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MUSINGS ON EASTER DINNER

Updated: Mar 28

Ham or Lamb? We've got you covered both ways.

Potatoes & Asparagus? ALWAYS!




Until Halloween got really huge, Easter was the second-biggest holiday of the year, especially among Catholic families like mine. After church and an Easter egg hunt, the aromas of Easter dinner beckoned us to the table. While the roasted turkey is for many folks a one-size-fits-all holiday dinner, the popular choice for Easter has become largely binary-- ham or lamb. My family had it good-- lamb on Saturday with one grandmother, and then ham on Sunday with the other. Here we examine both sides of the issue.



THE HAM DINNER

Hardly anyone actually "cooks" a ham, because they generally reach our stores pre-cooked. For the record, ham is pork that has undergone either wet or dry curing and is often (but not always) smoked. And what, exactly, is "curing?" Click HERE for a detailed explanation.


Furthermore, there are many types of ham. HERE is a useful delineation from Coleman Natural Foods. And well worth noting-- "REAL" ham is a large chunk of meat from a pig's hind-quarter, while really, REALLY cheap ham is often made from all manner of pork that is chopped and/or finely ground, more or less liquefied, and then molded into the familiar "ham can" shape--


Why "Chill Before Opening?" So it doesn't freaking disintegrate.


In addition to the different types of ham, there are several different breeds of pig available. Most supermarket pig is of the pale-fleshed and bland Yorkshire lineage, specifically bred for mass-farming rather than superior flavor. But far-tastier heritage breeds-- e.g., Duroc, Mangalitsa, Iberico, and Kurobuta-- are increasingly available from small farms and are rapidly gaining in popularity. (See "THE YEAR OF THE PIG" for more info.)


Unless you're a culinary control freak who orders a fresh ham so you can do all the curing and smoking yourself, the ham you'll be preparing for Easter dinner is either partially or fully pre-cooked and you just need to heat it up. Either way, baking it at 325ºF to a minimum internal temperature of 140ºF is advisable. Why is ham "baked" instead of "roasted?" Because many recipes suggest cooking it in a pan above a little water and covered with foil to retain moisture... and that ain't roasting. However, we often finish a ham like a roast-- as with a reverse-seared Prime Rib, a brief and very hot finishing blast (without the foil, and perhaps brushed with a sweet glaze) fosters the formation of a dark and tasty crust.


Unlike most other meats, pork-- and especially ham-- conspires nicely with sweetness as exemplified by the pineapple and maraschino cherry garnish shown above, or alternatively a sugary, tangy glaze. There are thousands of online recipes for versions thereof... perhaps none as sophisticated as Chef Slim Oakheart's take in A SAUCE FOR HOLIDAY HAM. I'll be making that myself this year.


Here is a somewhat simpler glaze that sounds downright goofy and yet tastes wonderful--

DANNYM.'S ROOT BEER HAM GLAZE

2 pounds of onions, chopped & well-browned (maybe even caramelized; HERE is the distinction.)

2 12 oz. Bottles REAL Root Beer (i.e., all-natural and made with cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup)

A generous scoop of Cherry Marmalade

12 Pitted Prunes

Zest of two small Clementines

A good squirt of Spicy Brown Mustard

Pinches of Pepper, Ground Clove, and Cinnamon

A generous splash of Apple Cider Vinegar


Simmer until prunes are tender. Purée ingredients (except the vinegar) until smooth. Add vinegar last, to taste. Glaze ham for the hot blast at the end, and then offer guests a bowl of this concoction at your Easter table.


Expensive but fabulous-- I use this and other

TIPTREE marmalades in several different recipes.


A surprising amount of Southern cookery utilizes Dr. Pepper as an ingredient (e.g., THIS.) Our glaze recipe above approximates Dr. Pepper's flavors without the high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. If your kids don't love ham with this glaze, consider feeding them a steady diet of gluten-free kale lasagna until they come around.


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THE LAMB DINNER


An absolutely perfect-looking roasted Leg of Lamb.


Lamb is WAY different from ham... more expensive, more sophisticated, and harder to cook properly. Not everyone likes lamb; some find it "gamey," while others find it hidden in the children's napkins after dinner. And although you'd never know it from a supermarket label, lamb are actually baby sheep. And yet-- when high-quality lamb is done just right, it is as exquisitely delicious and wine-friendly as the finest Prime Rib, with the added advantage of being Easter (or at least springtime) referential.


LEG of Lamb is by far the go-to cut for Easter, and one finds boneless, bone-in, and semi-boneless versions in the market as Lent wanes. To me the semi-boneless seems the worst of both worlds, and the boneless version needs to be tied together in order to maintain a proper roasting geometry. Unless you are interested in stuffing the boned leg with seasonings or making "butterflied" leg of lamb, I recommend defaulting to a bone-in cut.



Lamb shanks are either fore or hind, but Leg of Lamb comes only from the hind.

