A fresh trio for Easter

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

At Easter, we pull out all the stops and serve whole roasted leg of lamb. In our family, indeed in much of the world, the custom of serving lamb at Easter is as traditional as colored eggs and chocolate bunnies.

Flavorful lamb ranks among the world’s most popular red meats. However, in this country, we consume only about a pound a year per person. Too bad, because lean lamb is highly nutritious with an affable character that takes well to high-heat cooking methods such as roasting, broiling and grilling.

Roasting a leg of lamb sounds challenging, but truly, cooking a roast in the oven proves one of the simplest main courses ever. It all starts with the right roast from young, tender lamb.

Lamb is the grade for sheep less than a year old (mutton is sheep older than 18 months). I look for meat that was raised right: By humane farmers who care about the quality of life of their animals. Farmers markets can be a good source for locally raised lamb. If the market is not an option, ask a local butcher to order a leg for you. At the supermarket, I read labels for country of origin; I don’t buy lamb from another continent if I have a choice.

For roasting, the hind leg of the sheep is the norm; it includes the sirloin all the way down to the shank. Because sheep primarily use their front legs for stability and motion, the rear legs tend to be meaty without much fat. I order a semi-boneless leg of lamb — that is, I want the butcher to remove the aitch bone (the pelvis) and tie the sirloin into a compact shape. This makes for speedy cooking, a stunning presentation and easy carving. The recipe that follows can easily be made with a boneless sirloin roast or a boneless butterflied leg of lamb — cooking times will be much shorter — about 30 minutes. No matter, the key to even cooking is to always let the roast come to room temperature before it goes into the oven.

I like to season lamb simply with a mixture of fresh herbs, lemon and olives. The spring garden already yields tender parsley and chives. I’ll also add store-bought herbs — fresh oregano, thyme and rosemary. Aromatic Meyer lemons, found in many specialty produce markets, lend a subtle, perfume flavor with juicy brightness.

In fact, the herb mixture is so delicious I plan to employ it to season my side dishes for Easter dinner: Roasted asparagus and crunchy lupini beans. The herb mixture also works wonders on luxurious burrata cheese for a decadent appetizer any time of the year.

A 10 to 12 pound leg of lamb will serve 10 to 12 people. You can serve more if there’s an adequate amount of sides. However, you should know that leftover sliced lamb makes the most amazing sandwich. Tuck it into warmed pita or pile onto toasted pumpernickel spread with horseradish mayonnaise. You’ll find yourself cooking lamb even when it’s not a holiday.

Olive and Fresh Herb Mixture

Prep: 20 minutes

Makes: about 2 cups

2 Meyer lemons

1 large regular lemon

1/2 cup finely chopped pitted oil-cured olives (about half of a 10-ounce jar)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup finely sliced fresh chives or 1 bunch green onions, trimmed, white and tender greens chopped

6 large cloves garlic, finely chopped, about 2 tablespoons

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

11/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano

2 teaspoons each, finely chopped, fresh: thyme, rosemary

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground black pepper

Use a rasp grater to grate zests from all lemons into a medium bowl. Squeeze just the Meyer lemons and add their juice (about 1/3 cup) to the bowl. Stir in olives and olive oil. Stir in remaining ingredients. Refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 25 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 53 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Roast Leg of Lamb With Olives and Fresh Herbs

Prep: 25 minutes

Stand: 1 hour

Cook: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Makes: 10 to 12 servings

1 semi-boneless whole leg of lamb, 10 to 12 pounds, sirloin end tied into a compact shape

1 cup olive and fresh herb mixture, see recipe above

1/2 cup dry white vermouth or white wine

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons salt

2 pounds small yellow potatoes, scrubbed, quartered

Fresh parsley sprigs for garnish

Place lamb in very large baking or roasting pan. Use the tip of a sharp paring knife to poke holes all over lamb.

Mix the olive and fresh herb mixture in a small bowl with vermouth, lemon juice and salt. Drizzle lamb with the mixture; turn to coat both sides. Let lamb stand at room temperature, turning occasionally, about 1 hour.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roast lamb in center of oven, 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue roasting lamb, 30 minutes; add potatoes to pan. Turn to coat potatoes well with pan juices. (You’ll need to work at this a bit.)

Roast lamb, stirring potatoes once or twice, until potatoes are fork-tender and a meat thermometer inserted in thickest portion of meat (not near the bone) registers 140 degrees for medium-rare, about 50 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to scoop potatoes into a bowl. Put lamb onto a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest, 20 minutes. Skim and discard fat from pan juices. Season pan juices with salt to taste; transfer to a small bowl.

Slice the meat thinly. Serve with the potatoes and pan juices. Pass any remaining olive and herb mixture. Garnish with parsley.

Nutrition information per serving (for 12 servings): 454 calories, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 173 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 57 g protein, 593 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Herb Roasted Asparagus

This recipe doubles easily — just don’t crowd the pan. The griddle should be oily enough to cook a second batch.

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 12 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

1 bunch (about 12 ounces) skinny asparagus, ends trimmed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Coarse salt

2 tablespoons olive and herb mixture, see recipe above

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put asparagus on a large cast-iron griddle or ovenproof skillet in a single layer. Toss with oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast, turning asparagus occasionally, until tip of a knife goes in easily, 10-12 minutes. Transfer asparagus to a serving dish; toss with the herb marinade.

Nutrition information per serving: 51 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 27 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Lupini Beans With Herb Marinade

To speed up preparation time, I use bottled lupini beans. A package (14 ounces) frozen fava beans cooked according to package directions tastes great here, too. You’ll need to peel them after cooking. This recipe doubles easily.

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 3 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

1 jar (16 ounces) ready-to-eat lupini beans (about 2 cups), drained

2 tablespoons olive and herb mixture, see recipe above

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Pinch each lupini to remove the outer husk. Discard the husks; put beans in a small saucepan. Add 1/4 cup water; heat over medium until hot, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Drain. Stir in olive and herb mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per serving: 142 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 293 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Burrata With Olive and Herb Mix

Expensive, very rich burrata is an amazing cheese: The outside layer is fresh mozzarella and the inside is filled with cream and mozzarella curd strips. This recipe also tastes great with ricotta in place of the burrata.

Prep: 10 minutes

Makes: 6 appetizer servings

3 tablespoons olive and herb mix, see recipe above

3 tablespoons finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, plus small leaves for garnish

1 container (8 ounces) buffalo milk burrata, drained, or 1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Thinly sliced French bread, toasted

Mix olive and herb mix, tomatoes and chopped basil in bottom of a shallow serving dish. Top with the drained burrata ball or scoop of ricotta. Drizzle with olive oil; sprinkle with pepper. Garnish with small basil leaves. Serve with slices of warm toasted bread.

Nutrition information per serving: 113 calories, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 66 mg sodium, 0 g fiber