Charleston Wine & Food – Lambs & Clams Contest – Tennessee Whiskey & Sorghum Brined Leg of Lamb

Taste of the South – Tennessee Whiskey and Sorghum Brined Border Springs Farm Leg of Lamb served with Geechie Boy Grit Cakes with Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda

I have some not so fond memories of lamb from the time I was a young girl.  Twice a month, my mother would prepare lamb chops for a weeknight dinner.  Fried to a crisp in a cast iron skillet, they were an anemic grayish-brown, overcooked, dry, and tasteless…thank the Good Lord for mint jelly!

Just a generation ago, home cooks were taught to cook lamb until it was the consistency of shoe leather, although in those days they called it “well done”.   Modern farming and inspection techniques have essentially rid us of the need to overcook our lamb.  Now we are able to enjoy this meat and all its wonderful flavor, by cooking to rare or medium rare.  The lamb is succulent and moist at these temperatures, prepared beautifully and depending on the recipe, infused with creative flavors.

I was honored when asked to participate in the Charleston Wine & Food Festival’s inaugural Lambs & Clams Cooking Contest with seven other bloggers from across the country.  Charleston is one of our favorite cities to visit and is certainly one of the top destinations for dining in the United States.  We were just in Charleston this past week, for my birthday, to “eat our way” through the city.

The cooking challenge stated, “The Lambs + Clams Original Recipe Contest Presented by the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival® will encourage bloggers to re-create the festival values rooted in Charleston’s local culture and inspire new flavorful creations. The contest will span four months as these food bloggers each make four original dishes including lamb, oysters or clams.”

When I read the invitation to participate in the contest, I was intrigued because I do have a connection to Charleston and the food culture of the city.  Living in the South, I am inspired every day by the chefs, farmers, food, and spirits artisans I have met during our travels.  I have been to Craig Roger’s Border Springs Farm in Virginia and have seen the gorgeous rolling hills and lush green pastures his sheep graze on every day.  His animals are beautiful and deserve the same care in preparation that they have received before harvest.  I hope that passion comes through in my dish.

Border Springs Farm – Patrick Springs, VA

The flock of sheep guided by the guard dog coming up to the top of the hill at Border Springs Farm

“Re-create the festival values rooted in Charleston’s local culture and inspire new flavorful creations.”  To me, Charleston represents a style of classic elegance.  There is a refined casualness that is filled with cultural flavors.  The city is cosmopolitan, yet its Southern heritage comes through loud and clear.  I chose to create a dish that I believe showcases these elements of Charleston and Southern traditions.  While the list of ingredients is long, the actual method of preparation is simple.

We will take a tour of the South in developing this recipe.  The first stop is the state of Tennessee.  Inspired by a brine recipe from Blackberry Farm, I changed things up a bit and made a Jack Daniels whiskey brine with sorghum from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill with apple cider and spices.  The apple cider and spices are reminiscent of fall.  I wanted the flavors of the brine to shine through, ever so delicately, in the finished leg of lamb.  The brine kept the meat not only incredibly flavorful and moist, but also so tender that you could cut it with a fork.  It literally melted in your mouth.

The lamb was so tender and moist that we could cut it with a fork

After a 36-hour brine, I carried a few of the same ingredients over to make a 4-hour marinade, however, in addition, I included a few other spices for a more intense flavor.  Using a base of olive oil and sorghum, I added rosemary, cumin, and sweet paprika along with the coriander.  I did not include the cardamon in the second process.  I vacuum packed the leg of lamb to infuse the flavors, however this is optional.  Placing the lamb in a sealed zip lock bag with the marinade will work well, too.  I basted the lamb with the marinade while it cooked to ensure a beautifully brown exterior that would allow the essence of those flavors to be enjoyed with every bite of the meat.

Marinade for the lamb

My intent was to create a recipe that carried the flavors throughout every step in the preparation of the leg of lamb.  Often times, marinades or basted ingredients remain on the surface and you are left with a leg of lamb with different tastes depending on where the piece is cut. This combination of brine and marinade developed a delectable flavor throughout the leg of lamb and produced an incredibly tender piece of meat.

Vacuum seal the leg of lamb for four hours

Basting the meat several times throughout the cooking process ensures even browning and flavor

What about that mint jelly?  Memories of childhood returned with an updated twist on an old favorite.  Tennessee whiskey and sorghum were infused with crushed mint leaves and thickened with refined tapioca starch to resemble the taste of a Mint Julep for a more fun and unexpected adult version of mint jelly…Mint Julep Jelly.  For those who prefer a simpler preparation, I also served it as a sauce with the consistency of a demi-glace.

