March 31, 2012

Blog the Eleventh: Easter Lamb

“Christ our pasch has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us keep the feast …”

The featured meat of Easter dinner is lamb. This is the case not only for most Italians, but for most Mediterranean Christians. The reason for it traces back millennia to Jewish Passover rites that ceased with the destruction of the Temple, but live on both in Christian sacramental rites and Christian culinary traditions.

In the New Testament, Jesus is identified with the pasch, the sacrificial lamb that Mosaic law commands be offered up each year in commemoration of the one sacrificed on the eve of God’s liberating the Hebrews from their Egyptian slave-masters.  Because the Hebrews had marked the thresholds of their houses with the blood of the paschal lamb, their firstborn sons were spared, the angel of death passing over them when striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt.  The New Testament takes the extraordinary step of using this Passover redemption to interpret the political execution of Jesus as a paschal sacrifice:  Jesus is the true Lamb of God, and his crucifixion the perfect self-sacrifice that once and for all liberates all humankind from their enslavement to sin.

The rites commemorating the Hebrews' redemption from Egyptian slavery are seen by Christian faith as symbolic types of the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and so the Christian sacraments that celebrate this paschal sacrifice are embellished with many ritual symbols appropriated from sacrificial prescriptions in the Law of Moses.  It is in the spirit of such embellishing symbolism that Christian cooks took inspiration for Easter dinner from the Mosaic command to sacrifice to the Lord, in memory of his redeeming the Hebrews from Egyption slavery, the firstborn male of every animal.

These sacrifices were pretty joyous events, since eating of roasted firstlings before the Lord amounts to a sacred barbeque: God was commanding them to party before him.  Romans are famous for their abbachio, or suckling lamb (i.e., unweaned), but in my mother’s hometown it is always a kid-goat, a capretto.  When my mother and aunt came to visit me while I was living in Rome, we took a trip back to their hometown, where one remaining sister continues to live.  As the crow flies, it’s probably only an hour east of Salerno, but the mountain roads are so winding, it takes two hours to drive there.  The town itself is so hilly that its ancient streets are steps; there’s only one paved road down the middle, to accommodate the incursion of the automobile.  The town today is only a shell of its former self, as many a house, once overflowing with children even in the midst of postwar poverty, now lies empty most of the year, except during the great festival of the Madonna in August, when modern-day heirs of these ancient stone houses return to them for a summer holiday.

Somehow, this tiny and remote mountain town contains an impressive church, with noble tombs in it, so I imagine there was a time it boasted a feudal lord.  When we were on the train to Salerno, I teasingly asked my mother and aunt if there would be any interesting museums to visit, at which taunt they laughed heartily.  We laughed all the more heartily when on our first walk through the old town we found a museum!  It was a workshop of beautiful wood carvings done by a denizen of the town over decades, until his death, when his daughter turned his shop into a museum of his works.  We also found some of his finest carvings installed on altars of the ancient stone Church that rises from the town’s pinnacle.  Who suspected such hidden gems in those Campanian hills?

It was a couple of weeks after Easter, but my aunt was intent on making us the traditional capretto roasted with potatoes and onions, dressed with a bit of tomato, oregano, and do I need to mention olive oil? We were chatting around the fireplace on the evening of our arrival when we heard a knock at the door, and my aunt sprung up excitedly, saying that it must be the farmer.  After a chatty exchange at the door, she came back holding with both hands the newly slaughtered suckling wrapped in a plastic bag, exclaiming, “It’s still warm!”  She and my uncle then unwrapped it, marveled at it a bit more, and then proceeded to dismember it before the fireplace, with the help of a large kitchen knife, each holding one of the animals legs a'splay.  Once this work of home butchery was completed, my aunt took the bowels she had retrieved from the carcass to the sink and began to unravel them.  With looks and tones mingling pity, joy, admiration, and gratitude, she squeezed out milk from the unraveled bowels, saying, “See, all mother’s milk, only mother’s milk!”

These baby bowels are used to wrap a sausage of all the edible innards.  As for the rest of the animal, the meat is as sparse as it is tender and tasty.  My aunt served me the meatiest portion, and then served my Brooklyn aunt and my mother, and then herself, leaving to my uncle such bony scraps that my mother and aunt could not help their laughing uncontrollably at his portion, which he filled out with potatoes he good-naturedly avowed to be tasty enough to compensate. 

