When I was growing up in Catholic school, we were taught that Easter was the most important holiday of the year. Unfortunately, that never squared with how the occasion ranked around my family table. Even with a basket full of candy, the day lagged far behind those other more food-centric holidays.
Indeed, for many people, Christmas and especially Thanksgiving are the most anticipated culinary feasts. Even the Super Bowl spread seems to get more kitchen attention than the usual Easter centerpiece: a precooked, spiral-sliced ham that is heated and served with little fanfare. Food-wise, at my house at least, Easter was something of a yawn.
But it doesn't have to be that way, if you forgo the ham and go with a more interesting entree: lamb. It's a traditional choice for both Easter and Passover, thanks to the ancient custom of spring lamb, even if lamb has become less popular over time.
Not only are there local and grass-fed options, but rack of lamb, grilled to a rosy medium rare and served on its dramatic long rib bones, makes a splashy impression worthy of a special occasion. It's a meal people will look forward to. Leg of lamb, lamb chops, and lamb shoulder are also worthy of the Easter table.
"Lamb is really festive - definitely not something you would make on a weeknight," says Melissa Hamilton, cocreator of the Canal House cookbook series along with Christopher Hirsheimer. The culinary duo, based in Lambertville, N.J., worked together at national food magazines, including Saveur, and both have cooked in professional restaurant kitchens.
Their work at the Canal House, though, is based not on their media savvy or chef credentials but on their daily experience as home cooks feeding their families.
They're particularly fond of cooking lamb at home for an Easter dinner, even if it can be a bit intimidating to those less experienced in the kitchen. Their rack of lamb (recipe follows) is so delicious and approachable, it's well worth going a little beyond your normal cooking comfort zone. But their recipe for roast lamb is easy enough for even a beginning cook.
There are some valid if outdated reasons that home cooks shy away from lamb. "It's no longer true, but decades ago, most lamb was mutton - old lamb," Hirsheimer says. Mutton has a strong, gamy flavor that has little in common with that of today's young lamb. "It still tastes wild, but it's not gamy," says Hamilton.
The women possess formidable skill when it comes to cooking lamb. At the Canal House, Hamilton and Hirsheimer regularly roast legs, grill chops, and have even cooked the whole animal with a DIY rotisserie over a backyard fire. But for Easter, they like racks for their unusual mix of fun and elegance. "Rack of lamb makes an impressive presentation, but kids like to pick them up and eat them off the bone," Hirsheimer says.
There's another reason rack of lamb is a special-occasion-only kind of treat: the price tag. The Jamison Farm-raised lamb that Hamilton and Hirsheimer prefer costs $144 for two racks. That's roughly $48 a pound. It is an extraordinary product and the same lamb you might be served at a high-end restaurant.
Another good option includes lamb raised at High View Farm in North Hanover, N.J. Their meat is sold at Reading Terminal's Fair Food Farmstand and Harvest Local in Lansdowne. At about $28 per pound (depending on the vendor), it's less pricey than Jamison Farm, but a pair of these racks will still cost at least $60 - not cheap.
When dinner's ingredients are that expensive, nobody wants to mess it up. Hamilton and Hirsheimer recommend cutting the racks into smaller pieces to have better control over the internal temperature. Lamb is at its best when cooked to medium rare, and overcooking it can be a common mistake. A meat thermometer guards against overcooking - it's done when it reaches 125 degrees. Hamilton says you should disregard the usual advice about letting a cut of meat come to room temperature before cooking it when it comes to rack of lamb. "Keeping it cold until it goes on the grill helps it keep a nice pink center. You want that," she says.
Given the price of rack of lamb, you may want to use a less expensive but just as delicious cut for your Easter meal. A boneless leg of lamb (about 4 pounds) would work well with the harissa marinade, and you will get more servings. A leg of lamb can be roasted in a 350-degree oven until an instant-read thermometer registers 130 degrees for medium rare, about 90 minutes (see recipe).
With the majestic lamb at center stage, side dishes are best kept simple and seasonal. Carrots, new potatoes, spring onions, asparagus, and baby lettuces would all be worthy in supporting roles. Many of Easter's food traditions predate Christianity and were first inspired by the equinox and the rebirth of the coming growing season, so any food that reminds you of springtime is right for the holiday table.
Whether you celebrate Easter or not, a festive springtime Sunday supper with family and friends is reason enough to feast on lamb and salute the end of winter. There's no reason it can't be the best food holiday of the year.
