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Easter recipes: The delights of spring lamb

Shaun Smith guides you through four succulent ways of preparing lamb for that spring feast.
Easter is a fine time to experiment with lamb. Pictured is a recipe from Eric Ripert's recent cookbook, Avec Eric: A Culinary Journey with Eric Ripert. (Angie Mosier)

If you eat meat, nothing quite signals the happy arrival of spring like the appearance of fresh lamb at the butcher shop. A favourite at Easter and Passover, tradition holds for many holiday tables that lamb be served as a big roast — a leg or a crown of ribs.

Shaun Smith is a writer, journalist and former chef in Toronto. He is the author of the young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders. ((Courtesy of Shaun Smith))

But that's just one of many ways to cook this glorious meat. I talked to three chefs, all of whom have new cookbooks out, to get a variety of delicious lamb recipes that you can serve this season.

Eric Ripert, chef of New York's Le Bernardin restaurant, provides an excellent method of cooking lamb loin in a pastry crust, from his cookbook Avec Eric.

Kary Osmond, host of the CBC-TV series Best Recipes Ever, delivers a recipe for lamb shepherd's pie, from her show's cookbook.

Jonathan Waxman, chef of New York's Barbuto restaurant, takes on the "big roast" with a seven-hour leg of lamb, from his cookbook Italian My Way.

My own recipe below is for grilled lamb burgers with tzatziki and Greek salad relish. Spring, of course, is the season in many climes when winter is on the run (theoretically, anyway) and you can start using the barbeque again. For these grilled burgers, I took my inspiration from Greek cuisine, using Kalamata olives, feta cheese and oregano.

LAMB & FETA BURGERS WITH TZATZIKI AND GREEK SALAD RELISH

Shaun Smith's lamb and feta burger with tzatziki and Greek salad relish. ((Shaun Smith/CBC))

Lamb can have a strong taste, so I like to use a mix of half lamb and half beef for these burgers, to give them a subtler flavour. The crumbled feta in the meat serves as a binder, so there's no need for bread crumbs. Tzatziki is a delicious Greek condiment made with yogurt. Don't skip the draining step, or your tzatziki will be too thin.

Ingredients (serves 6)

For the tzatziki:

7 turns black pepper mill

For the relish:

7 turns black pepper mill

For the burgers:

6 small pita breads (or three large ones cut in half, crosswise)

Place the yogurt in a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth or a double layer of paper towel. Rest the sieve over a deep bowl and set in the fridge to allow the yogurt to drain off its water for at least four hours, or preferably overnight. Once drained, turn the yogurt out into a clean bowl and discard the water. Into the yogurt, add the grated cucumber, minced garlic and dill, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mix together well. Keep refrigerated.

The salad in this recipe is used as a condiment for the finished burgers, like a chunky relish. To make, simply toss all of the salad ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

To make the burgers, place all of the ground lamb and beef together in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then using your fingers, crumble the feta cheese onto the meat so that no piece of cheese is larger than a pea. Sprinkle on the minced oregano. Using your hands, mix the meat, cheese and seasonings together well in the bowl. Shape balls of meat about the size of tennis balls, and then flatten into patties about the size of hockey pucks. You should have six patties.

Heat your barbecue to 400ºF (200ºC). Brush the clean grill with a little olive oil, then place the patties on the grill. Cook covered four minutes per side for medium-rare (add one minute per side for medium and two for well done). In the last two minutes of cooking, open the lid and set the pita breads inside. Close the lid. Watch that the pitas don't get too toasted; you just want to warm them up.

Remove the burgers and pitas to a large, clean plate. While the burgers are resting, use a sharp knife to carefully cut open the pitas around about two-thirds of their circumference, so they open like a clam shell. Be careful, because the pitas may release hot steam that can scald your fingers.

To assemble the burgers, place a dollop of tzatziki inside the bottom of each pita. Place a grilled burger patty onto the tzatziki. Add another dollop of tzatziki on top of the burger. Spoon a generous portion of the tomato-and-olive relish on top of the burger. Enjoy!

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ERIC RIPERT'S HERB AND SALT-CRUSTED LAMB LOIN

Eric Ripert is widely considered to be one of the best chefs in America. His three Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, Le Bernardin, has been named to the prestigious San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list for six years running. Although Le Bernadin specializes in seafood, Ripert is a master of all manner of cuisines. His new cookbook, Avec Eric, is a companion to the PBS television series of the same name, which finds Ripert travelling the world seeking out fantastic recipes.

Eric Ripert.

"I have the luck to be able to travel and meet people at the source of our food: fishermen, farmers, growers," says Ripert, speaking by phone from New York. "I travel to beautiful destinations, and eat in different cities and cultures, and therefore I get inspired. That inspiration comes back into recipes that we have on the menu at Le Bernardin. The idea for Avec Eric was to do a show that would be reflective of my lifestyle and then instead of cooking something for Le Bernardin, we would be cooking something for the viewer that is more homey and accessible."