My mother had a mind to make this same dish for Easter dinner next week, because she wanted to do something special for her brother visiting from Switzerland, but I talked her out of it, because it was going to cost her over $100 to get half a kid, and not the suckling sort used in Italy, which I think is not available in the U.S.  I reminded her how delicious the boneless leg of lamb we made last year came out, and how much more meat we’d get for our table of twelve at half the price, and she was persuaded to do that again.

Not, mind you, that the lamb will be the only meat, even if the meat of honor.  Remember the Sunday gravy I told you about last week?  We’ll need the gravy sauce for the first dish of ravioli, coming fresh from Brooklyn, and all those meats used to make the gravy sauce will be served along with the roasted lamb as a main course.  (In the old days in Brooklyn, there probably would have been a third meat dish for such a big feast as Easter, some fancy sauteed thing, like chicken cutlets with mushrooms.)  Needless to say, several vegetable side dishes will accompany the meats, and salad, fruits, and fancy desserts will follow.  Also, antipasti (and bubbly) will precede, which are all the more important these days to mollify those of us who will have to await guests arriving in unpredictable waves, depending on how late they sleep in and how much Turnpike traffic they help swell.

Many people are averse to lamb, including many of the younger generation in my family.  Those who are averse for pity’s sake I take to be incurable.  As Aristotle says of the morally weak, if their lack of self-control comes from wrong reasoning, there’s hope of persuading them to right reasoning and thereby reforming them; but if their weakness comes from susceptibility to unreasonable passions, there’s little hope for reforming them.  Thinking it crueler to slaughter a baby lamb than a full grown one, or a lamb than a chicken, pig, or cow, is plainly irrational, and likewise irrational is trying to argue with such irrational feelings, so I leave it there.

As for the more understandable aversion to the gamey odor and flavor of lamb, there’s some remedy for that.  First of all, I learned from Jacques Pepin that much of the gaminess comes from the fat, so you need to trim away every last bit of it.  That’s what I did last year:  I laid out the whole slab of boneless leg of lamb, and with the sharpest knife I could find in my mother’s kitchen (which is nonplussingly never sharp enough, despite my having bought her the handy and ever-so-easy-to-use Henckels hand-held sharpener), I pull at the edge of every swath of fat or silver-skin, and use the knife to shave it free from the meat, until I end up with a homogenous expanse of pink meat, to be rolled and tied into a compact roast after seasoning.

Another trick is to brine the lamb, as I do most white meats:  leave it soak overnight, or at least 3 hours, in a bath of 1 gallon water to 1 cup kosher salt (or half as much table salt).  This might be the way to go if you have hypersensitive eaters on your hands, or doubt the tenderness of your meat.  But if you trust it, you can dry-brine your boneless leg of lamb instead.  If you salt (and season) a piece of meat well, and leave it sit for hours before cooking, it has the same tenderizing effect as soaking it in brine. This dry-brining is generally what you want to do to beef (the texture of which is rendered flabby by water-brine) as well as to such good cuts of white meat as pricey baby lamb-chops.   In the case of our Easter leg of lamb, the water brining will tenderize as well as purge the meat of more of its gamey flavor.  Then again, I do like a bit of that flavor, among other reasons for the sake of the racy red wines that like it too, such as my belovedly savory Aglianico or my Brooklyn brother’s belovedly woody Chianti Riserva.

But I do salt and season my legless leg of lamb well in advance, as follows.  Having trimmed it clean of all fat and silver skin, I generously salt and pepper both sides and sprinkle them with a bit of dried oregano; using my Misto oil sprayer to spray both sides with regular olive oil (absent my sprayer, I’d dip my fingers) I massage the dried spices into the flesh.  Then I slice the thinnest slices possible of whole garlic cloves and lemon rind (freed of all white pith), and dot one side of the meat all over with them; for a final touch, I sprinkle fresh rosemary needles, chopped roughly, all over. 