Leg of Lamb is sold as either Whole Leg with the shank included, or just the upper part.

New Zealand has long been the source of the least expensive lamb, with Australia filling the mid-range and American lamb on the high end. Of the three, New Zealand's lamb is most responsible for lamb's "gamey" reputation, and I accordingly avoid it. (Some claim that lamb's objectionable "gaminess" comes from either the fat that lines the meat, or the waxy lanolin that waterproofs the wool. I'm not so sure about either... but I DO know that some lamb just plain tastes better than others.)


And what about the breed? Wagyu beef has become so iconic that we now see slogans like "the Wagyu of (x, y, or z)" to denote a higher fat content and richer flavor. The "Wagyu of Lamb" tag is presently claimed by purveyors of Australian White Lamb, which has an especially high intramuscular fat content, a lower fat melting point (99ºF vs. 113ºF) as well as straight (and lanolin-free) hair in lieu of wool, makes it more suitable to hot-weather ranching and maybe, maybe less gamey. The Wagyu Shop offers imported Australian White Lamb, while Fagerman Farm in Alabama seems to be the first (and perhaps only so far) to offer American White Lamb. Australian White USA (AWUSA) is a trade association that promotes the White breed in the United States, and we may expect their efforts to result in wider availability (and maybe lower prices) in the coming years.

COOKING THE LEG OF LAMB

Recipes vary greatly from one cookbook to another, so I conducted a comparative survey of several well-known chef-authors regarding their recommended techniques for a 6-pound, bone-in leg of lamb, beginning at room temperature:


Julia Child: ("Gigot de Pré-Salé Rôti")

Rub with butter.

Roast at 450ºF for 15 minutes, then 350ºF to an internal temperature of 125ºF for rare, 135ºF for medium-rare.


James Beard:

Rub with rosemary and pepper.

Roast at 325ºF all the way to internal temp. of 130-135ºF. Salt generously 15 minutes before removing from oven.


Gordon Ramsay:

Rub w/ olive oil & herbs.

Broil each side, then cover with foil and roast at 375ºF to internal temp. of 125-135ºF.


The New York Times (Hopkinson/Moskin):

Rub w/ a paste of garlic, anchovy, & mustard; sprinkle w/ pepper, and

drizzle with fresh lemon juice.

Roast at 425ºF for 15 minutes, then at 350ºF to internal temp. of 130-135ºF.


Jamie Oliver:

Liberally salt & pepper, then drizzle w/ a mash of garlic, rosemary, olive oil, and lemon zest.

Roast all the way at 400ºF to on an oven rack suspended above the roasting pan to insure even cooking.

(Chef Oliver's recipe gives cooking times rather than target temperatures, e.g., 75 minutes for "pink." Better, I think, to trust your thermometer.)


All of these recipes notably call for letting the cooked lamb rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.


I was all set to mix and match aspects of all these recipes and then tinker as needed. But the almighty Internet knows all, folks... and in the midst of my hours spent googling this stuff, I not-so-mysteriously received an unsolicited pop-up ad/recipe that suggested a very intriguing technique, one that requires the purchase of a special smart thermometer that enables one to simulate sous vide cooking in a regular oven. I passed on the thermometer, but borrowed aspects of this version. A name for this recipe practically suggested itself--


IDIOT-PROOF ROAST LEG OF LAMB

Pre-heat oven to 170ºF. (That's as low as mine goes.)

Trim as much membrane as practicable from leg.

If cooking a Whole Leg, cut a circle around the shank about an inch from the end.

Cut shallow cross-hatches all over the leg.

Prepare a smear of olive oil, garlic, chopped fresh rosemary, and mustard.

(note: a little garlic goes a long way in this dish.)

Smear the mixture all over the leg.

Wrap the leg securely in foil and insert your oven-friendly digital thermometer into

the thickest part; avoid contact with the bone.

Place on a rack above (not in) a roasting pan in the oven.

Cook to desired internal temperature-- 125-135ºF (or more)


To accommodate my bride's preferences I cooked it to an internal temperature of 143ºF, which took six hours and resulted in a uniform and perfect (for her) pinkness. A 12-minute finishing blast at 475ºF in the convection oven gave the exterior a proper crust. I repeated this version with great success using a Fagerman Farm American White Lamb leg that had been in my freezer since last spring. (It was NOT notably superior to the Australian version.)


ALTERNATIVE COOKING METHODS

If all of this roasting sounds intimidating or like too much work, a leg of lamb braises beautifully, and braising is perhaps the most foolproof cooking method of all. (Think pot roast.) A plethora of recipes for braised leg of lamb await your google search; most of them call for browning the meat and then simmering it in a covered pot for three hours or more at 325ºF, half-submerged in a flavorful mixture of wine, stock, herbs, and/or veggies. It practically cooks itself AND makes its own delicious sauce.

