A rub of fragrant spices and herbs—including cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon and saffron—creates a crust of exotic Moroccan flavor on a roast leg of American lamb. The versatile Moroccan spice rub can be used with other meats and cooking methods too. Recipe below.
Let’s do a little word association. If I say “leg of lamb,” you say… “What, lamb again?” Okay, fair enough—I have been cooking a lot of lamb here lately. But the answer I was looking for was “garlic and rosemary.” When we came into possession of the handsome, hefty [over seven pounds] leg of lamb above, my first thought was the nearly universal default cooking approach: Jam lots of garlic slivers into it, cover it with rosemary and roast it. There’s a good reason that’s a popular go-to recipe—it’s absolutely delicious.
But then I thought it was time to try something different. And for no reason I can explain, a Moroccan spice rub occurred to me.
Traditional Moroccan cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world. Morocco sits on the northern edge of the African continent, a mere eight miles across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe at its closest point. So its cooking is flavored by Berber, Spanish, Corsican, Portuguese, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cuisines.
Just as much an influence is Morocco’s location along ancient spice trade routes. Spices are used extensively in Moroccan food; the turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, saffron and pepper found in this spice rub are all popular favorites. Coriander, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves are often used too. The emphasis is more on big flavors than heat. Other big flavors found in Moroccan cuisine include lemon juice and zest; fresh herbs such as mint, parsley, cilantro and basil; garlic and onions.
Chicken is the most widely eaten meat in Morocco. The most common red meat is beef—lamb is preferred but is relatively expensive. Eating pork is forbidden in this Muslim country, but thanks to the growth of tourism and a pragmatic government, pig farming is booming there, to cater to European and other non-Muslim tourists.
This recipe combines their preferred red meat with a wonderfully fragrant mix of popular Moroccan flavorings.
Roast Leg of Lamb with Moroccan Spice Rub
Serves 8 or so, depending on size of roast
For Moroccan Spice Rub:
1 tablespoon cumin seeds [or 1 tablespoon ground cumin—see Kitchen Notes]
1 tablespoon coriander seeds [see Kitchen Notes]
1 teaspoon black peppercorns [or 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper]
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
20 threads saffron, finely broken
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup minced parsley
zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
1 leg of lamb, 5 to 6 pounds
Make the spice rub. Toast cumin seeds and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, stirring frequently, for 5 or so minutes, until fragrant. Transfer to plate and let cool thoroughly. Grind cumin, coriander and peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Combine the cumin mixture in a bowl with the remaining rub ingredients, stirring to thoroughly blend.
Spread the rub evenly over the entire surface of the leg of lamb. I spooned it on, then used my hands. Wrap the leg of lamb in plastic wrap and marinate, chilled, for 4 hours or longer. Remove from fridge for last half-hour of marinating to let it warm up slightly before roasting.
Roast the leg of lamb. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly oil a baking pan [just to make it easier to clean later] and place the leg of lamb in a rack in the pan. Roast in the center of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes per pound, rotating the pan once halfway through. Variations in ovens and the size of the leg of lamb will cause cooking times to vary quite a bit. Use a quick-read thermometer to check the lamb well before you think it should be done [make sure you don’t hit the bone—that will give you an inflated reading]. You’re shooting for an internal temperature of anywhere from 130 to 145ºF. Remove from the oven and let it rest, tented lightly with foil, for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Seeds or powder? If you don’t have cumin seeds and coriander seeds, you can substitute the powdered versions of both. We use boatloads of ground cumin in our kitchen. But grinding freshly toasted seeds really makes for a more flavorful blend, and it’s quick and easy to do.
Other uses for Moroccan spice rub. This flavorful rub will bring big flavor to chicken, beef and pork too. Roasting, braising or pan grilling are good ways to cook with it. Indirect grilling would work nicely too.
Craving more Moroccan? Try my Moroccan Braised Beef recipe, with garam masala and golden raisins.