Spring is in the air

Winter is over, at long last. Mark Hix celebrates the big thaw with lamb recipes to get the joint jumping
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If ever a special day called for a feast it must be Easter. Not only is it a holy day, it marks the beginning of spring, the end of winter's shortages and the start of a new food season. This year it's early, but not a minute too soon if you ask me. Easter moves around but always comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon following tomorrow's spring equinox - when day and night are equal in length.

If ever a special day called for a feast it must be Easter. Not only is it a holy day, it marks the beginning of spring, the end of winter's shortages and the start of a new food season. This year it's early, but not a minute too soon if you ask me. Easter moves around but always comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon following tomorrow's spring equinox - when day and night are equal in length.

Sadly, in this country we just don't seem to know how to celebrate it with anything other than chocolate. In Mediterranean countries such as Greece (where Easter is celebrated on 1 May this year), it's a natural time to feast on spring lambs when they are at their best for spit roasting, and they really go to town.

Although we also associate lamb with Easter, in colder parts of Northern Europe, pork is the traditional Easter meat. I wouldn't mind a trip to Hungary next year, as their Easter feast is the one that sounds most tempting. The celebration there is called Husvet, a festival of meat, and involves the last brined hams of winter being dished up along with rich jellied pig's head. Sounds delicious.

The Czechs also have a pork feast with, typically, loin roasted with caraway seeds and served with sauerkraut and dumplings. This reminds me that I got a right telling off about my choucroute preparation a few months ago. Apologies if I offended anyone by taking a short cut and not salting, or buying salted cabbage.

Back to the Med: some islands just don't have sheep or pigs and their celebratory feast would be from an animal such as goat. Elizabeth Luard recites in her great book, Sacred Food, a story of the Greek island, Hora, where the monks lead their goats ceremoniously up the hill to the slaughter on the Thursday before Easter. The following day it's just bread and water, then Saturday is a feast of the innards made into soup, mageritsa, which is flavoured with bitter herbs. The goats are finally cooked on Sunday, filled with potatoes, oregano, lemons and garlic. If I can't fix a trip to Hungary I must try to get an invitation from the monks - anything rather than stay home surrounded by chocolate eggs.

Meanwhile, we should follow their example. I'd suggest roasting a baby lamb or goat or a suckling pig, if you can get them in your oven. Roast meat is the traditional way (although I've given a recipe for vegetables too) and it makes entertaining easy if you let guests hack off chunks and put it into really good buns. Bread is one of the symbols of Easter too, so breaking it with friends is true to the festival's spirit. Unlike the monks of Hora, you may not want to drink water with your feast.

Aegean Easter lamb

Serves 4-6

At this time of year our native spring lambs, if you can find whole ones, or single joints, are perfect for roasting, following this recipe. Sayell Foods (020-7256 1080 or www.sayellfoods.co.uk) have 5.5kg lambs from Spain which are ideal for spit roasting. Or you could use goat, as the monks of Hora do. But how many of us can be persuaded to hold a good old social gathering around a spit roast? I suppose we should blame it on the weather, but perhaps we're also wary of cooking whole animals. So I've given the recipe for a leg of lamb. Ideally, ask your butcher to tunnel bone the leg. This involves boning it out around and along the bone without cutting the actual meat so that the stuffing can easily be put in without tying. Ask him to leave the knucklebone attached to look good and stop the stuffing coming out.

1 leg of lamb, boned as above
500g large waxy new potatoes, such as Charlotte or Roseval, peeled, quartered and boiled for 6-7 minutes
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp chopped oregano
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 230°C/gas mark 8. Mix the potatoes, onion, garlic, half the oregano, half the lemon zest and a tablespoon of olive oil. Season and stuff into the cavity of the lamb and secure the open end with a skewer or cocktail sticks. Any leftover potatoes can be placed under the lamb while roasting.

Pre-heat a roasting tray with a tablespoon of olive oil for about 10 minutes, until really hot. Put the lamb in and roast for 10 minutes then turn over and cook for another 10 minutes until both sides are nicely coloured.

Turn the oven down to 160°C/gas mark 3. Mix the rest of the oil with the remaining oregano, lemon zest and the lemon juice and rub over the lamb. Transfer the lamb to an ovenproof dish with a lid, or use foil, and cook for 2 hours, basting with the cooking juices every so often.