But if braising seems like a cop-out, there's a Plan C.-- a combination, in a sense, of A. and B. ... a foolproof way to make a very different (but delicious) ROAST leg of lamb... The LONG & SLOW ROAST. Simply brown both sides via broiler or convection oven, then roast, covered not wrapped, at 325ºF until it is falling apart tender. Aim for an internal temperature of 175ºF.

Click HERE for one of many online recipes.


EASTER SIDE DISHES

A cheesy potato au gratin casserole (like Julia Child's Pommes de Terre au Dauphinoise) is fabulous with baked ham. The classic version below tastes as good as it looks.

(History & Recipe HERE.)


Potatoes, maximized.


Alternatively, roasted potatoes go nicely with either ham or lamb.


A GREAT HACK FOR ROASTED POTATOES

Cut red potatoes into pieces maybe half again larger than optimal home-fries size and cover with just enough salted water. Bring to a boil; keep it there for five minutes, then strain. KEY HACK-- toss the potatoes up and around in your metal colander to scruff their surfaces a bit, then toss them in a mixing bowl olive oil, garlic, and salt & pepper, maybe some herbs, maybe even chopped anchovies... or, alternatively, whatever the hell you like on your taters. Roast them on parchment paper skin side down, then switch to low broil to finish browning the cut sides.


And finally, there's ASPARAGUS!

Taken together, Asparagus and Hollandaise Sauce betoken springtime as surely as daffodils and pussy willows. HERE is last year's treatise on the topic, with links to recipes.





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NOTES:



There is no reason NOT to buy a spiral-cut ham, especially for

a self-serve buffet or other large gathering.


In popular culture, a "ham-and-egger" is an ordinary person of little consequence;

GREEN EGGS AND HAM, meanwhile, is perhaps the most

consequential 50-word book in history.


OF MAN, MUTTON, AND MINT SAUCE

Lambs grow up to be sheep; the meat of sheep is called mutton. I stole the following from some random website-- Mutton is the meat of a mature adult sheep, typically between two and three years old. Producers can harvest mutton from a ewe (female) or wether (castrated male.) Since the animal is older, it contains more fat and muscle, resulting in a stronger flavor and denser, tougher texture. Sounds really delicious, right? Mint jelly was most likely invented to make mutton taste less horrible. However, some sort of red wine sauce or gravy is a superior choice with high-quality, properly-cooked leg of lamb.


But if you must (or if you're simply British) you can make your own Mint Sauce from fresh mint, white wine vinegar, and sugar. HERE is everything you need to know... except for one thing: spearmint, or peppermint? My further digging suggests that spearmint is preferable.


But if you want something more sophisticated to sauce your lamb, consider making a lamb-specific red wine sauce. Here's how to adapt classic Sauce Bordelaise to your lamb--


DANNYM.'S RED WINE SAUCE FOR LEG OF LAMB

1/2 bottle Red Wine (I chose a big strapping Mendocino Zinfandel)

4 Large Shallots

Pan drippings from your roast (or maybe the previous one)

(scrape and clean your roasting pan; rinse, and reserve the rinse water and the scrapings)

1 lb. Ground lamb

Cornstarch or roux to thicken, as needed

And finally, a generous dab of MORE THAN GOURMET® Classic Roasted Lamb Stock,

which conveniently contains veal demi-glace.


Chop the shallots and cook well in just enough clarified butter. Add the ground lamb and cook thoroughly. Add the wine and pan drippings, then gently simmer. After an hour, strain, thicken, and re-season to taste.


Although my test run with American White Lamb didn't live up to its price, I'm still bullish (ramish?) on American lamb in general. There are many small farms out in the countrysides of America that raise and sell good lamb, and we'll be adding names from time to time. Grand Teton Lamb, for one, caught my eye as I was doing research for this essay.


And finally,


WINE WITH EASTER

A Ham dinner is both child- and oldster-friendly. And I suspect that, on average, Easter ham dinners begin earlier in the day than do lamb dinners. Tally that as two strikes against Easter wine with ham. That being said, there's no reason not to offer wine with ham for those who will enjoy it. Think sweet-- Moscato is currently en vogue, and dovetails perfectly with ham's sweet/salty duality. Ditto for semi-dry rosé. For œnological and gastronomic sophisticates, the perfect ham wine might well be GEWÜRZTRAMINER.


Lamb is way more wine-friendly than ham, and a lamb dinner tends to entail a more formal air. Wine with lamb, therefore, is a no-brainer. An old Continental maxim calls for Bourgogne Rouge (Red Burgundy) with beef and (Red) Bordeaux with lamb... perfectly good pairings, but today there's no need to thus restrict oneself. Lamb does indeed pair well with sturdy Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and old-school Merlot, but it also works nicely with spicy reds like Zinfandel and Syrah.


All that being said, if you cook your lamb properly and match it with any red wine you personally prefer, then it's hard to go wrong... especially if, first and foremost, you pair your wine with great friends and cherished loved ones.


We around Danny's Table wish one and all a delightful Easter... whether or not you actually celebrate it.




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