As an alternative preparation, lamb served with grits and the Mint Julep Jelly

Taking a road trip from Tennessee to South Carolina, Geechie Boy Mill stone ground grits from Edisto Island, SC, were the focus of my side dish.  Geechie Boy grits combined with Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda (Thomasville, Georgia) were creamy, rich, and seductive with the buttery flavor of this artisan raw-milk cheese.  These cheesy grits were so good, it was hard to reserve enough for the recipe and not be tempted to eat them all, piping hot, right out of the pan.  However, I put them into a square pan, chilled them, and cut them into circles with a biscuit cutter.  Sautéd in a little bit of butter to brown the grit cakes, they were extraordinary with the lamb.

These cheesy grit cakes were incredible with the lamb and the Mint Julep sauce

Lamb from the hills of Virginia, whiskey and sorghum from the foothills of Tennessee, stone ground grits from South Carolina, and cheese from Jersey cows grazing in sunny Georgia, and you have a true “Taste of the South.”

If you enjoyed this recipe and preparation, I would appreciate your vote.  You can vote for this recipe until Friday, October 19th at Charleston Wine & Food Festival’s Facebook page.  You will need to click “vote” in the upper right-hand corner.  That will take you to the page where you will see the recipes and you can click the box to vote.  Thank you for your support.

The other participants in the Lambs & Clams Contest are:

Lynda of Taste Food Blog

Peter Barrett of A Cook Blog

Olga Berman of Mango Tomato

David Dadekian of Eat Drink RI

Heather Scholten of Farmgirl Gourmet

Cecilia Stoute of One Vanilla Bean

Vivek Surti of Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures

Tennessee Whiskey and Sorghum Brined Leg of Lamb with Geechie Boy Grit Cakes

Tennessee Whiskey and Sorghum Brined Leg of Lamb with Geechie Boy Grit Cakes with Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda

Yield: 8 - 10 servings (for leg of lamb)

Prep Time: 36 hours

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 1/2 days

The leg of lamb will easily serve 8 to 10 people. The recipe for the grit cakes and the Mint Julep sauce or jelly serves 4. You will need to double these two recipes if you are preparing the recipes to serve 8 people. You will need to start this recipe 1 1/2 to 2 days ahead of serving in order to allow enough time for brining.


For brine:
1 gallon apple cider (fresh, found in the refrigerator case)
2 cups of Tennessee whiskey (I used Jack Daniels)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup sorghum (I used Muddy Pond sorghum)
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 cups Kosher salt
4 onions, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamon
1 Tablespoon ground black pepper
2 quarts (8 cups) ice water

1 6-pound leg of lamb (keep refrigerated until the brine is prepared and chilled)

For marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tablespoons sorghum (I used Muddy Pond Sorghum)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped, fresh rosemary

For Mint Julep Sauce and/or Jelly:
3/4 cup Tennessee Whiskey (I used Jack Daniels)
1/4 cup sorghum (I used Muddy Pond sorghum)
4 teaspoons apple cider vinegar, or more to taste
1/2 spring rosemary
1/8 teaspoon coriander
Few springs of fresh mint, lightly pounded and wrapped and tied in cheesecloth
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch, or more as needed (for sauce)
Ultratex 8 (or refine thickened tapioca starch), as needed (for jelly)

For Geechie Boy Grit Cakes with Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda:
3 cups Organic chicken broth (I used Swanson’s)
1 cup milk
1 cup Geeche Boy Mill stone ground grits (any good stone ground grits will work)
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
4 ounces of Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda, grated
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Unsalted butter, as needed for sautéing grit cakes


To brine lamb:
1. In a tall non-reactive stockpot, combine all of the ingredients, except for the ice water. Bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Reduce heat and cook for about 5 minutes, being sure that the salt and brown sugar have dissolved and that the spices are incorporated. Remove from the heat and add the ice water. Stir.

3. Refrigerate until the mixture is cold. If you can make it early in the day, it will be chilled by the evening, or let it chill overnight.

4, Add the leg of lamb to the brine, making sure it is completely submerged in the liquid. Leave in the brine for 24 to 36 hours (I kept it in for 36 hours). Remove the lamb from the brine and pat dry with paper towels.

For marinade:
1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl until blended.

2. Put the lamb in either a vacuum seal bag or a large ziplock bag. Pour the marinade in the bag ensuring is is equally distributed over the leg of lamb.

3. Either vacuum seal the bag or seal the bag tightly. Place the bag in a glass dish for four hours, occasionally redistributing the marinade, if it is in a ziplock bag.

4. When ready to cook the lamb, remove it from the bag, tie up any loose pieces of the lamb leg with kitchen twine so the meat will cook more evenly, and place the lamb on an oiled rack in a shallow roasting pan. Let it sit at room temperature while pre-heating the oven.

To prepare lamb:
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Baste the lamb with the marinade once before placing it in the oven. Cook at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.

3. Remove the lamb from the oven. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees. Baste the lamb again and return to oven at reduced temerpature.

