For children it’s easy. Easter eating is all about finding sugary, colored eggs and biting the ears off chocolate bunnies. But for grown-ups, the weighty decision must be pondered: do we choose ham or lamb for Easter dinner?
Growing up, in my family, there was no contest. Ham was what everyone I knew ate for Easter dinner. The only real question involved was whether to choose the fresh ham or the smoked variety. The choice usually had to do with time. A fresh ham was a real commitment. It had to be brined or marinated and took many hours to cook. It was usually huge and served an enormous number of people and also guaranteed lots of delicious leftovers. And while a bone-in fresh ham can be tricky to carve, the bone kept the meat moist and could be re-cycled, of course, in a wonderful pea soup.
A smoked ham was much lower maintenance since it is already cooked and only needs to be glazed. Or heated and served with a sauce. Moreover, the different types of smoking add another level of complexity to the flavour. And if there’s no bone, it’s very easy to carve. (If you are really challenged in the carving department you may buy a pre-cut, pre-glazed, spiral-cut ham. But no, NO, you may not ever use canned ham which is in an entirely different food group altogether!)
Anyway, the smoked ham was usually my mother’s choice. It was always glazed and there were many variations of glazes — from pineapple juice to gingerale. I do recall that the early delights of French’s yellow mustard and brown sugar gave way to apricot preserves and Grey Poupon, as our tastes matured. But the meat was still required to be studded with cloves and the fat scored in a diamond pattern. The traditional accompaniments were scalloped potatoes and asparagus in some guise. Parker House rolls, stuffed eggs and “sunshine salad” usually made their way to the dinner table. And dessert continued the sunny theme: pineapple cake or lemon tarts.
As I grew older, I discovered with surprise that some people, those with exotic European backgrounds, for instance, always ate lamb for Easter. This was something of a revelation since lamb, in my family had been limited pretty much to lamb chops which were plastered, before eating, with a very pretty emerald green condiment that tasted like sweet mint jello. It wasn’t until I began to cook for myself that I began to experience the delights of rare roasted lamb.
A bone-in leg of lamb, coated with garlic mayonnaise, makes a spectacular centre piece. It needs to be roasted at high heat, but not for long, so that the outside is brown and crusty, but the interior is pink and rare. (This can also be done on a barbecue, but usually not in April. When it gets warm enough to barbecue outside, I bone the lamb leg and butterfly it, coat the meat with the mayonnaise and cook it on the grill for a very short time.) The leg of lamb is simply splendid and the garlic mayonnaise keeps it tender and juicy.
But if you truly need to impress your guests, a rack of lamb is the best choice. It’s the tenderest cut, the easiest to carve and only takes about 20 minutes to cook. (You may have to re-mortgage your house, however, in order to purchase it.) And lamb, somehow, requires different accompaniments than ham. New potatoes with parsley or chives and freshly shelled peas, along with small buttered baby carrots, or grilled leeks or artichoke hearts with lemon sauce if you are really showing off.
Either kind of meat makes a fine feast and I was interested to find out why these two different traditions evolved. A bit of research informed me that ham was the North American choice because in the early, pioneer days, before refrigeration, pigs were slaughtered in the colder days of the fall, the hams were hung and cured over the winter months and the greatly anticipated meat was ready to eat by Easter. The serving of lamb, on the other hand, goes back to the religious roots of Easter. In fact, roast lamb goes back pre-Christianity to the Jewish Passover when the sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in hope that the angel of god would pass over their houses and do no harm. As many Hebrews converted to Christianity, they brought their food traditions with them. And, of course, to Christians, the symbolism of the lamb was important since Christ was known as the Lamb of God for his sacrifice.
Whatever your choice, you will need to accompany your dinner with some kind of wine and I was lucky enough to get some help from our Go Cooking sommelier Peter Kline from Bacchus Sommelier Services (www.bacchussommelier.com). Peter was busy preparing for the up-coming “Spring Uncorked” event at the Royal Botanical Gardens (www springuncorked.com) on April 29th, where he will be serving as the “roving sommelier”, but was kind enough to take the time to supply me with three wine choices for either type of dinner: For the ham, his suggestions were: Cono Sur Bicicleta Viognier, Chile, LCBO 64287; Alsatian Gewürtztraminer (if it has some spices in the glaze); or G. Marquis, Pinot Noir from Magnotta Winery, Niagara on the Lake LCBO 258673. For the lamb, Mitolo Jester Shiraz from Mclaren Vale, Australia LCBO 659607; G. Guigal, Côtes de Rhone, France or Alamos Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina LCBO 295139.
I’ll leave you a truly scrumptious asparagus recipe which I have been known to eat unaccompanied, in its entirety, for a solo dinner (serves 6 — oh, dear). And Happy Easter!
adapted from Gourmet Magazine, April 2006
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
4 slices firm white sandwich bread, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/4 cup pine nuts (1 and 1/4 oz.)
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1) Butter a 2 1/2 quart shallow ceramic baking dish
2) Cook asparagus in 5- 6 quarts of boiling salted water, uncovered, until tender crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain in a colander, then transfer to baking dish and keep warm, tightly covered with foil.
3) Meanwhile, heat oil and butter in a heavy skillet over high heat until foam subsides, then cook shallots, stirring occasionally, until pale golden about 3 minutes. Add bread and pine nuts and cook, stirring, until browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add pepper, 1/2 cup Parmigiano and 1/4 tsp salt, tossing to combine.
4) Pre-heat broiler.
5) Toss warm asparagus with mascarpone, remaining 1/2 cup Parmigiano and remaining 1/4 tsp salt until combined well.
6) Sprinkle bread-crumb mixture evenly over asparagus. Broil 5 – 7 minutes from heat until topping is golden brown, 1 – 2 minutes.
I really wouldn’t attempt this if I were cooking lamb or ham in the oven, since I only have one oven and one broiler. Also, it’s very rich to go with a big dinner. I like it better with a pre-barbecued chicken from the supermarket — or even with simple steaks or chops.
This just in: Apparently there are aliens out there who like to eat turkey or prime rib for Easter. To each his own …..