Mary Had a Little Lamb . . . A Rite of Spring!

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To roast lamb is one indication of the end of winter. A homage to spring’s celebration of renewal, in the spirit of the Easter and Passover holidays around the globe. Christians, Jews, and Muslims for generations had in some way made a meal with spring lamb to commune with the spirit of the new season.

April, May, and June are generally considered the months of spring. Lambs born in February are readied for market by the end of March through late April, making them a perfect spring fare and the mainstay of many an Easter meal. From Naples to Athens, from Nazareth to Tel Aviv, from Providence to San Francisco, and from Jakarta to Cairo, spring lamb can be found in home-cooked meals and on restaurant tables alike.

Three to six months is the ideal age for spring lamb, much older than that and one might consider the lamb to now be a sheep. For example, a spring lamb’s leg should weigh between five to seven pounds, any more than that and the leg came from an older animal.

Lamb has a distinct, pronounced flavor, different from other meats such as veal, pork, or venison. Part of the reason can be attributed to where the lambs graze. For example, if the flock was raised in the western US states there might be a faint essence of clover, while if raised in Provence, France the flavor might take on a hint of herbs such as thyme and rosemary—you get the idea, a natural seasoning of sorts.

How best to cook a leg—bone-in or boned; butterflied left flat, or rolled and tied; fired on the grill, or slow roasted in the oven—there are many approaches.

Spring lamb requires gentler cooking techniques and less cooking time than older cuts. A butterflied leg of lamb cooks more quickly and is easier to carve than a whole, bone-in leg. However, the cut can have uneven thicknesses, so it is necessary to be attentive while cooking so that the thickest parts remain a light pink while the thinner parts don’t over cook.

One of the best ways to cook a butterflied leg of lamb is on the grill over a wood fire. With the leg boned, butterflied, and flattened out it is easy to observe how the meat is cooking. Initially seared on a hot grill for five minutes on each side, then over a slow fire for again five minutes on each side, and finally for thirty to forty-five minutes off to one side to finish cooking from the radiant heat of the coals. The flavor can’t be beat!

Since my grill wasn’t quite ready yet, I chose to gently roast a boned, rolled, and tied leg, on a bed of herbs, basting with red wine which became a flavorful pan gravy once the roasting was completed. The leg was prepared a day ahead of cooking so that the fresh herb and garlic rub along with the dry seasonings were allowed to mingle with the meat. To replicate the grill, I seared all sides of the rolled leg in the hot roasting pan to get a nice char, before placing it in the oven. The rolling and tying of the leg provides something for everyone and visually looks great once sliced, exposing the thin vein of the finely minced herbs.

The rolling compensates for the unevenness of the overall flattened boned piece, yielding less rare end sections while keeping the thicker center section light pink. The marbled, finely grained meat tightly rolled, remains moist throughout the roasting, aided by the periodic wine basting. In the end a succulent, herb and wine roasted leg of lamb is the prize to kick off your welcoming of spring. The following recipe is how I prepared my spring leg of lamb that we enjoyed on Easter Sunday.

 

Herb and Wine Roasted Leg of Spring Lamb

Ingredients (serves 4 to 6)
1 6-pound leg of spring lamb, once boned and butterflied yields approximately a 5- pound leg
3 large cloves garlic
1 bunch each fresh thyme, rosemary, and oregano
Olive oil
Salt, pepper, and a rub of bay-fennel seed-rosemary powder that was part of my dry seasoning, but is optional
Dry red wine (many options)
Dijon mustard
Dark molasses

Method
Purchase an already boned leg of spring lamb and either butterfly it yourself or have your butcher do that for you.

One day ahead of roasting, prepare the meat for seasoning, rolling, and tying.

Strip several springs of rosemary and thyme of their leaves and extra finely mince with the garlic, setting aside to be used as the fresh part of the rub.

If using the dry herbs as part of the rub, place equal amounts of dried bay leaves, fennel seeds, and rosemary leaves in a spice grinder and process into a fine powder, then set aside.

Take the remaining rosemary, thyme, and the oregano sprigs, and tie them together into two bundles that will be used under the lamb while roasting.

Spring lamb legs are generally butchered, leaving a generous fat cap that provides for natural basting during cooking. Since I was not going to grill the lamb I felt the extra layer of fat was not completely necessary. Before I seasoned and rolled the leg I trimmed off some of that additional fat layer; however, fat also adds flavor so I’ll leave that decision to you as either way would be fine.

Place the butterflied piece of meat on a flat counter surface or cutting board, cover with a piece of clear wrap, and gently pound out, if necessary, some of the thicker sections to even out the piece as much as possible.

