TRISH DESEINE on why she favours a rack of lamb over a roast for Easter Sunday …
Easter Sunday is fast approaching and for me, the star of the show must be lamb. Of all the meat I eat, it is the most locally produced, and I have firsthand evidence of the (admittedly short) happy, outdoorsy lives “my” lambs live every time I drive from Toormore to Bantry via Durrus and see them skipping in the lush fields. My butcher kills his own meat in Bantry so that has most boxes ticked on the ethical front.
In France, my father-in-law reared sheep in a semi-Marie Antoinettish way at his country home in Normandy and lamb was constantly on the menu. They were mad for open fire cooking but more often than not summer barbecued chops would be dry and carbonised and my mother-in-law’s traditional Easter leg of lamb (cooked over the open fireplace indoors) was pale and bloody throughout. Even with the promise of some serious chocolate afterwards, I used to dread Easter lunch as it was the only family meal of the year which was not completely delicious from start to finish. When carving commenced, my sister-in-law would always snap up the grillé outer bits and I – and everyone else though they did not mind – would face a thin, grey, slice, with pinkish juices running over the plate and often a half raw piece of garlic studded in the side. To make matters worse, the meat was accompanied by slimy, over salted tinned flageolets, broad beans, and I longed for the crisp, melting meat I had tasted at mechouis in France and Morocco, where whole animals are rubbed in spices, turned and basted black over a spit for hours, as guests gather and open bottles of wine and prepare for the feast.
Thankfully, at the turn of the century, Fergus Henderson’s “nose to tail” philosophy made slow cooking fashionable and when Ottolenghi opened his iconic deli in London in 2002, a whole new world of Eastern delights was opened up. This was, and continues to be, good news for lamb lovers, as the beautiful, fresh, exotically spiced, often vegetarian recipes were perfect alongside a tender slow roast shoulder or leg of lamb.
In Ireland, we are blessed with access to good quality lamb all over the country, but if you want to try something truly special, look to the Calvey family’s organic Achill Mountain lamb. Their handsome, wild-looking Mayo Blackface lambs graze over the mountain slopes, and on the rare seaside habitat, on machair, both rich with herbs, heather, moss, grass and lichen. This benefits not only the flavour of this unique product (also butchered by the Calveys in Achill’s only abattoir) but also the increasingly endangered eco-system of the area. Last year, the Calvey family were the winners of the inaugural Farming for Nature Award, in recognition of their excellent environmental and habitat management linked to premium local food production. Look out for it in specialist butchers’ shops and online directly from the Calveys in Achill.
This Easter, I won’t be going the slow-roast large-hunk of meat route, but instead will choose a rather more dainty, French-trimmed, rack of lamb. It cooks faster, gives a good crisp-outside-to-tender pink-inside ratio, is easily portionable and looks quite spectacular brought to the table set up as a guard of honour. I might even get my hands on some of those cute little paper cutlet frills for the celebratory day that’s in it. Happy Easter!
At my butchers, I recently succumbed to one of those super convenient “vegetable” side dishes he likes to sell. It was billed as colcannon, but in fact was simply potato gratin with lardons and the lightest garnish of thinly shredded cabbage. No matter, it was delicious and I was reminded there’s nothing more perfect as an Easter crowd-pleaser beside the rack of lamb. Try to find waxy varieties for this French-leaning gratin – Nadine or Charlotte or at a pinch, Roosters. It’s nice to keep a little bite in them.
As the gratin bakes at a lower temperature than the meat and veg, it’s best to cook it beforehand, and then heat it just before serving as the meat is resting, with – why not? – an extra grating of cheese on top.
For 6 – 8
15 minutes preparation
50 – 60 minutes cooking
1 kg potatoes, peeled, sliced thinly (on a mandoline if you can)
350ml single cream or a mixture of cream and whole milk
1 clove garlic, halved
Nutmeg for grating
A knob of butter
Salt and pepper
75g cheese – a good Irish cheddar can easily be substituted for authentic Gruyère here.
Heat the oven to 160°C.
Rub the garlic clove over the inside of a gratin dish, then grease it with butter.
Layer half the potato slices into the dish. Bring the cream and milk to the boil, season lightly with salt and pepper and some grated nutmeg. Pour half the hot cream over the potatoes, then arrange the rest and pour in the remaining cream. Scatter the cheese over the top and bake for 50 minutes to an hour.
Rack of lamb with roast vegetables, mint and coriander pesto
The advantage of the shorter roasting time, apart from economy and ecology, is that a bed of vegetables beneath the rack will not only give flavour to the cooking juices (you could make gravy!) but also be nicely cooked to serve alongside the meat. If they need a little more time than the meat, pop them back in while it is resting. The pesto is deliciously aromatic. Try to find dried mint, as well as fresh, it makes the flavour even more interesting.
20 minutes preparation
25 minutes cooking
10 minutes resting
A nice French-trimmed (fat cut off the bones) rack of spring lamb. Cut in 2 x 4, or 2 x 6 ribs.
For the pesto:
1 good handful fresh coriander (a whole packet)
2 tbsps fresh mint
1 tsp dried mint
1 small garlic clove
A handful of almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts – or a mixture
Zest and juice of a lime
2 to 3 tbsps olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the bed of vegetables :
3 or 4 shallots, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, 2 onions, 3 or 4 firm potatoes, cut into large chunks (all unpeeled), 2 carrots, peeled, cut into chunks.
10 or 12 green asparagus, washed and trimmed
Salt and pepper
Make sure the rack of lamb is at room temperature before roasting. Rub it with salt and garlic before starting.
Heat the oven to 210°C.
Set the meat on a bed of seasoned vegetables drizzled with a little olive oil, in a roasting tray or tin (excepting the asparagus, to be cooked on a separate tray, also drizzled with a little olive oil).
Roast for 20 – 30 minutes, according to how pink you like the meat.
Put all the pesto ingredients in a mini-mixer and blitz to a smooth paste, adjusting the texture with more lime juice and/or olive oil. Check the seasoning.
Let it rest for a good 10 minutes before serving with the juicy vegetables, pesto, crunchy roast asparagus and a nice, creamy potato mash or gratin.
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