4. Roast lamb at 325 degrees for approximately one more hour (10-12 minutes per pound), basting one or two more times, until the marinade is gone. You want to cook the lamb until the temperature registers approximately 130 degrees (on an instant read thermometer) in the thickest part of the leg. * It may take longer to cook since you need to open the oven door once or twice when basting the lamb. Remove the lamb from the wire rack and let rest before slicing.

For Mint Julep Sauce and/or Jelly:
1. Combine whiskey, sorghum, apple cider vinegar, rosemary, and coriander in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

2. Simmer over a low to medium heat until mixture is reduced to about 1/2 cup (5 -10 minutes). Taste for seasonings. Remove from the heat. While the sauce is still hot, place cheesecloth with fresh mint sprigs in the sauce and infuse the mint flavor. Leave for a few minutes, until desired amount of mint flavor has been imparted.

3. Strain mixture through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and place the strained mixture into a small, clean saucepan. If you are making the sauce, you can bring the sauce to a low boil and begin to thicken with cornstarch (removed and blended with a little of the sauce), to desired consistency, stirring constantly to keep smooth. My sauce was the consistency of a demi-glace.

4. If you would like to make the Mint Julep Jelly, you will need to add a small amount of Ultratex 8 and combine with an immersion blender, until desired consistency. It will take a few minutes to thicken so add very small amounts at a time and blend thoroughly before adding any additional thickener. It will also thicken a bit more once is sits for a few minutes. You do not want to use too much of the Ultratex.

* I took a small amount of the original sauce and made the Mint Julep Jelly from that, which still left enough sauce to use with some of the lamb. You will not need more than a drizzle of sauce or a dollop of jelly to serve with the meat.

For Geechie Boy Grit Cakes with Sweet Grass Dairy Georgia Gouda:
1. Combine chicken broth and milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Slowly add the grits, stirring constantly with a whisk so they do not clump together. Make sure the mixture is thoroughly blended and smooth.

2. Reduce heat so that grits are on a low simmer. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until thickened. Check and stir periodically to prevent scorching.

3. Remove from the heat and add one tablespoon of butter and the grated cheese. Stir until the butter and cheese are melted and thoroughly blended. Taste for seasonings and add salt and white pepper, if desired.

4. Butter an 8-inch square glass dish. Spread grits eveninly into the dish and cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent forming a tough skin. Place in the refrigerator for several hours until mixture is cold and firm (you can prepare a day ahead).

5. When ready to cook the grit cakes, loosen the firm grits from the pan and turn out onto a cutting board (alternatively, you may cut them directly from the pan). Use a 3 1/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut out four grit cakes.

6. Place a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Melt the butter (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) in the skillet until it is no longer foaming (you may want to turn down the heat to medium, depending on your range). Place the grit cakes in the pan and cook several minutes until brown on one side. Turn the grit cakes and cook until brown on the other side, a few minutes more. You may need additional butter to cook the second side of the grit cakes. Serve warm with the lamb and Mint Julep sauce or jelly.

Gwen Pratesi

8 Responses to “Charleston Wine & Food – Lambs & Clams Contest – Tennessee Whiskey & Sorghum Brined Leg of Lamb”

  1. 1

    Heather | Farmgirl Gourmet — October 9, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

    This looks great Gwen. I love the mint julep jelly. I need that in my life. Best of luck to you!

    • Gwen replied: — October 9th, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

      Thank you, Heather. I thought your recipe was delightful as well. Good luck and maybe we will meet in Charleston! Gwen

  2. 2

    30A EATS — October 10, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    Looks delicious Gwen, all my favorite ingredients! Best of luck to you and Heather-AKA Farmgirl Gourmet!

  3. 3

    Jane Nellums — October 11, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    Wonderful recipe…….Wow! Good Luck in the contest!
    Love the Lamb and grits!
    Jane N

  4. 4

    greg johnsman — October 11, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    I can’t thank you enough for using our grits. I know craig and I am blessed to have my grits with his lamb. thank you for what you do, god bless, greg

  5. 5

    Lisa — October 11, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    Gwen, I don’t eat lamb..I can’t eat lamb…it always tastes too gamy to me, but I’m being completely honest when I say this- .I want to eat your whiskey sorghum brined lamb! I’m in awe of how perfectly cooked and gorgeous it is. The cheese grit cakes with that one is easy – GIMME! You know you’ve got my vote and then some :)

  6. 6

    ronnie — October 15, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    I’m not a big fan of lamb either, but your marinade sounds wonderful and love your twist on the mint jelly. Really superb, including the side of grit cakes! Now I need to vote, but it seems to be down for the count at the moment!

  7. 7

    Farmgirl Gourmet Clam Cakes with Lemony Greens & a Poached Egg - Farmgirl Gourmet — November 7, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    […] wasn’t kicked up enough to win this challenge.  By the way, a big congrats to Gwen over at Bunky Cooks for winning the 1st challenge (I came in 3rd).  I am planning to give her a run for her money this […]

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