Food and Drink: Knock the stuffing into Easter: The Sunday lunch can be special without necessarily being traditional, if you add some unusual contrasting flavours and textures

EASTER Sunday lunch is a different kettle of fish from the rigours of the rule-bound Christmas meal. The cook can make it as fancy or simple as he or she is inclined. The focus for this article was going to be a crown roast of lamb, eminently suitable for an Easter feast. But then an alternative began to develop: stuffings.

Anything with a stuffing is instantly upgraded in status. The upgrading stems from the extra effort that has been put into the preparation and from the fact that you now have a brace of contrasting flavours and textures all rolled into one.

Most stuffings are based on some kind of bland filler, though I have often used couscous or burghul (cracked wheat) very successfully. If you saved my recipe last week for cornbread, then you could also use that as the base for an American-style 'dressing', crumbling it up then treating it like breadcrumbs. With the base sorted out, you can crib from any standard recipe and improvise to your heart's content, the one essential being plenty of flavour.

Chopped onion, fried in butter or olive oil, is where you should begin, adding garlic, other finely diced vegetables, chopped poultry livers or strips of bacon to the pan. Sausagemeat, minced veal or pork can be added to bulk up the stuffing. Skill steps in at this point with the choice of herbs (lots of them), spices and maybe nuts, olives or other goodies. You can be fairly heavy-handed, as long as what goes in will not clash with the outer casing. Taste at this point (fry a small knob of the mixture if it contains raw meat) to check for adequate seasoning. Finally, bind it with just enough egg to act as glue and hold it all together, without making it sloppy.

Recipe: Crown Roast of Lamb with Ginger and Pinenut Stuffing

A stuffed crown roast of lamb is about the most glamorous joint you can put on the table, and if you have a good butcher who will do all the preparation it is remarkably little trouble.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 2 best ends of neck of lamb, or a prepared crown

Stuffing: 1oz butter

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1tsp coriander seeds, crushed

1 1/2 oz pine kernels

3 knobs preserved stem ginger, chopped

juice and finely grated zest 1/2 lemon

4oz fresh white breadcrumbs

2tbs chopped parsley

1 large egg

salt and pepper

Preparation: If your butcher has not prepared the crown, remove the chine bones and scrape off the shreds of meat and fat from the tips of the bones, down about 1 1/2 inches. Set the racks back to back with the bones curving outwards, and sew them together up each side using a trussing needle and thick thread or fine string. Stand upright in a crown shape in a roasting tin. Wrap foil round the tip of each bone to protect it.

To make the stuffing, cook the onion in the butter until tender without browning. Raise the heat and add the garlic, coriander seeds and pine kernels. Fry for about 2 minutes and draw off the heat. Mix with all the remaining ingredients, adding just enough egg to bind. Fill the centre of the crown with the stuffing. Cover the stuffing with a piece of foil.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4 and roast the crown for about 1 hour, removing the foil over the stuffing after 40 minutes. Baste the joint from time to time as it cooks.

Turn off the heat, leave the door ajar and let the roast rest for 10 minutes before serving. Remove the pieces of foil from the tips of the bones and replace with cutlet frills, if you have them.

Recipe: Stuffed Cabbage

This is a homely dish, but so what? It tastes delicious and the cost is minimal. It is not difficult, so do not be put off if it sounds a little complicated, though you should allow yourself a good 40 minutes or so for preparation. Muslin is sold by most fabric and department stores and, more expensively, in many good kitchen equipment shops.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 savoy cabbage

1 carrot, sliced

bouquet garni

stock or 1/4 pint dry white wine

salt and pepper

Stuffing: 1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2tbs olive oil

12oz (340g) good-quality sausagemeat

4tbs chopped fresh herbs - parsley, thyme, marjoram, chives, chervil, rosemary (but not too much as it is very strong),

4oz slightly stale breadcrumbs

1-2 eggs, lightly beaten

salt and pepper

Preparation: Trim cabbage, discarding any damaged outer leaves, then place in a large pot of boiling salted water and simmer for 10 minutes, covered. Drain well, and put under cold tap to refresh. Leave to drain thoroughly.

To make the stuffing, cook the onion and garlic gently in the oil until tender without browning. Add the sausagemeat, breaking it up with a spoon or fork, and fry until it is lightly cooked. Scoop the mixture into a bowl and cool slightly. Mix in breadcrumbs, herbs, plenty of salt and pepper, and just enough egg to bind.

Once the cabbage is cool enough to handle, place on a large square of butter muslin. Carefully ease open the leaves of the cabbage, folding back one by one, until you reach the central clump. Place a dessertspoon of stuffing into each leaf, starting at the centre, and mould the leaf back into place. As you progress towards the outer leaves, increase the amount of stuffing slightly. Do not stuff the last four outer leaves, but smooth into place over swollen cabbage. Bring the edges of the muslin up around the cabbage, gather tightly and knot firmly.

Place the stuffed cabbage into a close-fitting ovenproof casserole, and tuck the bouquet garni and carrot in beside it. Season with salt and pepper. Pour in either enough stock or the white wine and enough water to reach about half-way up the cabbage. Bring up to the boil, then cover with a tight- fitting lid, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 2 1/2 hours.

Recipe: Tomato and Mozzarella Folar

With vegetarians in mind, this is a bastardised version of a Portuguese Easter pie made with an enriched bread dough and normally stuffed with a variety of meats. Naturally it would be foolish to stuff bread with a stodgy stuffing, so the filling is merely a very thick tomato-and-olive sauce, flavoured with that most Portuguese of herbs, coriander, and finished with that most un-Portuguese of cheeses, mozzarella. The folar can be eaten hot, warm or cold.

Serves 8

Ingredients:

Dough: 1 1/2 lb (675g) strong white flour

1tsp salt

1 1/2 sachets easy-blend yeast

6 eggs, lightly beaten

2 1/2 oz (70g) butter

2oz (55g) vegetable shortening

2 1/2 tbs olive oil

Stuffing: 2 large onions, sliced

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

3tbs olive oil

2 x 14oz (400g) tins chopped tomatoes

2tbs tomato puree

1tsp sugar

3tbs chopped coriander

16 black olives, pitted and chopped

3oz (85g) grated mozzarella

salt and pepper

Glaze: 1 egg yolk

Preparations: Begin with the dough. Melt the butter with the shortening and the olive oil. Cool. Sift the flour with the salt and stir in the yeast. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs and fats. Begin mixing, adding enough water to make a soft, sticky dough - about 2-3tbs. Flour your hands and knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic. Clean the bowl and oil it lightly. Return the dough to it, dust with a little flour, cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in bulk - about 1 1/2 hours.

Meantime, make the filling. Warm the oil in a wide pan and add the onion. Fry gently until beginning to brown, then add the garlic and cook for a minute longer. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, sugar, salt and pepper, and boil hard until reduced to a very thick sauce. Stir in the coriander and olives and leave to cool.

Back to the dough. Oil your hands and punch it down, then knead again for about 5 minutes. Divide into three portions. Roll out the first portion to make a large rectangle, and lay it in a greased baking tin. Smear over half the filling, leaving a narrow band bare around the border, and sprinkle with half the cheese. Repeat with the second portion of dough and the rest of the filling and cheese. Cover with the remaining dough and press down evenly.

Cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for 20-30 minutes. Beat the egg yolk with 1tbs water and brush over the folar. Bake at 200C/ 400F/gas 6 for about 40-45 minutes until browned. Tap the underneath and, if it sounds hollow, the folar is done. To serve, cut into thick slices.

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