare the leg by nicking it repeatedly with the tip of a sharp knife to create small pockets to accommodate the spice paste.
Not all lamb is suited to a dry heat. Tougher shoulder or shank, for example, needs a slow-cook braise. A classic Jewish Passover recipe, for example, uses ground coriander seeds and garlic for a lamb shank stew, with cumin yet again present. For the most intense flavor, marinate the meat overnight in the fridge with the spices and herbs such as rosemary and thyme.