For Easter lamb, it's game over

EasterLifestyle and LeisureCooking

Sandra Lawler was all grown up and had left her Boston home before she realized that not everybody serves lamb on Easter.

"I moved to Chicago, and they were serving ham, and I said, 'What is this? Who eats ham for Easter?'"

The chef at Baltimore's Feast @ 4 East on Madison Street is expecting 50 family and friends for Easter dinner this Sunday, and she will be serving lamb, of course. But it is on the menu at her restaurant almost every night, too.

Braised lamb shanks. Stuffed boneless lamb roast. Lamb chops. Even lamb salad.

"And if friends come to dinner and they want to know what we are having, it will probably be lamb."

Lamb doesn't scare Lawler the way it does some cooks, who might be intimidated by the size of a leg of lamb or its price tag. Earthquake and severe weather issues in New Zealand and Australia have driven prices even higher recently.

"And I think cooks can be afraid that it will have a gamy taste. But this isn't the mutton your grandmother used to make," she said.

In Lawler's kitchen, cooking lamb is as easy as cooking any other meat. "Slather it, roll it and put it in the oven," she said. "It's a roast, for heaven's sake."

For Lawler, the "slather" is usually a good Dijon mustard. And she most often "rolls" the meat in fresh chopped rosemary. But she might also use crushed pistachios or a sumac rub. Or she might marinate chops in an herbed lemon and olive oil mixture.

Lamb can indeed be fatty, and it takes trimming — especially a leg of lamb. But the upside is that there will be plenty of pan juices for sauce or gravy.

She purchases only New Zealand lamb because it is free range and no antibiotics are used on the animals. And every time she finds it on sale, she buys it and tosses it in the freezer.

"You are going to pay $6 or $8 a pound for a roast or chops, but for a while there, it was up to $21 a pound for a rack of lamb," she said.

She does, however, purchase locally produced ground lamb from a purveyor she trusts not to use fillers.

Lamb, she says, can make the recipe jump from France and Italy to the Middle East without missing a beat.

She serves it with mint sauce or chutney, which is traditional. And she braises lamb shanks with root vegetables, onion, garlic, tomatoes, red wine and herbs, serving the rich and meaty ragout over mashed parsnips or couscous.

But she also likes the way lamb mixes with cinnamon, or with apricots, figs and honey. And she has also baked lamb chops in grape leaves. She saves the stalks from rosemary to use as a bed for smoking lamb on the grill or for skewering kebobs.

Repeating the cooking axiom that you can't undo brown meat, Lawler likes her lamb rare, so she is likely to roast it until the internal temperature is only about 130 degrees, assuming that it will continue to climb while the meat rests.

"When you slice it, there will be well done pieces at each end with pinker slices closer to the middle, something to please everyone," she said.

"You never had to worry about lamb leftovers in our house," Lawler remembers. Good bread and some mayonnaise with a slice of warmed lamb is among her favorite childhood memories: "I can't think of anything better."

But for more sophisticated tastes, there is leftover lamb salad: Greens tossed with a lemon vinaigrette and topped with warm or cold slices of lamb, a good feta and perhaps some kalamata olives.

This Easter, Lawler will also be serving her crowd asparagus, baby carrots and roasted new red potatoes — just as her mother did. Or perhaps fresh green beans with shitake mushrooms and garlic. Something else which, like lamb, evokes springtime.

There just won't be any ham.

Rolled boneless leg of lamb

Makes: 8 servings

1 boneless rolled leg of lamb, 6 pounds

2 cups rice

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 cups golden raisins

3 cups mushrooms (white, cremini), brushed clean and sliced

1 bunch scallions, finely sliced, separate white and green parts

1-2 tablespoons minced garlic

2-3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herb: sage, rosemary or thyme.

1 cup chopped parsley, flat leaf is best

zest of 2 lemons

red table wine (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Cook the rice in 21/2 cups chicken broth for 10 minutes. Add the raisins and let sit for 5 more minutes until the rice has absorbed the broth. It should be just "al dente." If the rice is too al dente, add a little more hot broth, cover, and let sit a few more minutes.

