On Easter, chances are good that lamb is what’s being cooked for your big family dinner. It’s a tradition that goes back to ancient times. For our family, Easter without lamb would be practically sacrilegious.
Because sheep adapt so well to a variety of climates and are raised the world over, global recipes for lamb abound. In Argentina, whole young lambs are cooked close to smoky, glowing wood embers. In Italy, legs are coated with garlic, herbs, and breadcrumbs and slowly roasted. In Syria, chunks of lamb shoulder are scented with cumin, braised slowly, and served with muhammara, a wonderful red pepper dip made with Aleppo pepper, garlic, and spices.
One of my favorite ways to prepare a leg of lamb is to fill it with a flavorful pesto made from parsley, garlic, toasted walnuts, rosemary, and Parmesan. Each cooked slice is a beautiful, green-edged spiral bursting with flavor. Serve it with springlike sides such as roasted asparagus and parsnip puree.
I’m a big fan of American lamb legs, which are a bit more mature, are well marbled, and have a mellow flavor. But in our New England markets these days, we mostly find New Zealand lamb (sometimes Australian or Icelandic too). The down under legs are considerably younger when harvested and thus much smaller than their American counterparts. No matter where it’s raised, lamb is grass-fed most of its life, but the Americans finish the animals on corn, which fattens them, adding sweetness and smoothing out the flavor. Buy your lamb butterflied from the butcher so that the bone is removed, some of the fat and sinew are trimmed, and the meat lays flat. This will ensure even cooking.
For the stuffing, start by slowly cooking an onion until it is golden, which takes a solid 15 minutes when done right. This allows its sugars to develop, yielding a deep, sweet, subtle onion flavor. The rest of the pesto is made in a few seconds with the food processor. When toasting walnuts, you can cook them in the oven or on top of the stove. For me, the stovetop method works best. I can watch them carefully as they cook, shaking the pan often, and I can see and smell when they are done. Get the nuts right out of the pan when they’re ready, as the hot skillet will continue to cook them and burning is a good possibility. (Been there, done that!) Rolling and tying the roast can be a bit tricky: It’s worth spending a few minutes on YouTube learning to tie a butcher’s knot. Similar to a slip knot, it is better than the standard square knot because it gives you more direct control over the cinching process. Finally, always use a digital meat thermometer when cooking large cuts of meat. Calibrate it first and trust it. Every piece of meat will cook a bit differently, and the thermometer takes the guesswork out of when the cooking is done. For medium-rare, it should read 130 degrees at the thickest part of the roast.
As friends and family gather around the holiday table, the room fills with the aromas of roasted lamb, garlic, and rosemary. Each bite of meat is enhanced by the fresh, bright flavors of the parsley pesto. We think of the newness of the spring season, and we celebrate and are renewed.
Gordon Hamersley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.