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Succulent & Secular: Lamb for Easter or Passover

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Photographed by John Gruen; styled by Kari Chapin

Though I love the comfort foods of winter, spring is welcome in my kitchen, and not just because it means less cursing as I carry in boxes of groceries. If my first-favorite food holiday is Thanksgiving,  Easter and Passover are close runners-up (though I observe neither, I enjoy celebrating both). Planning for the holidays, I looked for a main dish that could work equally well for either feast. Instead of the traditional brisket for Passover or ham for Easter, I hit upon a simple lamb preparation that can adapt equally well for either celebration.

Jewish traditions differ about the consumption of lamb at the seder, and about accepted forms of preparation. Although roasting, which traditionally was interpreted to mean cooking over an open flame, is banned, in the Sephardic tradition, roast lamb is a common Passover meal. However, for Ashkenazi Jews, an acceptable alternative is braised lamb shoulder, and the recipe adapts well to this traditional Kosher cut. The texture of the final dish is quite different, but the flavor is equally good.

The inspiration for the recipe comes from a favorite cookbook, Amelia Saltsman’s The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook (Blenheim Press, 2007.) I like the book not only for the nostalgia it produces for my former west coast home, but also because the recipes encourage me to try new combinations of seasonally-simpatico produce. I had focused mostly on the book’s many wonderful salads, until I stumbled upon Saltsman’s leg of lamb recipe. I had never tried lamb with olives, and now I can’t imagine why I hadn’t: the combination of the oil-cured olives, along with generous amounts of garlic and rosemary, turns always-delicious roast lamb into a whole new experience. To make the preparation work for a braised lamb shoulder, I adapted a method outlined by the legendary New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant.

For Easter dinner, I’d serve the lamb with a simple gratin of potatoes, some asparagus, and a flavorful salad—arugula with citrus and Parmesan shavings would be delicious. For Passover, a menu that draws on the Sephardic culinary traditions would be a lovely complement to the Mediterranean spirit of the flavors. A traditional Sephardic mina de maza— layers of matzo and a cooked vegetable (often spinach, onion and potato) filling, bound with eggs—would be delicious. And for me, no seder is complete without my favorite, tzimmes (I like it best made with orange juice, to play a bit of sour against the sweet carrots and sweet potatoes.) However you serve this, enjoy the holidays, and especially, the arrival of spring.—Paige Orloff/The Sister Project

Lamb with Oil Cured Black Olives and Herbs

(adapted from Amelia Saltsman and Florence Fabricant)
Serves 6-8 (the shoulder) or 8-10 (the leg)

1 bone-in leg of lamb, 7 lbs or so. Have the butcher tie it for you. OR 1 boned shoulder of lamb, about 3-1/2 lbs.

6 large cloves of garlic, peeled
3/4 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted (available locally at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, already pitted for you)
1/2 cup fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley, plus 2 tablespoons finely minced, if making the shoulder
1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves, plus a few sprigs for the roasting pan, if making the leg
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine or stock (chicken is fine)

2 T. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped leeks
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine, kosher for Passover
Kitchen twine

The night before you plan to serve:

Combine the garlic, olives, herbs in the bowl of a food processor and process together for a few pulses until the herbs are finely chopped and everything is well mixed. Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a stream with the motor running, and process until just combined. The paste doesn’t have to be too fine.

FOR THE LEG: Make at least 12 cuts into the meat of the lamb, in an orderly pattern. They should be 1-2 inches long, and the same depth. Stuff the olive paste into the slashes in the lamb. Don’t worry about making it neat.
FOR THE SHOULDER: Spread the olilve paste evenly over the lamb shoulder, roll the meat into a neat cylinder and tie with 6 or 7 pieces of kitchen twine.

Wrap the lamb tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Remove the lamb from the refrigerator one hour before you plan to begin cooking it.

FOR THE LEG: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Place the rosemary sprigs in the bottom of a roasting pan just large enough to hold the lamb, and place the lamb atop them. Rub the lamb with the olive oil and grind black pepper over it on all sides. Roast, turning over once, for 12 minutes per pound for rare meat, or 15 minutes per pound for medium. (You will always have some variation in doneness, with the ends cooked more than than the middle, since they tend to be a bit thinner.) Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature: it should read 120 for rare or 140 for medium when inserted into the thickest part of the leg, away from the bone. Remove the meat to a warm platter and tent with foil—let rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving, while you make the sauce.

Remove the rosemary from the pan, place the pan over medium-low heat, and pour in the stock or wine to deglaze the pan (scrape up all the browned bits and incorporate into the sauce. ) Allow the liquid to reduce slightly, then remove the sauce from the heat. Pour into a glass measuring cup and skim off the fat that rises to the top. Stir in any juices from the resting lamb that have accumulated in the platter, and taste for salt and pepper. Pour through a strainer into a warm serving bowl or pitcher.

Carve the lamb into slices (I like them about 1/4 inch thick, though some prefer them thinner), and serve immediately with the sauce on the side.

FOR THE SHOULDER: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Season the lamb with freshly ground pepper.
Heat the oil in a casserole large enough to hold the lamb. Brown the lamb on all sides over medium heat; it should take at least 15 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pan and set aside.
Add the onions and leeks to the casserole and sauté over medium-low heat until tender and just turning golden.
Return the lamb to the casserole and add the stock and wine. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in the oven.
Bake for five hours; or until extremely tender. Remove the lamb from the casserole.
Strain the sauce into a heavy saucepan. Skim off as much fat as possible. Place the solids in a blender or food processor along with 1 tablespoon of the minced parsley. Puree, adding a little of the sauce if necessary. Add this puree to the sauce. Reheat and check seasonings.
Remove the strings from the lamb. Slice the meat gently (it will tend to fall apart.) Layer the slices on a warm serving platter. Sprinkle the remaining minced parsley over the top, and serve, with the sauce on the side.
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Posted by Dan Shaw on 04/02/09 at 10:07 AM • Permalink