Turkey for Thanksgiving, Lamb for Easter

Jordi Viladas (top) with Uncle Zambelli


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With Easter rapidly approaching many of us are planning a holiday feast and deciding whether to serve a ham, roast beef, or salmon… there are so many choices.

Growing up in a Catholic family, we ate leg of lamb, roasted, usually well done, with a little pink meat close to the bone, always served with lots of mint jelly.

At some point in my childhood my Aunt Maria and Uncle Alfred Zambelli grew tired “schlepping” all the way out to Riverside — an hour by train — and our family, my three sisters, my parents and I, would make the drive into Manhattan to dine with my aunt and uncle for Easter.

Zambelli, as my uncle was known, was an antiquarian book dealer, and he would scour the city for books and my Aunt Maria would compile bibliographies to be sent to universities worldwide. Their apartment on the Upper East Side was decorated with artwork, antiques, and hundreds of old scholarly books he had found.

The Easter menu was invariably jardiniere, a pickled vegetable medley, roast leg of lamb, my uncle’s signature broccoli — sautéed with garlic and bitter oil-cured black olives – and roasted potatoes.  The potent aromas of roasting lamb and garlic filled the apartment.

I must confess that I never cared for the leg of lamb as a child.

But as a grown up and professional chef I have acquired a taste for well-prepared lamb, and this Easter my partner Pam and I are preparing a rack of ribs.

Right now American and European farmers are tending to their newborn lambs, but these will be far too small to bring to market. You would have to wait until fall to get true spring lamb from your local farmer.

The lamb that I plan to serve for Easter will probably come from New Zealand or Australia, the world’s largest exporters, and will undoubtedly be purchased in a Cryo-Vac plastic bag.

That lamb will be generally six to eight months old at slaughter, and with the seasons reversed on the other side of the equator, New Zealand and Australia are in an ideal position to export lamb for American and European consumers in the spring.

If weather permits, I plan to grill the rack over hardwood charcoal.

I remove the thick cap of fat, “french” the rack, removing the meat between the rib bones. This meat along with any meat from the cap, I use to create a jus to serve with the grilled lamb.

I cut the rack into double-cut chops. This lets me to grill the meat at a lower temperature, allowing slightly more time to achieve the rare to medium rare chops that I prefer.

Single-cut chops should instead be grilled over very hot coals for a quick sear to achieve medium rare.

I season the lamb liberally with Kosher salt before grilling.

Or if grilling isn’t an option, I will roast the rack whole, “frenched” as before, and again using the meat from between the bones for the jus.

I like to coat the rack with a paste of finely minced garlic, olive oil, Dijon mustard and chopped parsley, and roast it in a pre-heated 350 degree oven until the meat in the eye of the rib reads with an instant read kitchen thermometer around 110 degrees

Let the meat rest for a few minutes before carving.

For a vegetable with lamb my first choice is asparagus, quickly blanched in salty water, then tossed in melted butter and lemon juice, or maybe instead broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil, garlic and anchovy paste. This slightly bitter green pairs well with the rich fat of the lamb.

For a starch, roasted potatoes are a solid standby. I also love garlic mashed potatoes.

This year I plan to make a risotto, prepared with arborio rice and homemade chicken stock. For spring, the risotto will include peas, asparagus, green onions and lemon zest, finished with butter and Reggiano Parmigiano cheese.

We can all look forward to future holidays when we can once again gather with friends and family.