Rites of spring

Lamb is a traditional - and flavorful - part of Passover and Easter meals

(Food styling/Ariadne Clifton; Photo by Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Ariadne Clifton
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009

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Lamb has long been the centerpiece on spring holiday menus in Greece, Italy, and France, where sheep are raised, sometimes England, and much of the Fertile Crescent, where the meat is eaten year round.

On the Passover and Easter tables, lamb is an ancient tradition. The meat is closely associated with Passover; later Christians made the Passover lamb a symbol of Jesus.

Lamb is available year round - from New Zealand or this country (see related story). This time of year, young lambs, born last winter, are available. Farmers try to get their ewes bred in the fall so there is lamb ready now for the holiday table. The French consider lamb that is a bit older and has had time to feed on summer grasses more flavorful. After 12 months, lamb becomes mutton, which we rarely find in our markets. The well-known British chef Jamie Oliver has been quoted as saying, "It's a pity that we cook so little mutton, as the flavor is amazing." What Oliver sees as amazing, however, others find too strong. In any case, mutton needs maturing and takes up refrigeration space.

One of the most popular cuts is the leg of lamb, which suits home cooks but is rarely offered in restaurants. Professional kitchens like the expensive rack of lamb, with the bones "frenched" so they're bare, and the rack sliced neatly into pink chops. Another restaurant cut is the tender lamb loin or saddle. Legs and shoulders are typically home cuts, the shoulder being something more likely to show up in a stew. The leg is a centerpiece for a celebration.

Lamb came to the Americas with the first Spanish explorers. By the 1800s, sheep farmers in this country were going head to head with cattle ranchers. It took some time for the general public to get used to the taste of lamb (too gamey for some, too foreign for others). Now some cooks look for free-range New England lamb, not widely available, be cause the flavor of the meat benefits from animals allowed to roam pastures and eat fragrant grasses.

An American leg of lamb on the bone weighs 7 to 9 pounds. New Zealand or Australian lamb is smaller. A leg has so much natural flavor that it needs little doctoring. What's most important is not to overcook it, although this can be controversial: The English often like it fully cooked (some would say dried out) while others, following the French, prefer it pink to rare (some would say bloody). The protocol nowadays is to cook it to medium or pink, which will always leave some pieces at the edges of the leg well done for those who prefer it.

Begin with a boneless leg that weighs about 5 pounds. Trim the fat and open the meat flat. Stud the meat all over with garlic, season it with salt, pepper, add a drizzle of olive oil, and roll it tightly. Then tie it with kitchen twine. On a baking sheet, scatter carrots, leeks, onions, and sweet potatoes. While the lamb roasts, cook the vegetables separately. Slow roasting is the recommended technique for lamb, especially by the late author James Beard. Roast the meat in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes (this sears the meat to keep in the juices) then lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees to finish roasting.

The results, slices of tender meat surrounded by a bouquet of vegetables, is traditional and festive, and honors an ancient tradition.