The lamb recipe below was inspired by a Spanish method for cooking fish. "In Spain, they cover the fish with a thick crust of rock salt, and put it in the oven," says Ripert. "When the fish is cooked, they break the crust and the skin comes off with the salt. You eat the flesh, which is perfectly seasoned. We wanted to apply that technique to the lamb, adding flavours with the herbs, but since the lamb has no skin, the crust had to be a bit more elaborate than just rock salt."

Ripert devised a method to mimic the effects of the salt by cooking the lamb encased in a pastry crust.

"One of my mentors, Jöel Robuchon in Paris, was doing a lamb recipe that was a little bit similar to this one," says Ripert, who hails originally from Antibes, on the Côte d'Azur, "so my recipe is a mixture of tradition coming from Spain and a little bit of what I learned with my mentor."

HERB AND SALT-CRUSTED LAMB LOIN

(Excerpted from Avec Eric: A Culinary Journey with Eric Ripert. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Ripert. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. All rights reserved.)

Ingredients (serves 4)

1 rosemary sprig

The dough that encases the lamb loin infuses salt and herbs into the meat in a more subtle way than rubbing the herbs onto the loin itself. The dough also acts as a jacket, protecting the meat as it cooks and keeping it incredibly moist.

John Wiley & Sons Canada

Combine three cups (675 mL) of the flour with the coarse salt, chopped rosemary and thyme in a large bowl. Gradually add the egg whites, mixing with your hands, until the mixture forms a soft but not sticky dough. Flour your hands, turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead until smooth. Wrap the dough in plastic and let stand at room temperature for at least two hours or in the refrigerator for up to one day.

Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC). Heat the olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan over high heat. Generously pepper the lamb loin and carefully add the loin to the hot pan. Sear until the loin is golden brown on all sides, about three minutes. Remove from the heat and set the lamb loin aside to cool. Reserve the pan.

Flour a large work surface and rolling pin. Place the dough on the floured surface and roll the dough to a 15 x 12-inch (38 x 30 cm) rectangle, or large enough to wrap around the lamb loin. Place the seared lamb loin in the centre of the dough and wrap the dough around the loin to encase it completely. Brush the edges of the dough with the beaten egg and pinch to seal completely. Place the crusted lamb loin, seam side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and brush the top with more egg. Bake the lamb for 12 to 15 minutes for medium-rare or until a meat thermometer inserted into the loin registers 115°F (46ºC). Let the lamb rest at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before cracking open the crust.

While the lamb is resting, heat the reserved pan (used to sear the lamb) over high heat. Deglaze the pan with the chicken stock, add the rosemary sprig and simmer until the stock is reduced by half, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan. Season the jus to taste with salt and pepper. Carefully remove the lamb loin from the crust and cut the loin into slices. Arrange the slices of lamb on a platter and serve with the pan jus.

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BEST RECIPES EVER'S MEAT-AND-POTATO LOVER'S SHEPHERD'S PIE

Kary Osmond is host of CBC-TV's daily cooking show, Best Recipes Ever. "The idea behind the show is that we've come together with Canadian Living magazine," says Osmond. "We go through their archive of thirty- or forty-thousand recipes and choose the ones that just jump out at us, that make your mouth water as soon as you see them."

Kary Osmond. (CBC)

Osmond and her team present three to five recipes per episode, all collected around a theme. Their goal is to deliver interesting recipes that are not overly complex. The recipes come to Best Recipes Ever pre-tested by the kitchens at Canadian Living, so they are extremely reliable and accessible.

"We want people to get off their couch and find that they have the ingredients in their pantry, with sometimes maybe one or two items they might have to go out and get," says Osmond. "Occasionally, we do have things that are more complex, like butter chicken, but we know that people really want to eat that."

Osmond says that the shepherd's pie recipe below would be excellent to serve when entertaining. "This recipe takes regular shepherd's pie and turns it up a couple of notches," she states, "by adding some big, bold flavours with the lamb, the porcini mushrooms - which add a nice earthiness - and the pancetta, for some salty, smoky taste. This is a great recipe to do in advance. You can cook it a day ahead and heat it up the day of your dinner."

MEAT-AND-POTATO LOVER'S SHEPHERD'S PIE

(Excerpted from Best Recipes Ever. Copyright © 2011 by Transcontinental Books and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Excerpted by permission of Transcontinental, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.)

You can't go wrong with this updated classic, made richer with dried porcini mushrooms and pancetta. Ground beef balances the highly flavoured lamb, but you can use all beef or all lamb if you prefer.

