Look to the Mediterranean for imaginative recipes, especially Greece, where the succulent meat is a highlight of the holiday

When It Comes to Easter Lamb, It's Greek to Us

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHENEVER I serve a leg of lamb, I'm reminded of my favorite episode from the old TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents":

It seems this lovely elderly lady performed a coup de grace on her unfaithful husband, bludgeoning him with a frozen leg of lamb. When a team of detectives came to her home looking for the weapon, the little lady insisted they have dinner before they started their search. She, of course, served them the roasted lamb with a demure smile and a bit of mint jelly.

Lamb is so versatile.

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But, even so, it has never achieved the same popularity in the Americas as in much of the world. In northern Africa, the Mediterranean, southern and northern Europe, (for some reason its popularity escaped Germany), the Middle East, and Australia, it is a staple.

Part of the problem in the States, I suspect, is that it's been treated better in the barnyard than in the kitchen. Overcooking it to the color of a battleship, and serving it with that ubiquitous glop of neon-green mint jelly, didn't do much to enhance its reputation.

Today lamb is cooked more imaginatively. Some shade of pink is the preferred color of doneness these days, although you may have a hard time convincing your grandmother of this.

Technically lamb is the young of sheep, not more than a year of age. The favored being the milk, or hothouse lamb, only about six to 10 weeks of age. These are not only hard to come by but very expensive.

As spring is the season sheep drop their young, lamb has become a favored meat at Easter time. Fortunately, it's also when supermarkets lure you to their stores with sales on this most succulent of meats.

Lamb meat (especially visible in larger cuts like legs) is covered by a silvery, papery membrane called the fell. I was taught that all visible fat, along with this membrane, should be carefully removed, especially when the meat is to be marinated. Others disagree, stating that the fell helps the meat retain its shape and juiciness as it cooks.

To marinate lamb, seal it tightly, squeezing out excess air, in a plastic bag with marinade. Then refrigerate.

Something else I learned is to purchase a fresh leg of lamb about five days before you plan to cook it. The plastic wrap is then removed and the lamb is placed on a plate in the refrigerator covered loosely with a tent of aluminum foil.

This allows time for the collagen to break down, and the lamb's tenderness and flavor to develop. Again, others disagree, believing lamb should be cooked the day it is purchased. The choice is yours. In any case, remember that lamb always makes a better meal than a weapon (Alfred Hitchcock excepted).

Many years ago, I was served the following elegant lamb dish at the grand Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. It is said to have been a favorite meal of Winston Churchill, who was a frequent guest there. It is flavored with chermoula, the classic, boldly flavored Moroccan seasoning used on everything from fish to camel. Its spicy sweetness works especially well on lamb.

MOROCCAN GRILLED LAMB WITH CHERMOULA MARINADE

One boned leg of lamb, 4 to 5 pounds (Have your butcher bone the lamb if you're uncomfortable doing it. But save the bone for soup. See recipe below.)

CHERMOULA:

2 large onions, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 1/2 teaspoons powdered cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron (optional)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

2/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup honey

Juice of one lemon

1 cup raisins, chopped

Cut open lamb so it lays flat. Spread lamb on cutting board and pound with a rolling pin to an even thickness, about 1-1/2 inches or so. This will help lamb cook to same degree of doneness.

Thoroughly combine all chermoula ingredients in a bowl and rub mixture into lamb. Marinate lamb 4 hours at room temperature, or overnight in refrigerator.

Grill lamb about 5 inches from heat source 15 to 20 minutes, (preferably on an outdoor grill) turn lamb, cook another 15 minutes or until done to your liking.

Serve with couscous, sauteed zucchini, and fresh salad with tomatoes.

Serves 6 to 8.

LAMB BURGERS

After trying lamb burgers, you may never go back to beef. Be careful not to overcook.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

2 pounds ground, lean lamb

1/4 cup fresh white-bread crumbs

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 hamburger rolls

Goat, Roquefort, or feta cheese, onion slices, lettuce, Dijon mustard, ketchup for topping

Heat olive oil in small frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and saute until soft (about 2 minutes). Set aside.

Place ground lamb in large bowl. Add bread crumbs, herbs, salt, pepper, and garlic-onion mixture. Mix thoroughly, and form into 4 burgers.

Grill, broil, or fry to desired doneness. Serve on rolls topped with cheese and garnishes. Serves 4.

EASTER LAMB SOUP (MAGIRITSA)

Greeks do lamb almost as well as they do Easter celebrations. This soup is the perfect way of disposing of lamb bones. Its lemony-dill flavor may not appeal to all tastes, but then again, you may find it a holiday classic as the Greeks do.

3 to 4 pounds lamb bones or 1 pound lamb stew meat with bone left in

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon, salt

1/2 cup olive oil

2 cups chopped scallions

1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

1-1/2 cups chopped fresh dill

2 eggs

2 bay leaves

Juice of 1-1/2 lemons

Place bones, onions, and salt in medium-sized pot, cover with 6 cups cold water, bring to boil, reduce heat, add bay leaves, and simmer 1 hour.

Strain stock, discard onion and bay leaves, pick bones of any meat, and set aside. Chill stock in refrigerator. When cool, skim off any visible fat.

Heat olive oil in a skillet, saute scallions and jalapeno pepper over low to medium heat until soft. (About 3 minutes.) Remove from heat and add 1 cup of fresh dill and any meat from bones.

Add scallion mixture to stock, bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 to 12 minutes.

Beat eggs in a large bowl with 2 teaspoons of cold water and juice of 1 lemon. Slowly add 3 cupfuls of hot stock to the eggs while beating continuously with a whisk. When egg mixture is hot, pour slowly back into soup pot while whisking. (This method is to prevent eggs from curdling.) Heat soup again if necessary, at low temperature. Add more lemon, dill, salt and pepper to taste. Pour into bowls, sprinkle with reserved dill and serve immediately. Serves about 6.

- Adapted from 'The Foods of Greece' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

CLASSIC EASTER SOUP: In Greece, 'Magiritsa' is made with the parts of the lamb not cooked on the spit. Each family has its own distinctive recipe.

FROM 'THE FOODS OF GREECE'/MARTIN BRIGDALE

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