Ameer Kotecha

How to master Easter lamb

How to master Easter lamb
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Easter is almost upon us. And with the latest stage of the easing of restrictions coming in on 29 March we’ll soon be allowed to leave our homes at long last to, perish the thought, simply ‘hang out’. We like the Lamb of God are about to be resurrected – from our national Netflix-induced soporific stupor to loitering around park benches drinking from brown paper bags like teens.

Of course, once upon a time we were being urged to 'celebrate Christmas at Easter' by which time the virus was to have been eviscerated. It hasn’t quite worked out and nor do I advise you to tuck into a festive turkey this Resurrection Sunday. For Easter means lamb.

It has become increasingly fashionable in recent years to eschew the leg and do a slow-cooked, meltingly tender shoulder of lamb for a Sunday roast. Rightly so, for the shoulder meat is rich and delicious, but when it comes to Easter there is something suitably grand and evocative of the new season about a whole leg brought to the table, pink in the middle and surrounded by spring veg.

Rubbing it all over with olive oil, sea salt, garlic and rosemary is a classic preparation – adding some lemon zest too gives a welcome freshness. Or make incisions all over the leg and stuff with the garlic (peeled and halved) and rosemary (cut into little matchstick-sized sprigs) before rubbing over olive oil and salt. It takes a little longer but looks the part and enables the flavour to penetrate. Many will advise adding anchovies (halved lengthways) into the incisions too – the salty savouriness they bring just somehow works.

There are other options other than leg. A saddle, stuffed with crispy shallots, garlic and pancetta, is a treat. Or, if you have a day (or four) to prepare lunch – which, in the current environment, perhaps you do – try this Herdwick Lamb Wellington from Gordon Ramsey. It is an undeniable showstopper, and will finally enable you to move on from trumpeting your First Lockdown banana bread. If you don’t have the time or inclination, the Gladwin Brothers can do the hard work for you with their spring lamb and foraged wild garlic wellington delivered to your door. Other ready-made delivery options are the Easter Feasting Box from Riding House at Home which includes a five-course seasonal menu, complete with cocktails (plus a custom playlist, Easter card and egg-hunt themed game). Or, for something exotic, COYA have a Peruvian braised lamb rump as part of their four course finish-at-home feast.

If you want to cook but are alone, or just a pair, you might go for a rack of lamb instead. Get the butcher to 'French trim' it for you, so the pretty rib bones are exposed, and then flavour with a garlic, parsley and pistachio crust. And if you are (un)lucky enough to be locked down with a big family, you could try getting a whole baby lamb: Notting Hill Fish and Meat shop are doing an incredibly tender Segovian milk-fed lamb only a few kilos in size (or you can buy individual cuts).

And, if you fancy adding a twist then here's my alternative to the classic garlic and rosemary combination:

Masala Raan

Makes enough for 4-6

Preparation: 30 mins

Cooking time: About 1 hour 15 mins

My own recipe for roast lamb involves a marinade of aromatic spices; the end result is familiar enough to be comforting, while providing an exciting departure from the typical garlic and rosemary treatment. There is some debate about if and how you should marinate lamb; some claim it’s unnecessary for an already-tender meat and that it can actually make the lamb tougher. I find this marinade works; the resulting meat is both tender and flavoursome. Try using raw papaya paste if you can find it in an ethnic store – the papaya contains a natural tenderizer. If it eludes you, lemon juice is just fine.

1 leg of lamb, about 1.8 kg

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 tablespoons raw papaya paste, or juice of one lemon

Large thumb of ginger, minced

5 cloves garlic, minced

150g yoghurt

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons oil

For the gravy:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Small glass port or red wine

2 tablespoons cornflour

1 litre lamb or chicken stock

Make a dozen incisions or scores over the lamb leg and rub over the sea salt, papaya paste or lemon juice, ginger and garlic (both minced with a Microplane or in a food processor). Marinate for an hour in a large tray covered with foil.

Mix together the yoghurt, oil (anything flavourless), bay leaves and all the spices and rub this marinade all over the lamb. Leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

Remove the lamb from the fridge for an hour or two to reach room temperature. Heat the oven to 210˚C and roast the lamb uncovered for about 30 mins until it is nicely bronzed.

After about 30 minutes, pour a small glass of water into the tray, cover with the foil, reduce the heat to 180˚C and cook for a further 45-50 minutes (or longer if your lamb leg is larger). The most reliable way of ensuring the meat is cooked the way you like it is to use a digital thermometer: it’s done when the middle of the lamb reaches the required temperature, 50˚C if you like it rare, 60˚C for medium, 70˚C for well done.

When cooked, let the leg rest outside the oven for half an hour.

While resting, make your gravy. Put the tray on the hob, deglaze with red wine vinegar and port or red wine (pour yourself a glass while you’re at it). Add the cornflour and stir and scrape at all the caramelised bits. Add the lamb or chicken stock and let it bubble away until reduced. Pass through a sieve and keep hot (lamb fat melts at a relatively high temperature, about 40˚C, so you might want to keep your gravy in a pan on a low heat to ensure the fat doesn’t re-solidify).

Carve the leg against the grain (i.e. straight down towards the bone) for maximum tenderness. Serve as you like best – with naan and a yoghurt raita, or roast potatoes and mint sauce.