Real Entertaining: Get to Know Your Way Around Lamb
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
To all cooks, at least meat-eating ones, who wonder every year why Easter dinner has to feature lamb or ham, I say don't fight it. Pick one and work with it. People want traditional foods at holiday meals; if they didn't, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes with marshmallows would have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
For me, the choice between lamb and ham is easy. Ham belongs on a New Year's Day buffet. Easter means lamb and the promise of spring in the way that Thanksgiving means turkey and the onset of winter; those are constants.
An Easter table is joyous. The winter doldrums are gone, the daffodils have come up and the pastel M&Ms have shown up on the coffee table.
People are spending time outdoors; windows are open. Guests bring tulips for your table and smile as they cross the threshold, because the air is redolent of herbs, garlic and lamb.
Leg of lamb, to be precise, which I propose as the centerpiece for this year's Easter dinner for eight and, if it is not already, as a mainstay in your entertaining repertoire. It makes a spectacular presentation, requires no elaborate preparation or esoteric ingredients and costs far less than half of what rack of lamb would.
A five-pound leg purchased from a butcher shop costs about $6.99 a pound, which might be a bit more than what you'll find in a grocery store's meat case. But it is well worth the difference in price; there will be less waste to trim, and you're more likely to find meat that is hormone-free.
Once you have settled on the showstopper, fill in the blanks. Devising a menu is like working out a mathematical equation; you start with constants, factor in variables and arrive at a solution.
Don't worry; there's no quiz later. I just mean to say that there should be a thought process behind every choice; that's what makes the difference between entertaining and just feeding people. There should be a unifying theme that links a meal's courses, an adherence to seasonality and an ample variety of options for vegetarians.
And, for everybody's sake, most everything should be do-ahead.
My Easter menu meets those prerequisites: carrot soup with green puree and creme fraiche, roast leg of lamb with herb jus, vegetable-packed eggplant pie and honey lavender cheesecake. Orange, green, lavender, honey, eggplant, roast lamb: These things evoke the Mediterranean and spring.
Considering the historical significance of the paschal lamb in Christianity and Judaism, it makes sense to flavor the meat in a Mediterranean style. I make a paste from parsley, rosemary, mint, thyme, garlic, sweet vermouth and bacon. I smear it on the inside of the leg, tie the leg into a neat bundle and roast it, along with aromatic vegetables. The bone that was removed goes into the pan, too; it will be used to make a simple jus using store-bought beef broth and fresh herbs.
It pays to know your way around a leg of lamb, which comes only from the hind of the animal. The part below the knee is the shank end; the part above is the sirloin end. A whole leg might also include the aitch, or hip, bone. If it does, have the butcher remove it. A leg can be totally deboned and opened up so that it lies flat (butterflied), which makes it suitable for easy, quick grilling. Or it can be rolled and tied into a uniformly thick roast that is a breeze to slice.