Easter Rack of Lamb
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cloves garlic, minced
to a paste
2 tablespoons harissa
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 8-rib racks of lamb,
Salt and freshly ground
1 lemon, quartered
1. Mix together the garlic, harissa, olive oil, and lemon juice in a small bowl.
2. Cut each rack in half, into 4-rib pieces - this way the lamb will be easier to cook and everyone can have one or two crispy "end chops." Arrange the chops in a large pan and brush with some of the harissa sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for about an hour, or refrigerate for about 4 hours.
3. Prepare a medium-hot hardwood charcoal fire or heat a gas grill to medium. Grill the lamb over the hottest part of the grill, turning the pieces as a good brown crust develops. When the meat is browned all over, move it to a cooler spot on the grill to finish cooking, turning it occasionally, until the internal temperature reaches 125° for medium-rare. The grilling time will vary depending on your grill and the heat. Transfer the lamb from the grill to a cutting board, loosely cover the meat with foil, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes.
4. Cut the ribs into individual chops, pile them on a big platter, and serve with any extra harissa sauce. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with lemon wedges.
Per serving (based on 6): 430 calories, 32 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 32 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
New Potato and Spring Onion Salad
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds small new
32 1-inch round
½ cup plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 hardboiled eggs,
peeled and chopped
6 spring onions or
scallions, white parts
minced, green parts
Salt and freshly ground
1. In a large pot, place potatoes and cover by three inches with cold, salted water. Bring to a boil, and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 15 minutes. Drain, and return the potatoes to the hot pot for a minute to dry. Transfer to a cutting board and when just cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes into quarters.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing. In a large serving bowl, combine the yogurt, mayonnaise, garlic, mustard, and olive oil and whisk to blend well.
3. Add the potatoes, eggs, and spring onions to the dressing and toss well to coat evenly. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve warm.
Per serving: 234 calories, 8 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 112 milligrams cholesterol, 102 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
12 medium carrots,
3 tablespoons butter
Big pinch sugar
Fresh snipped chives (optional)
1. Put the carrots, butter, sugar, salt to taste, and ¾ cup water in a large skillet. Cover and boil over medium-high heat until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Uncover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, gently shaking the skillet over the heat until the carrots are glazed all over.
3. Garnish with chives if desired.
Per serving (based on 6): 152 calories, 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 9 gram sugar, 9 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 355 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Roast Leg of Lamb for Easter
Makes 8 servings
1 leg of lamb, 4-5
pounds, tail, pelvic,
and thigh bones
bone and heel left
attached, at room
Salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 anchovy filets
Large handful of fresh
2 cups black coffee
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken stock,
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Make a pile with the garlic, anchovies, parsley, and a pinch of salt and pepper on a cutting board and chop it together to make a fine paste. Using the tip of a paring knife, make several 1-inch-deep slits all over the meaty parts of the lamb. Push the paste into the slits with your finger. Some of the paste will smear on the surface of the lamb, but that's fine.
2. Put the lamb on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. Pour the coffee into the pan. Roast the lamb until it is nicely browned on the outside, rosy pink on the inside, and the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees for medium rare, about 11/2 hours. Add a splash of water to the pan as the lamb roasts if the pan juices begin to dry out. Transfer the lamb to a warm serving platter or cutting board, loosely tent it with foil, and let the roast rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
3. To make the pan gravy, put the roasting pan with the drippings on top of the stove and heat over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly to prevent it from getting lumpy, until the flavor is toasty rather than raw, 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk in the stock and cook, whisking constantly, until the gravy is smooth and thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Thin the gravy with a little more stock if it's too thick. Strain the gravy through a sieve into a gravy boat and serve with the carved roast.
Per serving: 473 calories, 70 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 19 grams fat, 219 milligrams cholesterol, 1,165 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Green Sauce With Mint and Parsley
Makes 1 cup or 6-8 servings
1 cup tightly packed fresh mint
1/4 cup tightly packed parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice,
plus more if desired
1 garlic clove
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1/4 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1. Put mint leaves and parsley in a blender or food processor. Add the lemon zest, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the garlic clove, and sugar and puree until smooth, about 2 minutes.
2. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in the olive oil. Season with a little salt and pepper and add more lemon juice, if you like.
Per serving (based on 8): 66 calories, trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.