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Great Timing

Whether the clock is your friend or foe, you can cook a leg of lamb to delicate perfection.

This braised lamb spent four hours in the oven.
This braised lamb spent four hours in the oven. (Photo by Anthony Tieuli, styling by Erika Bruce)

Many hosts cook by the clock. That is, they think about who's coming to dinner, decide how much time they have to devote to the menu, then head to the store for groceries.

But the fun really begins when you buy the food you feel like serving, let your day evolve, and then take your ingredients and cook them fast or slow. You'll come out with two entirely different dishes, but that's what happens when you use high dry heat for the quick method or a long braise for the slow one.

Think about this in terms of what you can do with an ordinary russet potato. Cut it into spears, roast them in a hot oven, and the skins turn crackly and protect nuggets of tender flesh. Take that same spud, cut it into cubes, boil them vigorously, puree them, and you have something silken and buttery on the plate.

We decided to see what would happen if we applied the principle to four of our favorite ingredients: leg of lamb, canned white beans, plum tomatoes, and fresh rosemary. Begin with a leg on the bone. Butterflied meat is easier to carve, but not nearly as flavorful.

Make one version in a flash, by rubbing the leg with mustard and herbs, roasting it to a juicy pinkness, and serving it with a bed of tomato-flecked beans. The finished leg looks enticing and elegant on the platter.

The long method allows the lamb to take its time and cook very slowly all afternoon - almost as if you've got your slow cooker on, but using the oven instead. It's an adaptation of the French gigot de sept heures (seven-hour leg of lamb). In the era when this dish was popular, when homes had no ovens and the meat was sent to the village baker, the lamb needed the full cooking time to soften a tough cut of meat. Today you can trim the time almost in half, stir the tomato-and-wine-infused lamb juices into a pot of white beans, and you have an appealing dish that maintains the integrity of the original.

One preparation demands a steak knife, the other a spoon.

It all depends on what you have time for.

ROAST LEG OF LAMB
SERVES 6

1 leg of lamb on the bone (about 6 to 7 pounds), well trimmed of fat and membrane
2 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
8 plum tomatoes, quartered
Extra olive oil (for sprinkling)
3 cans (15 ounces each) cannellini beans
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Turn on the broiler. Have on hand a roasting pan long enough to hold the leg. If the butcher has cracked the bone near the shank end, you can curve the leg a little.

Set the lamb on a cutting board, rounded side up. Use the tip of a paring knife to make tiny slits all over the meat. Insert the slivers of garlic into the slits, including several into the meat's shank end.

Broil the lamb 6 inches from the element for 8 minutes, turning it until it is browned all over. Remove from the oven and adjust the heat to 375 degrees. Set the lamb aside.

In a small bowl, combine the oil, mustard, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Rub the mixture all over the lamb to coat it. Set the tomatoes around the lamb and sprinkle them with a little oil.

Return the lamb to the oven and roast for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain the beans, rinse them with cold water, and drain again. In a bowl, stir together the beans, salt, and pepper. After the lamb has cooked for 30 minutes, spoon the beans around the lamb, stirring them into the juices and tomatoes in the pan. Roast for 30 minutes more or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the lamb registers 130 degrees for medium-rare meat.

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board and let it rest for 5 minutes. Transfer the beans to a bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper, if you like.

Carve the lamb and serve with the beans.

FOUR- HOUR LEG OF LAMB
SERVES 6

This scaled-down version of the classic French gigot de sept heures (seven-hour leg of lamb) takes considerably less time in the oven.

LAMB
1 leg of lamb on the bone (about 6 to 7 pounds), well trimmed of fat and membrane
Olive oil (for sprinkling)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 Spanish onions, thinly sliced
4 large carrots, chopped
1 cup canned whole Italian tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups water, or more if necessary
1 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

Turn on the broiler. Have on hand a broiling pan and a Dutch oven or deep roasting pan that will hold the lamb later. If the butcher has cracked the bone near the shank end, you can curve the leg a little.

Set the lamb in the broiling pan. Rub it with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil about 6 inches from the element for 8 minutes, turning it until it is browned all over. Remove from the oven and turn the heat to 300 degrees.

Transfer the lamb, meaty side down, to the Dutch oven or roasting pan. Surround it with the onions, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, water, wine, bay leaf, and rosemary. Add enough water to come halfway up the level of the lamb. Cover tightly with the lid or with heavy-duty foil. Transfer to the oven. Cook the lamb for 4 hours, turning the meat several times in the liquid, until it is almost falling off the bone.

Discard the bay leaf and rosemary sprigs. Use two large spatulas to transfer the lamb to a large platter; cover with foil and keep warm.

Skim the cooking juices to remove as much fat as possible; set aside.

BEANS
3 cans (15 ounces each) cannellini beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 cup lamb cooking juices
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Drain the beans, rinse them with cold water, and drain again.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and, when it is hot, add the onion, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the beans and lamb cooking juices. Let the mixture come to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the beans are hot.

Add the rosemary and parsley. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if you like.

To serve: Use a large spoon to remove generous pieces of lamb from the bone. Serve with the beans.

Sheryl Julian is the Globe's food editor. E-mail her at julian@globe.com.

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