From the somberness of Ash Wednesday to the solemnity of Easter Sunday, the Easter season is a very important time in Italian culture.
I have so many memories of that time growing up: endless “meatless” Fridays (lentils, lentils and more lentils), spending more time in church during Holy Week than at home, and our traditional Good Friday dinner out at the long-gone Hillside Café at 13th and Market streets in Harrisburg.
Easter Sunday was a wonderful celebration—a basket filled with beautiful Easter candy from Matangos (still going strong on Catherine Street in Harrisburg and selling real white chocolate), our house filled with the scent of lilies and hyacinths, cannolis lovingly made by my cousin, Sena, and, if the weather was nice, a stroll around Italian Lake in Uptown Harrisburg. Going to church on Easter Sunday always meant a new hat and little white gloves for me. Haven’t times changed?
But the highlight of the holiday for me has always been making traditional Italian Easter food. I once tackled a torta pasqualina, a seven-layered spinach pie made with almost “impossible to roll out” sheets of dough. It took me an entire day. Dessert is usually a ricotta or amaretto cheesecake, but I have given up on making fruited yeast breads shaped like doves.
For many years now, the centerpiece of my Easter dinner has been a roast lamb, in Italian culture a symbol of spring and re-birth. I was fortunate to taste lamb roasted over a wood fire on a cool spring night in Umbria, Italy, several years ago, an experience I will never forget. There is no outdoor oven here at home for me, but a whole lamb roasted in an ordinary oven and fragrant with garlic and rosemary is still one of the most heavenly meals ever. I urge all you ham lovers out there to give Easter lamb a try.
Roast Lamb with Potatoes
- A whole, bone-in leg of lamb (look for young, local lamb if you can and avoid those that are encased in heavy plastic and shipped from halfway across the world)
- 4-6 cloves of fresh garlic
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves stripped from the branches
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6-8 medium potatoes cut into chunks or about a pound of small, round red or yellow potatoes
- 2 sweet onions, thinly sliced
- Preheat the oven to 450.
- Bring the refrigerated lamb to room temperature and pat dry with paper towels.
- Finely chop the rosemary and garlic, place in a small bowl with a little olive oil and salt, and mix together to make a kind of paste.
- With the tip of a small knife, cut ½ inch slits into the surface of the meat. Push a little of the herb mixture into each slit.
- Brush more olive oil all over the lamb and dust lightly with salt and pepper.
- Place the potatoes and onions into a heavy roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Place a cake “cooling rack” over the potatoes and onions and place the lamb, fat-side down, on the rack. (The drippings from the lamb will give the potatoes a wonderful flavor.)
- Roast for 20 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Turn the lamb.
- Roast about 1 hour longer for medium rare or 1½ hours longer for medium well done. (But use your meat thermometer and roast exactly to your liking.)
- Transfer the lamb to a cutting board, cover with foil, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes.
- Raise the oven heat back to 450, and let the potatoes cook until they are crisp and golden brown.
- Slice the lamb thinly and serve with the potatoes and onions. (For a lovely presentation, place on a platter garnished with sprigs of mint and rosemary.)
I often serve my Easter lamb with whole roasted tomatoes stuffed with breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and whatever herbs are leftover. The tomatoes are a lovely contrast to the rich lamb. Asparagus and peas with mint are other perfect accompaniments.
The experts recommend a Chianti classico to serve with a garlicky roast lamb, but our family likes pinot noir with almost all meat dishes. A chilled sauvignon blanc would work too if you love white wine.
Happy spring and “Buona Pasqua” to all readers!