Easter Sunday, for many people, means roast lamb for lunch. The Easter roast, unlike the Christmas turkey that brings tension and stress, is easy-peasy and is the ideal dish for a tranquil holiday weekend with the family or a group of friends.
One of the beauties of roast leg of lamb is that even complete novices can do a passable version. Those with a minimum of experience turn out a lamb roast that delights everyone.
That, at any rate has been my experience, although I have heard of people (including a few Mallorcans) who dislike lamb.
I prefer my lamb very underdone, but most people (except the French) don’t want to see any pink bits.
As a rule you’ll get universal acceptance if the leg of lamb is cooked through to the bone. But you can do what you like to a roast leg of lamb and it will not only be edible, but will also be very much to someone’s particular taste.
A leg of lamb has another advantage: it looks after itself once it’s in the oven. A friend didn’t believe that, and in order to prove this point I once rubbed a leg of lamb with some olive oil and a little powdered rosemary and popped it into a hottish oven for an hour.
I didn’t look at it, I didn’t baste it, I didn’t turn it over at the halfway stage. I simply left it completely on its own for an hour.
My friend was the first to say it was tender, juicy and delicious. On another occasion, I wanted to roast a leg of lamb in the French style: very rare.
I did it for a shorter time than is recommended for underdone lamb and it was rarer than I had intended. The meat was pink all over (except at the shank) and it was amazingly succulent.
That was about 50 years ago and it was the best roast leg of lamb I have ever eaten…except for one I did three years ago that was even better.
Those who are discontent with their roast lamb should consider learning a thing or two from Spanish cooks.
Spaniards have always had a knack for roasting, lamb, suckling pig and young goat in wood-fried ovens. They use some special techniques that have become well known in recent years.
The best way to acquire these Spanish skills is to watch a Spaniard prepare the leg before he puts it into the oven, and then to observe what he does with it after it is cooked.
One well-known Segovian expert (Segovia is famous for its roast lamb and suckling pig) has a special mixture he uses on a leg of lamb before roasting it.
He first pounds a few cloves of garlic and dried mint in a mortar until they are reduced to a paste. Then he adds lard and continues to pound until everything is well blended and looks (and smells) like an aromatic ointment.
The Segovian cook then smears the leg of lamb with this unctuous mixture, giving the whole leg a thin coating.
He then takes a besuguera (a Spanish oval-shaped earthenware dish for baking fish and meat) and pours in one glass of sherry and one of water. He also sprinkles on more dried mint.
He puts four or five bones on the bottom of the dish (they can be lamb, pork or beef) to act as a rack for the leg of lamb and keep it clear of the roasting juices.
The leg of lamb in the besuguera then goes into a hot wood-fired oven, and after half an hour he turns the leg over and adds a little more sherry to the juices. After another 30 minutes, more or less, he takes the lamb out of the oven.
He strains the juices into a small saucepan, checks for salt, and reduces everything over a lowish heat while the lamb rests near the oven door. When the juices become a sticky gravy, he carves the lamb and serves the gravy in a sauceboat.
That’s one simple and extremely tasty Spanish way roasting a leg of lamb but there are other methods. Some cooks in Castilla-La Mancha, who are also famous for their roasts, have a special mixture for pouring over a roast when it comes out of the oven.
It is called the brebaje, a word that can mean magic potion. And that is its function: to add a touch of magic to roast meat of any kind.
The brebaje is basically vinegar with crushed herbs. Every cook has his own formula: the strength of the vinegar and the herb combination are always well-kept secrets. Most cooks use cider vinegar because it is less aggressive and the herbs mixed into it, and the amounts, are very much a matter of personal taste.
So when making up your own brebaje you must experiment with the vinegar and herbs of your choice until you come up with the flavour that most appeals to you. When you’ve finally worked out your formula you keep it a secret — just like every other cook.
As soon as the lamb comes out of the oven and is on its serving dish, the brebaje is slowly and carefully spooned over the meat’s surface. As the brebaje trickles down the side of the lamb, it picks up oozing juices as it goes.
The lamb is carved after it has rested for about 15 minutes. More juices seep out as the lamb is sliced and they mingle with the brebaje and other juices. A little of this mixture is spooned over each serving of sliced lamb.
When carving a leg of lamb, most Spaniards I know prefer the French horizontal method, which is also how Spaniards slice a leg or shoulder of cured ham.
The English way is to cut vertically into the leg, the thickness of the slices being a question of personal taste.
It doesn’t matter which method you use, although some find the horizontal way is a little easier, as well as being better for producing thinner slices.
