In my home, the featured meat of Easter dinner is always lamb. This is the case not only for most Italians, but for most Mediterranean Christians. The reason for it traces back millennia to Jewish Passover rites that ceased with the destruction of the Temple, but live on both in Christian sacramental rites and Christian culinary traditions. Who am I to argue with tradition?

Many people are averse to lamb; those who are for pity’s sake I take to be incurable. As Aristotle says of the morally weak, “if their lack of self-control comes from wrong reasoning, there’s hope of persuading them to right reasoning and thereby reforming them; but if their weakness comes from susceptibility to unreasonable passions, there’s little hope for reforming them”. Thinking it crueler to slaughter a baby lamb than a full grown one, or a lamb than a chicken, pig, or cow, is plainly irrational, and likewise irrational is trying to argue with such irrational feelings, so as Forrest Gump said, “that’s all I have to say about that”.

As for the more understandable aversion to the gamey odor and flavor of lamb, there’s some remedy for that. I learned from Master Chef Enricco Montecchi a long time ago while apprenticing, that much of the gaminess comes from the fat, so you need to trim away every last bit of it for those who do not appreciate gamey taste.

Another trick is to brine the lamb, leave it soak overnight, or at least 3 hours in a bath of 1 gallon water to 1 cup kosher salt. I personally prefer to dry brine the lamb instead. If you salt (and season) a piece of meat well, and leave it sit for hours before cooking, it has the same tenderizing effect as soaking it in brine. This dry-brining is generally what you want to do red meats (the texture of which is rendered flabby by water-brine). In the case of our Easter leg of lamb, the water brining will purge the meat of more of its gamey flavor, but I don’t do it because I like a bit of that flavor for the sake of the racy red wines that are often consumed with a lamb dinner.

I do salt and season my leg of lamb well in advance, as follows; Having trimmed it clean of all fat and silver skin, I generously salt and pepper both sides and sprinkle them with a bit of dried oregano; using a mister oil sprayer to spray both sides with regular olive oil. I massage the dried spices into the flesh. Then I slice the thinnest slices possible of whole garlic cloves and lemon rind and dot one side of the meat all over with them; for a final touch, I sprinkle fresh rosemary needles, chopped roughly, all over.

Roll the meat around the spices. If the sides of the slab are such as to allow it, first fold them in a bit, before rolling the whole slab forward over itself, from skinny to fat end (so that skinny end ends up inside), as compactly as the slab allows. Then I tie up the roll with strings, which can be laid out beforetime under the slab, to be conveniently positioned for the moment of tying. Place the rolled roast on a baking rack, so that it will cook evenly all over, without having to turn it.

It’s ok to leave the roll to sit on the counter all morning, and put it into the oven after we come home from Mass, figuring on 15-20 minutes per pound, at 350°‑375°, until pretty-looking and fork-tender (or to an internal temperature of 130°‑140°, if you want to play gourmet). The cooking time is a tricky business, always a point of contention amongst all my invited guests. Old Italians traditionally think it needs to be cooked through, and it’s traditional to discuss during dinner about why it didn’t come out tender. If I can get the lamb to the point that its flesh is still pink but its juices not, they’ll eat it and like it. The trick to getting clear juices is to let the lamb sit for 15 minutes or so after it comes out of the oven, allowing its residual heat to keep cooking its juices while its sinews relax. A good cook knows to never cut into a hot piece of meat right out of the oven.

 A classic accompaniment to roasted lamb is potatoes roasted together with it. Italians rarely double up on their carbs, so when you make pasta, you don’t make potatoes or rice. Vegetable accompaniments will no doubt include bitter broccoli di rape sauteed with garlic and oil, which jives well with both gravy meats and roasted lamb. For colour, there will likely be sweet red peppers, maybe roasted, maybe fried sweet and sour. There may well be a third vegetable, depending what’s fresh at the market (like earthy mushrooms). For certain, there will be crusty bread from the local bakery. A bottle of red wine goes without saying, probably a high-end California Pinot Noir, French Bordeaux, Tuscan Super Win or a good Chianti Riserva. My father will no doubt insist that we try his homemade jug wine, and see if it isn’t as good as our expensive bottles, and follow up with asking us for why we don’t just find one wine we like and stick with it, instead of continually wasting our money on different wines. Always the same…indeed!

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My Version

SPRINGCREEK ORGANIC ROAST LEG OF LAMB

wild mushroom orzotto, merlot gastrique

Cook the Leg of Lamb as previous.

 Merlot GASTRIQUE

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallot (2 oz)
  • 1/2 cup Merlot
  • 1 cup beef or lamb broth
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil

Method:
Bring sugar and 2 tablespoons water to a boil in a 1-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil, swirling pan occasionally, until mixture is a golden caramel, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and carefully add vinegar, then add shallot and swirl pan over low heat until caramel is dissolved, about 1 minute.

Stir in wine and boil until reduced to about 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Add broth and boil until reduced to about 1 cup, about 8 minutes. Whisk together cornstarch and remaining 2 tablespoons water, then whisk into sauce and boil, whisking, 1 minute. Season sauce with salt and pepper and keep warm, covered.

WILD MUSHROOM ORZOTTO

  • About 1 ounce (1/2 cup) dried wild mushrooms like morel and shitake
    2 Tbsp olive oil
    1 red onion, finely diced
    2 portobello mushrooms, cut into quarters and thinly sliced
    1/2 cup sliced crimini or button mushrooms
    1/2 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp dried oregano
    2 Tbsp sherry
    1 1/2 cups dried orzo pasta
    1 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
    1/4 cup chervil or parsley

 Method:Slice Portobello and set aside. Rinse off dried mushrooms. Bring to a boil in 4 cups of water. When water is at a full boil, turn off the heat and let the mushrooms soak for ten minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water, dice them up and set aside. Keep the water – this is now your mushroom broth.

In 1 Tbsp olive oil, saute the onion until translucent. Add sliced fresh mushrooms and remaining tablespoon of olive oil in batches and saute over medium-high heat. When all the fresh mushrooms are in the pan and cooked until soft and slightly browned, add the re-hydrated dried mushrooms, salt and oregano.

While the mushrooms are cooking, bring the mushroom broth back to a boil. Add orzo, lower heat slightly, and simmer for 7-8 minutes until the orzo is soft (but not gummy) and there is still a little liquid left in the pot.

Add the sherry to the pan of mushrooms then immediately add the mushrooms to the orzo. Continue to simmer and stir the orzo with mushrooms for a few more minutes until all broth is absorbed and the mixture thickens. Stir in cheese and chervil or parsley.

 Antonio D’Anello ccc

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