3.26.2013

Out Like a Lamb.



The end of March is nigh, and thus is Easter. Passover is happening right now. It's a big time for a lot of people. And plants. Plants are having a blast right now. And people are having a blast with plants. Or, at least, Fred and I are.

When we last spoke, I had mentioned having chatted around to get a feel as to what food things meant to people with regard to Easter. I ended up settling on chocolate and lamb, though not necessarily together – which might not be a bad idea, come to think of it. So I shared a chocolate recipe.

So you probably know where we will be going with this. Lambville.

Coming from completely non-religious parents, other than the Easter Bunny covertly surprising me with an Easter basket each year at my mom's house, Easter meant little else. I don't even recall a special meal. So after sifting through people's responses to my query about what Easter represented, culinarily, to them, I went about figuring out what it meant to me. And I decided to embark on the most traditional Easter supper I have ever had. First order on the agenda: order a giant leg of lamb.


I like lamb just fine, now, but as a child it unnerved me a little. I think it was just the gamey-ness of the meat. It wasn't on the dinner table too often at home, but I know Dad loved it. He always ordered it at the Greek restaurant in our neighborhood. He loved their Lamb Guvetsi.

As I mentioned, years ago, like 2005, I heard Nigella Lawson interviewed on NPR around this time of year. She was promoting her then new book, Feast, a cookbook devoted primarily to celebrations, holidays and entertaining. I vividly recall her discussing her favorite Easter meal, and the great detail with which she described a saffron roasted leg of lamb and some sticky, crispy garlic potatoes. Obviously it stuck with me if eight years later that was the first thing to pop into my head when I decided to make my first, big Easter dinner. So I started planning the menu, the flowers, the dining room look, and called some friends.

Easter dinner was so happening.

Two days before the event I put the lamb in its marinade and refrigerated it. The day before, while Fred went out to get all of our groceries, flowers and the like, I poked around on the computer to find out why lamb in the Spring, and why lamb on Easter. Why throughout the entire world the most popular Easter symbol is the lamb. I'm sure, as usual in this department, everyone else already knows this stuff, but I'm new here.

The roast lamb dinner that many eat on Easter Sunday goes back earlier than Easter to the first Passover of the Jewish people. The sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (a Seder) in hopes that the angel of God would pass over their homes and bring no harm. As Hebrews converted to Christianity, they naturally brought along their traditions with them. The Christians often refer to Jesus as The Lamb of God. Thus, the traditions merged.

In the 7th century the Benedictine monks wrote a prayer for the blessing of lambs.
A few hundred years later the pope adopted it and a whole roasted lamb became the feature of the Pope's Easter Dinner, and has been ever since.

I wasn't going to roast a whole lamb, of course. Just one of its legs.


Now this lamb recipe involved saffron, which I absolutely love. I know a lot of people do not, however. It seems to be one of those ingredients like cilantro: people either love it or hate it. And I understand. Also, like cilantro, it has an unmistakable, very distinct aroma and taste. The thin, delicate, muted red hair-like strands are fragrant, floral, earthy, and honey-like with a bit of bitterness. Saffron also happens to be the most expensive spice in the world. Use too much and that will be the only thing you take away from that dish. With saffron, the words 'a little goes a long way' have never been more accurate. A little dab will do ya.

It's no surprise that you will find a wealth of recipes with saffron and lamb together. Kind of like chocolate and peanut butter, they just make sense. They are also both prominent elements in a lot of Middle-Eastern cuisine. Actually, it's funny, lamb takes me back to eating Greek food with my dad, and I used Greek saffron with my Easter lamb.


Yesterday, on the event of my Easter dinner celebration, once the lamb went into the oven after two days of marinating, I went about the décor of the dining room. I hand-picked each and every piece of silverware, plate and glass, dug through the linens to find the right napkins – I went for the fancies – and began meticulously arranging the bundles of daffodils and hyancinths into little vintage creamers and jelly jars while listening to my go-to soothing sounds: Explosions in the Sky. All the while the house was filling up with the entrancing smell of lamb, lemon and garlic fusing together in the oven. I dare say it was beginning to smell like Easter. Or, at least, really, really good. The air smelled like family and friends and the promise of festivity and future fond memories.

Everything was coming together perfectly. The food was on schedule, the room looked great, I had the perfect wines; some lovely rosés from a tasting the day before, and just moments before the guests arrived, as I was lighting the candles, Fred and I got our Easter baskets in the mail! I guess the Easter Bunny is trying to help out the US Post Office in their time of need... Nevertheless, that took care of dessert; Cadbury Creme Eggs!

As we all sat down to the table, we raised our glasses of rosé and toasted to a happy Easter. And as I looked around the room, I took stock. The smiling faces of my friends, the table looked beauteous, the food was delicious, the wine went perfectly with the saffrony lamb, the flowers smelled wonderful, and best of all we were all so happy to be with each other. Good friends, together, on our Easter, eating, drinking, smiling, talking, sharing Easter memories and laughter.

SAFFRON ROAST LAMB WITH STICKY GARLIC POTATOES
(recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson's book, Feast)

Serves 6
1 leg of lamb (4.5 lbs)
1/3 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, bruised
6 scallions
2 bay leaves
juice of 1 lemon
small bunch mint, 1 1/2 oz including stalks, torn roughly makes 1 cup
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, steeped in 1 cup very hot water
1/3 cup rosé wine

 Put the lamb in a large freezer bag, pour over the olive oil and then throw in the garlic, trimmed scallions and bay leaves, squeeze in the lemon juice and throw in the squeezed-out lemon halves too, then add the torn-up bunch of mint. Seal the bag and marinate in the fridge overnight.
Bring the lamb to room temperature before you even think of putting it in the oven, and preheat that to 425 degrees F when you take the lamb out of the fridge.
Pour the entire contents of the freezer bag into a roasting pan and roast for about 20 minutes a pound, or until the lamb is cooked a perfect, à point pink; you will just have to pierce it with the knife to see. Just before the lamb is due to come out of the oven, put the saffron strands in a measuring cup and pour over the hot water so that it can get on with steeping.
Remove the lamb to a wooden carving board to rest. Pick out the lemon rinds, and then place the roasting pan on the stove over medium heat, and stir until it starts bubbling. Stir in the saffron in its water and add 1/3 cup rosé – tasting for seasoning as you go – as needed to let this bubble into a small amount of ungloopy gravy. 
Carve the lamb on to a large warmed plate and strain the saffrony juices, stirring in any liquid first from the carving board, over the pink meat.
Read the sticky garlic potato recipe now so that you can coordinate your movements. And, to go with, I'd want no more than a bowl of green peas, turned in some butter.

STICKY GARLIC POTATOES
Serves 6
1 1/2 lbs small fingerling potatoes
8 cloves garlic (more if you like)
1/2 cup olive or other vegetable oil 
Coarse salt & freshly cracked pepper to taste.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and add some salt, add the potatoes and cook for 30 minutes. Drain, and put back into the dry pan.


Peel the garlic cloves by squishing with the flat of a knife so that they bruise slightly and the skin slips off. Put them in the dry pan with the potatoes, and then bash potatoes and garlic  so they are cracked and split. You can do this ahead and leave them in the pan – though with the lid off, so that they don’t get watery – until you want to roast them.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and slip a roasting pan in to heat up at the same time. Once the oven’s hot, pour in the oil and let it, in turn, heat up for 10 minutes.
Carefully tip the potatoes and garlic into the hot oil and cook for 15 minutes. Turn the potatoes over and then give them another 15 minutes. 
Salt & pepper to taste.
Serve on a platter with the lamb.



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