The English start carving at the thickest part of the leg, making vertical cuts into the flesh and going right down to the bone. For horizontal carving, hold the leg at an angle of about 45 degrees and then slice the meat parallel to the bone, always carving towards the table.
When you turn the leg to carve the other side, the horizontal way works better because the meat there is less thick and narrower — and that gives you longer slices.
During the Easter weekend roast lamb will be served all over the island, but mint sauce will accompany it mainly in British homes. Mint sauce or jelly with roast lamb is a quintessential English tradition. The French dislike it and the Spanish hardly know of its existence.
However, I have introduced several Spaniards to the delights of mint sauce and they have loved it. One Spanish friend always takes home any leftover mint sauce and has it with lamb chops, chicken drumsticks and even entrecôte steaks.
Meat from the lamb puts in a double appearance in most Mallorcan homes during Easter — and in more than a few it is even a triple treat.
That’s because Mallorcans also use leg or shoulder of lamb in the traditional meat pies known as ses panades, an essential part of the Easter Sunday and Easter Sunday meals.
And at some point during the Easter holiday another essential tradition is the serving of a frito mallorquín made with the pluck of a milk-fed lamb.
For many Mallorcan families the lamb’s most awaited contribution to the gastronomic delights of Easter is ses panades, always made at home and according to a time-hallowed family recipe.
The first homemade panada I ever tasted was like that, made by the late doña Paula Marcus, the mother of Margarita Magraner, the widow of Pedro Serra, founder of the Daily Bulletin.
Doña Paula’s panada was so delicious I asked for a recipe and received a hand-written copy of it. That was more than 55 years ago and I still have that recipe in my files. It’s the best panada recipe I’ve ever come across, partly because it works so well.
I’m no pastry cook, but Doña Paula’s recipe is so easy and efficient, it produced for me a truly superb panada pastry.
Easter panades recipe
Any readers who always wanted to have a go at doing Easter panades but never had a recipe, should give this one a try. If you follow it to the letter you cannot fail to make really fine panades this Easter.
You will need: 1 kilo flour (ask for harina para empanadas), 250 grs pork lard, 150 grs panceta salada, 150 grs good sobrasada, 1 medium-sized glass fresh orange juice, virgen extra olive oil and water (about 150 mls of each), a pinch of salt and sugar and 1 kilo of leg of lamb, boned and cut into bite-sized pieces, well-seasoned with salt and pepper.
Rub the flour into the lard with your fingers until it is completely absorbed and the mixture goes mealy. Add the fresh orange juice (it must be freshly pressed), olive oil, water and a pinch of salt and sugar.
Mix well into the flour and lard until you have a stiff dough.
The dough must be firm but pliable enough to be moulded into a pie case. To achieve this you may have to add a little more oil and water — it depends on the flour. When the dough is ready, let it rest for two hours.
Divide the dough into pieces slightly smaller than the size of a tennis ball. For each ball of dough you will need a small piece for making the pie lid. Take a ball of dough and make a hole in the centre, gradually widening it with both thumbs.
You should end up with a circular pie case with sides and bottom no more than quarter of an inch thick. If you can make them thinner than that, do so.
Tins are never used for panades as the dough is firm enough to stand up on its own. You can use the bottom of a bottle, jar or glass to mould the pie cases but most Majorcans use thumbs and fingers.
Fill the pie case with the seasoned lamb, adding little bits of panceta and sobrasada. As the heat reaches the panceta and the sobrasada, their fat will run and lubricate the lamb, helping to make it juicy and tasty. Perfectionists say the sobrasada must be arranged amid the pieces of lamb so that its paprika-tinted fat doesn’t seep through the pastry.
Few cooks achieve this degree of perfection — and many panades freaks (such as myself) actually prefer to see the lid tinged with a patch or two of sobrasada colour.
Use the small pieces of dough to make lids slightly larger than the circumference of the pie. Press the lid gently over the top, sealing it by pinching the edge against the side of the pie. Cut a small hole in the centre of the lid.
Put the pies on top of circular pieces of greaseproof paper and bake them in a hot oven for 45-60 minutes. Panades can be eaten hot or cold — but I find they are at their best when freshly baked and allowed to cool down a little.
Mallorcans traditionally eat their first panada of Easter for lunch on Easter Sunday —a copious meal that could include frito or roast lamb. I find panades are better at any time of the day other than lunch or dinner.
Try them as a mid-morning or afternoon snack with a glass of wine. They are also lovely as an impromptu supper. I especially enjoy having one for breakfast on Easter Monday morning.
Most Mallorcans never reheat panades, preferring to eat them at room temperature, as if they were a French-type pâté with a crust. But Doña Paula’s panades reheat nicely, with the filling and the pastry remaining quite scrumptious.