Butterflied

Generously season with salt and pepper, and lightly dust with the dry herb powder if using. Next, evenly distribute half of the fresh herb and garlic mince over the dry seasoned side pressing down with your hands to adhere it to that surface.

Starting at one short end, tightly roll the butterflied leg until it resembles a large jellyroll. Using butcher twine, tightly tie the roll along its length until it stays together. Any seasoning that falls out while rolling can either be pushed back into the rolled layers or used on the outside.

Lightly rub a tablespoon or two of olive oil over the tied roll which will allow the seasoning to adhere. Generously season the outside of the rolled lamb with the dry and the fresh seasonings same as done on the inside. Place the seasoned roast on a plate, cover tightly with clear wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Rolled and tied

On the following day, before beginning the roasting, allow the lamb to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven or large roasting pan over a high temperature until it just begins to smoke. Working quickly, sear the rolled lamb all around, five minutes on top and another five minutes on the bottom, forming a nice char on the surface. Remove the rolled lamb to a platter and take the roasting pan off the heat. Check for and remove any burnt pieces of garlic or herbs that might have fallen off during the searing because they will make the basting liquid bitter once the roasting is complete. Deglaze the bottom of the roasting pan with ½ cup of the red wine.

Seared and charred

Place the tied fresh herb bundles on the bottom of the pan and place the lamb on top of them. Pour 1 cup of wine over the lamb and place, uncovered, in the preheated oven to slowly roast for 1½ hours. Baste periodically, by pouring another half cup of wine over and around the lamb.

At the end of the initial 1½ hours roasting time, raise the oven heat to 425 degrees, add another half cup of red wine along with a half cup of water, and finish roasting the lamb for 15 to 20 minutes more.

Remove the roasting pan to the stovetop and place the roasted leg on a cutting board, tented with foil, to rest for 15 to 20 minutes so the meat relaxes and gives up some of its jus, which will be added to the pan gravy.

While the meat is resting, place the roasting pan over low heat, and discard the herb bundles. Add another half cup of wine and raise the heat just to a gentle boil. Using a wooden spoon or whisk, work the bottom and sides of the roasting pan to loosen and collect any browned pieces or coating that may have formed during the roasting which will add to the depth of flavor of the pan gravy. If you did not remove some of the fat cap from the leg before roasting, then the extra rendered fat that has collected in the pan may have to be removed before finishing the gravy, otherwise simply skip this step.

To finish the gravy add a generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard along with a generous teaspoon of dark molasses, stirring to dissolve and completely incorporate. Finally, pour any of the jus that has collected on the cutting board while the roast was resting, and mix that into the gravy. Check and correct the seasoning and keep the pan gravy warm for serving.

Carve the roast into thick slices and serve with the pan gravy ladled over. We enjoyed our lamb for Easter Sunday dinner accompanied by a roasted potato tart and a sauté of curly purple kale. Oh, and of course a lovely bottle of Pinot Noir!

Sliced

One final thought, there is always left-over lamb from a dish like this, and so in the spirit of waste not—repurpose, I coarsely ground the remaining meat to be made into lamb burgers once I get around to firing up my grill.

Don’t let the months of the spring season go by without at least trying a lamb dish just once. Let me know what you come up with.

Enjoy.

Be well. Eat well.

DM

Eating well feeds the soul…..It is the perfect time to be someone who loves to cook!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pasta of the Day . . . Bacon & Eggs!

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In searching for some new inspiration for what to cook next as we begin a new season, I considered cucina provera, “cooking of the poor.” The point was to prepare a simpler, more inexpensive meal that recalled leaner times, where, for example, eggs were more available and an affordable source of protein rather than meat.

A dish that might include eggs—a frittata, for example, or better yet, a pasta dish. Both of those approaches certainly met my criteria but I was looking to prepare something just a little different.

As a starting point I thought it might be interesting to include a pesto, but I often prepare pesto-type sauces, so I was still looking for something more. It’s not summer yet, so the classic Genovese basil and pine nut pesto variation just didn’t appeal to me at this time. Having written about pesto in a December 2014 post, Pesto—A Perspective, An Approach, I knew there was a wide range of ingredients and approaches to take in getting to an interesting pesto variation. But which ones?

Often, I have made a rustic pesto using the thicker stems from a bunch of broccoli rabe, so this time why not use the long thick stalks from the beautiful head of bright green organic broccoli, the more common brassica, I just purchased?

OK, pesto, check! But pasta simply sauced with a pesto was not yet different enough, I needed something more.

My inspiration finally came from Dr. Seuss by way of his book Green Eggs and Ham, a copy of which I gave to my wife Margaret for her birthday back in 1981 in an effort to win her hand and also to encourage her to try eggs cooked with soft yolks. I was only successful with one of those two challenges . . . but I digress!