Now I want to roll the meat around the spices.  If the sides of the slab are such as to allow it, I’ll first fold them in a bit, before rolling the whole slab forward over itself, from skinny to fat end (so that skinny end ends up inside), as compactly as the slab allows.  Then I tie up the roll with strings, which can be laid out beforetime under the slab, to be conveniently positioned for the moment of tying.  I tuck in and secure the ends of the roll as best I can.  It can help to have a second set of hands, the one to hold the roll together, the other to tie the strings.  I like to put this rolled roast on a baking rack, so that it will cook evenly all over, without my having to turn it.

I leave the roll to sit on the counter all morning, and put it into the oven after we come home from Mass, figuring on 15-20 minutes per pound, at 350°‑375°, until pretty-looking and fork-tender (or to an internal temperature of 130°‑140°, if you want to play gourmet).  The cooking time is a tricky business, because I’ve defected to the gourmet camp in liking lamb all pink, although not rare, but Old Italians traditionally think it needs to be cooked through, and it’s traditional to discourse during dinner about why it didn’t come out tender.  If I can get the lamb to the point that its flesh is still pink but its juices not, they’ll eat it and like it.  The trick to getting clear juices is to let the lamb sit for 15 minutes or so after it comes out of the oven, allowing its residual heat to keep cooking its juices while its sinews relax. 

If I come up short so that when I cut into the roast I see that the juices are too pink to pass muster, then I put the slices back into a very hot oven or even under the broiler, to firm them up and give them a tawny skin to mask medium‑rare meat for people who think they like it medium‑well­.  But there’s no fooling Old Italians who always like all their meat well-done, so if that’s what you have on your hands, then put some end‑slices in the oven for them and finish cooking them through, as sacrificial offerings required by piety to the ancestral penates, while you slice the rest of the pink meat and reheat the vegetables.

A classic accompaniment to roasted lamb is potatoes roasted together with it.  Italians rarely double up on their carbs, so when you make pasta, you don’t make potatoes or rice.  However, hoping against hope to forestall my father’s rehearsing his lament that, though he tells her how much he loves potatoes, my mother never cooks them, I’ll probably prevail upon my mother to include some potatoes with the lamb, even though we’re starting off with ravioli, which is a very good reason not to have potatoes, and even though he’ll probably still say, “Finally, potatoes!  I tell her I love potatoes, but your mother never …”

My mother’s people mix their potato wedges with sliced onion and dress them with (regular) olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, and little bits of chopped pelati just for hints of color (whole peeled Roma tomatoes imported from Italy)—all of which I like to toss together in a separate mixing bowl, to get all ingredients well coated and all flavors well blended. My mother would no doubt put these dressed potatoes into the roasting pan together with the lamb from the start.  The problem is that some of the onion is likely to stick and burn, even with regular turning over of the potatoes during cooking (a good preemptive measure against pot-scrubbing later is to line the pan with aluminum foil).  My mother tells me that her grandfather used to fry the potatoes first to golden, then combine them with the raw sliced onions dressed with olive oil and seasonings, and add them to the roast later in the cooking process, which strikes me as a way to better pace the cooking of the onions with the potatoes.  Alternatively, I’m tempted to start off the dressed potatoes and onions in a separate pan covered with aluminum foil, for the sake of par-cooking by pre-steaming, and then pour them around the roast, to cook and color under dry heat and lamb drippings. 

Vegetable accompaniments will no doubt include bitter broccoli di rape sauteed with garlic and oil, which jives well with both gravy meats and roasted lamb. For color, there will likely be sweet red peppers, maybe roasted, maybe fried sweet and sour.  There may well be a third vegetable, depending what’s in the offing at the market (wouldn’t earthy mushrooms be good?).  For sure, there will be crusty bread from Brooklyn.  For sure, my Jersey brother will bring a good bottle of red wine, probably a high-end California Pinot Noir.  My Brooklyn brother will likely bring a good Chianti Riserva, or else a fine Bordeaux from his wine frig. My father will no doubt insist that we, once again, try his California jug wine, and see if it isn’t as good as our expensive bottles, and follow up with asking us, once again, why we don’t just find one wine we like and stick with it, instead of continually wasting our money on different wines.  Indeed.

That’s what I’ll be doing Easter Sunday, Gentle Reader, so there won’t be a weekly post next week.  Let me then today wish a tasty pasch to Italian, Jew, and Gentile alike.