Sauté the mushrooms in a small amount of canola oil for a few minutes until they start to soften. Add white parts of scallions and cook until translucent (1 to 2 minutes). Toss in the garlic and immediately add the remaining broth.

Unroll the lamb, keeping the netting. If there are any large chunks of fat, you can remove them.

Mix the rice, mushrooms, fresh herbs, lemon zest, scallion greens. Salt and pepper to taste.

Spread mixture inside lamb and roll it back up, squeezing it back in the netting or using kitchen twine to secure. Salt and pepper the outside. Place in a shallow baking dish. Pour the wine over the roast at this point.

Place the roast in the oven for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Cook for about 11/2 hours or 15 minutes per pound. It should register internally about 135 degrees for a medium-rare roast.

Cook any extra stuffing covered in the oven, with a little more broth.

Let rest 10 to 20 minutes before slicing. De-grease the pan drippings and serve alongside.

Serve with mint sauce or mango chutney.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Lawler

Simple classic leg of lamb

Makes: 8 servings

1 boneless rolled leg of lamb, 6 pounds

2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Remove leaves from rosemary branches and chop. Leaving lamb in the netting, smear it all over with the Dijon mustard. Sprinkle it with the chopped rosemary. Pat the rosemary into the mustard.

Place in a baking pan fat-side up. (Can be done a day ahead at this point and stored in the fridge.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Put roast in oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook for 15 to 20 minutes per pound (base on room temp or cold meat), until the internal temp is 135 degrees for a pink roast, about 11/2 hours.

Remove roast to serving platter and let rest for 10 to 20 minutes in a warm spot before slicing.

De-grease the pan, deglaze with water or wine, salt and pepper to taste and serve the drippings alongside.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Lawler

Braised lamb shanks

Makes: 6 servings

6 large lamb shanks (or 12 small ones)

canola oil

1 pound sliced carrots

1 pound sliced parsnips

1 pound sliced white or yellow onion

2-3 bay leaves

4 sprigs of thyme

1 tablespoon oregano

2 cup chopped tomato (canned is fine)

1-2 smashed garlic cloves

1/2 bottle of red table wine

salt and pepper

Heat an oven-proof pan with high sides on a burner over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the shanks. Pour in oil to cover the bottom of the pan and sear the shanks on all sides.

Reduce heat to low and cover shanks with one-quarter of the carrots and parsnips and all the remaining ingredients. Cover and cook in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour. (Can be cooked stovetop but needs to be watched and the shanks moved.)

Carefully remove cover (should be very steamy) and add remaining vegetables. Give the pan a shake to nestle the fresh vegetables. If the pan is getting dry, add more wine or water. Recover and place back in the oven for two hours or until the shanks and vegetables are tender.

Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Serve with mashed potatoes.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Lawler

Pistachio crusted lamb rack

Makes: 8 servings

4 lamb racks, cut in half

1/2 cups pistachio meats, crushed fine

Dijon mustard

Canola oil

Cut lamb racks in half. Smear racks with Dijon mustard; roll in pistachio crumbs (can prepare ahead to this point). Heat oven to 425 degrees. Heat skillet. When hot, add a little oil and sear the fat/top side of each rack for about 2 minutes. Using a spatula, place racks fat-side up in a cookie sheet with sides. If crust comes off, just pat it back on.

Bake for 15-20 minutes to desired doneness.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Lawler

Tips for cooking lamb

•The best way to cook rack of lamb ribs, Lawler says, is fat side down in a very hot cast iron skillet using a small amount of olive oil. After about 3 minutes, turn the rack over and put the pan in the oven for 20 minutes.

•When cooking loin chops, Lawler likes to sear the fatty end of the chop first to keep it from appearing an unappetizing grey. Do the same with the bone end of a lamb shank.

•Lawler likes to start her roasts and legs of lamb in a hot oven — 425 degrees — before turning the heat down to about 350 degrees.

•Always rest lamb for 15 to 20 minutes before serving, she says.

•She suggests serving lamb with a Rhone Valley red wine.

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