What to cook for Easter? I wondered.
"Why not make rabbit legs?" my wife said. And that's why I married her.
Still, instead of contributing to bunnicide, I decided to go the traditional route: lamb. It is a springtime dish and, with its themes of death and rebirth, Easter is indisputably a holiday of the spring.
Besides, Jesus has historically been compared to both a lamb and a shepherd, so it seems religiously appropriate, too.
Besides, lamb tastes great. I know that some people turn up their noses at it and grumble it tastes gamy, but those people have never had lamb with mustard and honey — and they have certainly never had it grilled.
This is a game-changing dish in the same way that roasted Brussels sprouts was a game-changer. It will turn a lot of minds and convert a lot of anti-lamb haters.
Let's put it this way. For years — decades — my favorite way to make lamb was to prepare Julia Child's Herbal Mustard Coating for Roast Lamb (Gigot la Moutarde) and then grill the meat instead of roasting it.
But I like this simple recipe even more than the one by St. Julia.
And yes, the original recipe for lamb with mustard and honey also calls for it to be roasted in the oven. I grill it, because grilled lamb tastes better than oven-cooked lamb. Grilled lamb tastes better than just about anything, if you ask me. If you don't have a grill, or it isn't convenient to grill it, you can cook it in the oven and still have a transformational experience.
Amazingly, the recipe only has five ingredients — and two of them are lamb and salt. Two others are in the name: mustard (Dijon is fairly essential) and honey. The only other ingredient is dried thyme.
Actually, if you have a little crunchy salt and pepper to sprinkle on at the end, that would be good, too. But they aren't necessary.
The other ingredient, the one you can't get at the store, is time. To get the full effect as well as the full flavor, you have to marinate the lamb in the other ingredients overnight.
It's that easy. And it's that good. Mustard and thyme are natural accompaniments to lamb, and the honey adds just the right touch of sweetness. To me, it's much better than mint.
To go with the lamb, I made potatoes, naturally. If you don't serve potatoes with grilled lamb, you're wasting good grilled lamb. For that matter, if you serve potatoes without grilled lamb, you're kind of wasting them, too.
I decided to go simple, yet fancy. Simple, in that I made mashed potatoes. Fancy, in that I wanted to make them extra-nice for Easter. So I made garlic- rosemary mashed potatoes.
It's simple math: Mashed potatoes are good. Garlic mashed potatoes are better than mashed potatoes. And garlic- rosemary mashed potatoes are better than garlic mashed potatoes — plus rosemary goes particularly well with lamb.
The only challenge to making garlic-rosemary mashed potatoes is transferring the flavor of the garlic and the rosemary to the mashed potatoes, and it turns out to be easily accomplished. I sautéed garlic and rosemary in the amount of butter I knew I was going to add to the potatoes. Then I added milk and simmered it a few minutes until it was redolent of rosemary and garlic.
I strained this milk mixture into the cooked potatoes, mashed it all together, and it was so comforting and delicious that I instantly felt better about the world.
I used milk. If you want to use cream, no one will stop you.
Meanwhile, I did not use milk or cream with my other dish, asparagus soup — not, you'll notice, cream of asparagus soup. Asparagus, to me, is the ultimate springtime vegetable, and I didn't want to muddy its flavor with a dairy product, even though that would make it richer.
I was looking instead for a pure asparagus flavor, only in soup form.
This dish was simple to make, too — nothing too complicated this Easter. I merely sautéed onion in butter, added asparagus for a minute and then simmered it in chicken stock until the vegetables were tender.
Then it all went into the blender, and in an instant, I had one of the best and easiest soups I've ever made.
It was hugely satisfying when it was hot, and then I refrigerated what was left over.
You know what? It might taste even better cold.
LAMB WITH MUSTARD AND HONEY
Yield: 8-10 servings
5 pounds boneless leg of lamb
3 tablespoons strong Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon fine salt
Crunchy salt, optional
Black pepper, optional
Note: This dish marinates overnight.
1. Carefully remove large deposits of visible fat from the lamb, if there are any.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the mustard, honey, thyme and the 1 teaspoon of salt. Use this mixture to coat both sides of the lamb. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
3. If grilling: Grill, covered, over indirect heat for 50-60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 140 degrees for medium rare (it will continue to cook once it is off the grill until it reaches the desired medium-rare temperature of 145 degrees. The final temperature for medium is 160 degrees and well done is 170 degrees). If using a 3- to 4-pound lamb shoulder, cook for 35-45 minutes.
4. If roasting in the oven: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roast a boneless leg of lamb (uncovered) for 20 minutes per pound for medium rare, 25 minutes per pound for medium or 30 minutes for well done. For a boneless shoulder, roast uncovered for 35 minutes per pound for medium rare, 40 minutes for medium or 45 minutes for well done.
5. Allow to rest at least 5 minutes before carving. Sprinkle with crunchy salt and pepper, if desired.
GARLIC-ROSEMARY MASHED POTATOES
Yield: 6 servings
3 Russet potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 small sprig fresh rosemary
1 1/4 cups whole milk or cream
1. Peel potatoes if desired and cut potatoes into 2-inch pieces. Boil a large pot of water and add potatoes; cook until potatoes are tender and can easily be pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small pot. Add smashed garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Add milk and heat until it almost simmers; do not allow milk to boil. Cook 2-3 minutes.
3. When potatoes are done, drain and return to pot. Strain the milk mixture into the pot and mash with a potato masher until potatoes reach your desired smoothness. Taste and add salt if needed.
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1. Remove the bottom few inches from the asparagus spears and discard. Chop spears into 1-inch pieces.
2. In a medium or large pot, melt the butter and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add asparagus and sauté 1 minute. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 3-5 minutes. Pour into a blender, in batches if necessary (do not fill blender more than halfway). Blend until smooth. Serve hot or cold.