Ingredients (serves 12)

3 tbsp (45 mL) all-purpose flour
CBC/Transcontinental Books

Topping:

2 leeks (white and light green parts), thinly sliced

Soak dried porcini mushrooms in one cup (250 mL) boiling water until softened, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large shallow Dutch oven, heat half of the oil over medium-high heat; brown beef, lamb and pancetta until no longer pink, about eight minutes. Drain in fine-mesh sieve. Drain fat from pan. Heat remaining oil over medium heat; cook onion, celery, carrots, garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper until softened, about six minutes. Stir in cremini mushrooms; cook until golden, about six minutes. Stir in wine, scraping up browned bits; boil until no liquid remains. Stir in broth, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, porcini mushrooms, soaking liquid and meat mixture. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Whisk flour with 1/4 cup (60 mL) water; whisk into meat mixture and bring to boil. Boil until thickened, about five minutes. Scrape into 13 x 9-inch (3 L) baking dish.

Topping: Meanwhile, in large saucepan of boiling salted water, cover and cook potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain; return to pot. Return to heat, shaking pan until no liquid remains, about one minute. Mash with potato masher; mash in milk, butter, mustard, salt and pepper. Meanwhile, in saucepan, heat oil over medium-low heat; cook leeks until softened, about six minutes. Stir into potatoes; spread over meat mixture. Bake in 375°F (190°C) oven until potatoes are golden and slightly crusty, 50 to 60 minutes.

To make ahead, let assembled casserole cool for 30 minutes; refrigerate until cold. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Reheat in 375°F (190°C) oven for 30 minutes.

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JONATHAN WAXMAN'S LEG OF LAMB BRAISED FOR SEVEN HOURS

Chef Jonathan Waxman was raised in Berkley, Calif., and attended cooking school in Paris. He has worked and travelled extensively throughout Europe, with particular interest in Italy. In the U.S., he has cooked at Alice Waters' famed California restaurant, Chez Panisse. He has been chef-partner at such New York restaurants as Jams and Washington Park, where he won critical accolades, just as he has at his current restaurant, the Italian brasserie Barbuto.

Jonathan Waxman.

While Waxman is not of Italian heritage himself, he has always had a tremendous love of Italian food.

"The building that I'm in is owned by the Italian fashion photographer Fabrizio Ferri," says Waxman, "he asked me to come and open a restaurant in his studio, but I said I don't cook Italian food. He said, 'Yes you do. You cook like my Roman grandmother. You cook very simply, and from the heart.' So, Barbuto is not meant to be 'authentic' Italian, but my version of Italy."

Waxman's new cookbook is filled with the sort of rustic, Italian-inspired food one might find on the menu at Barbuto, such as the recipe below for roast leg of lamb, which is based on a quirky cooking practice from small Italian villages.

"In the old days," says Waxman, "people didn't have ovens in their houses in Italy. They would literally raise lambs or pigs and to cook them, they'd have to bring them down to the local bread shop. The guy would stop baking bread in the mid-day, and people would bring their roasts down and the baker would put it in the oven overnight. Then they would come and fetch it in the morning and serve it that day."

Waxman adapted that cooking method for his restaurant kitchen, to slow cook a leg of lamb for seven hours till it becomes as tender as butter. "You don't have to really do anything," he laughs. "You put all the ingredients in a pot, put a lid on it and throw it in the oven. It's pretty easy. Let the oven do all the magic."

LEG OF LAMB BRAISED FOR SEVEN HOURS

(Excerpted from Italian My Way, by Jonathan Waxman. Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Waxman. Excerpted with permission of the publisher Simon & Schuster Canada. All rights reserved.)

Simon & Shuster Canada

We have a special table at Barbuto, the chef 's table. It is made from two-hundred-year-old oak planks from a barn in Pennsylvania. The table was handmade on the spot so that we could fit it precisely to the space. It has an old church pew as a seat and a rough-hewn finish. People flock to it. We have one simple rule for diners at the table: the menu is up to us. One dish that we started serving early on was this leg of lamb. Braised for seven hours in a very slow oven, it has the consistency of butter. I think it is one the best ways to serve a lot of people easily without slaving your day away in the kitchen. It is a straightforward recipe, requiring little maintenance once it's in the oven. I like serving the lamb with wilted greens, polenta, cauliflower and fried potatoes. The sauce is divine! It can be used as a lamb ragù for pasta or for another lamb dish.

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180ºC). Season both sides of the lamb with sea salt and black pepper. In a roasting pan over high heat, heat the olive oil and then sear the lamb for three minutes on each side. Add the wine, garlic, rosemary branch and water. Place in the oven, cover with aluminum foil and bake for seven hours.

Remove the lamb. Place the meat on a cutting board. Strain the sauce through a mesh strainer into a small saucepan and add the butter and parsley. Season the sauce with sea salt and black pepper, if necessary. Slice the lamb and serve hot with the sauce.

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