Leave the lamb to rest for about 20-30 minutes then carve into thick, 2-3cm slices and serve with the cooking juices spooned over and maybe some roasted vegetables either cooked with the joint for the last hour or separately (see below). Or serve spring vegetables such as peas and broad beans, or a Greek-style cucumber and black olive salad.

Roast Mediterranean vegetables

Serves 4-6

These are perfect with the lamb dish above, cooked in the tray for the last 45 minutes to 1 hour or cooked separately.

2 medium courgettes, trimmed and cut into 2cm slices on the angle
1 aubergine, cut into large wedges
2 red peppers, seeded and quartered
2-3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tsp oregano or thyme leaves

Pre-heat the oven to 230°C/gas mark 8. Heat the olive oil in a roasting tray large enough to fit the vegetables, season and roast them with the oregano for 35-45 minutes, turning them every so often until cooked.

Navarin d'agneau printanier (spring lamb stew with vegetables)

Serves 4

This is a good way to use up the tougher cuts like the neck. This is perfect for braising and stays moist because of the fat and tissue running through the meat. Ask your butcher to give you boned neck, fillet, not on the bone as it's normally sold. Spring vegetables such as young carrots, turnips and even peas and broad beans are springing up at home and in the warmer parts of Spain and France, so choose your favourites to go with the lamb. The more colourful the better, I'd say.

1kg neck of lamb fillet, cut into 3-4 cm chunks
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rough chunks
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
A good knob of butter
2tbsp flour
1tsp tomato puree
100ml white wine
1.5litre hot beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 200-250g of spring vegetables such as baby turnips, carrots, young leeks, peas and broad beans, boiled or steamed separately, refreshed in cold water and mixed together
A good knob of butter
1/2 tbsp chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, season the pieces of meat, lightly dust with a tablespoon of the flour, shaking off the excess and fry them a handful or so at a time until nicely coloured. Meanwhile in a thick-bottomed saucepan cook the onion, carrots, leek and garlic in the rest of the vegetable oil for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Add the thyme, bay leaf and butter and mix well until the butter has melted then stir in the rest of the flour and tomato purée and cook on a low heat for a couple of minutes, stirring every so often. Slowly add the white wine and beef stock, stirring again to avoid lumps forming then add the meat, bring to the boil and season. Simmer gently with a lid on for 1 hour, skimming occasionally. If the meat's not tender cook for another half an hour or so.

Drain the meat and vegetables into a colander over a bowl to catch the sauce. When all the sauce has drained through, strain it through a fine meshed sieve into a clean pan and simmer until it has thickened. At the same time remove the pieces of meat from the vegetables (by now they will have given up most of their flavour, so chuck them away), add to the sauce and re-heat for 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile reheat the other vegetables in boiling salted water for a couple minutes, drain and toss in the butter and parsley and season. Serve the lamb in individual deep dishes, or a large serving bowl and scatter over the vegetables.

Serve with new potatoes, Jersey royals when they appear or a simple mash.

Roast shoulder of lamb with artichokes and wild garlic

Serves 4-6

Those lovely little purple artichokes arrive at this time of the year from Spain and Italy and are the perfect match for young tender lamb. If you have access to baby lamb then all the better as these cuts are small and tasty and about enough for a shoulder per couple. Sayell Foods have various cuts of baby lamb from Avila, the centre of meat production in Spain. Their legs of baby lamb are 700g each, enough for two people, and shoulders are 500g, which is plenty for one person.

If you live in the country get out there and pick some wild garlic to make this sauce. Keep it in the fridge (covered in oil) for a month or so to serve with roasts or as a dip.

3kg lamb shoulder or about 2-2.5kg of baby lamb shoulders
8 baby artichokes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of rosemary
3-4tbsp olive oil

for the sauce

A couple handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and dried
2tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp capers, drained and washed
60-70ml olive oil, plus some extra
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220º/gas mark 7. Season the lamb and rub with olive oil. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes then turn down to 180°C/gas mark 5.

Halve the baby artichokes, season and put them in the roasting tray with the lamb, spoon over the rest of the oil and scatter over the rosemary. Cook for another hour, turning the artichokes every so often with a spoon. If you are using baby lamb cook the artichokes and lamb at the same time.

Meanwhile make the sauce: blend the wild garlic and all other ingredients in a liquidiser to a coarse purée (add more oil if you need to). Transfer to a bowl or serving dish.

Serve the lamb with the artichokes and offer the sauce separately.

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