Why not eggs? I have often read recipes where eggs are included in the finishing of a dish, such as the well know pasta alla carbonara. Often times the eggs are either gently cracked open and placed atop the main ingredient to cook in the heat of the dish just before serving, or alternately poached first and then added to finish the dish. The eggs and ham idea was appealing to me, although the ham part, from my perspective, needed to be more like pancetta or guanciale. The eggs, well, in order for my wife to even consider them, the yolks could not be soft, so I opted to hard cook them and use them as part of the final garnish.

Now I was closing in on what was shaping up to be a pasta dish that was different, quick and easy to prepare, made good use of repurposed and mostly pantry ingredients, and was economical.

The rendered pancetta oil, the pesto, and a little pasta water would provide the sauce to coat the pasta; the chopped pancetta, toasted bread crumbs, and chopped hard cooked egg, along with some red chili flakes would decorate the finished dish, and to add a little more color and texture, fresh micro pea tendrils, a spring ingredient, were woven into the pasta before plating, making the final dish just a little more interesting.

 

Bacon & Egg Pasta

Ingredients (serves 2 to 4)
¼ pound dried pasta per person (in this dish I used fresh cavatelli)

Cavatelli fresca

Pesto
3 to 4 broccoli stalks, trimmed, sliced, poached until very tender
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1/3 cup shelled pistachio nuts, lightly toasted
½ cup parsley leaves, loosely packed
½ cup arugula leaves, loosely packed (optional)
Olive oil
Salt, pepper, chili flakes

Topping/Garnish
Several slices of pancetta (guanciale, or bacon), rendered and crisped
2 hard-cooked eggs (1 per person)
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
1 2-oz package micro pea tendrils

Method
Place a large stockpot of salted water over high heat to boil. Poach the broccoli stems until very tender, remove to a colander to cool. Reserve the water for cooking the pasta and adding to the sauce.

Rough chop the pancetta and render in 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan over moderate heat until crisp. Remove the rendered pancetta with a slotted spoon to drain on a paper towel and set the sauté pan aside.

Lightly toast the pistachio nuts, cool, and rough chop. Set aside.

Hard cook the eggs. My no-fail method is this: Place the eggs in a single layer in a saucepan, fill with cool water and cover. Place the pan over high heat to boil. Once at a full boil, remove the pan from the heat and allow to rest covered for 16 minutes. After steeping, flush the eggs with cold water until cool enough to handle. Gently crack the shells all around and peel. Perfect hard-cooked eggs! Set aside to finish the dish.

Lightly toast and crisp the bread crumbs and set aside to finish the dish.

If you consider yourself a purist you might prepare the pesto in the traditional manner using a mortar and pestle. However, for many of you, if time and labor in the kitchen is a consideration, opt for the food processor, which is what I used in this recipe.

Place the poached softened broccoli stems, garlic, toasted pistachio nuts, parsley, and arugula (if using), in the work bowl of the processor. Pulse several times to begin to mash and blend the ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Turn on the processor while drizzling olive oil into the feed tube until an emulsion is formed.

Scrape down the sides again, taste and correct the seasoning as needed, and pulse a few more times for the final pesto mix. Set aside.

Reheat the large pot of water to cook the pasta. Return the large sauté pan to the stove over low heat to warm the rendered pancetta oil.

Finely dice the drained pancetta and mix together with the toasted breadcrumbs. Finely chop the hard-cooked eggs.

Cook the pasta to the package instructions, or to your taste. Once done, transfer to the large sauté pan and raise the heat. As the pasta begins to slowly sizzle, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the pesto and a ladleful of the pasta water, then toss the pasta to evenly coat with the sauce. Adjust the pesto and pasta water emulsion to your liking and distribute a tangle of the pea tendrils around the pan over the pasta. Toss again to incorporate the tendrils as they will wilt and cook from the heat of the pasta.

Sauté

Plate the finished pasta and sprinkle the breadcrumb pancetta mix along with the chopped egg and chili flakes on top. Ready to serve and enjoy!

Ready to serve

Keep in mind this recipe features just one variation of a pesto, as there are many. Also, the pancetta could have just as easily been hot Italian sausage, or flavorful Merguez sausage, or left out altogether for those who prefer meatless dishes. The eggs could have been either poached or fried, whatever your preference as there are no hard and strict rules here.

Any extra pesto freezes well in small jars topped with a drizzle of olive oil.

Quick, easy, and economical, paired with your favorite bottle of wine and a side salad, you can’t go wrong. What are you waiting for?

Eat well. Be well.

DM

So pour yourself a glass of wine, select some music to accompany, relax, cook, and enjoy … Peace!

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