By Rosie Hawthorne on April 21, 2011
As Mr. Hawthorne says, “Every meal is a celebration of life.” Perhaps none is more so than the Easter meal. For Easter, I want to do a traditional Easter meal. When I say traditional, I’m talking about Easter traditions that are rooted in symbolism.
Take the lamb, for example. Biblically, the Easter lamb represents Jesus and relates his death to that of the lamb sacrificed on the first Passover. Christians traditionally refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” a reference to his absolute innocence.
To be washed in the “blood of the Lamb” is a symbolic acceptance or adoption by Jesus Christ. Historically, the image of adoption was connected with the image of blood — an image old shepherding communities would have perfectly understood.
When the shepherd would check his flock in the morning, he might find a newborn lamb nestled beside the lifeless body of his mother. In another part of his flock, he would find a grieving mother with her stillborn child. Left alone, the mother would die from grief and the orphan from lack of sustenance. The childless mother would not accept the orphan. The two would know they were foreign.
The old Jewish shepherd/philosopher/theologian saw in this event the nature of our relationship to God — that God was dying of a broken heart and we, the lambs, are alien to one another and are dying from lack of sustenance. The shepherd knew what to do. He slit the throat of the dead baby, washed the orphan in the blood of the lamb, and offered the orphan to the mother. The living mama smells her own and allows the orphan to suckle — restoring life to both.
Easter, possibly the greatest feast day in the Christian calendar, is a moveable feast. As for the ever-changing dates Easter is celebrated on, there are both symbolic and historic reasons. The date Easter falls on is based on the lunar calendar. Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The lunar-based Jewish calendar is the reason for this. The Christian Holy Week before Easter coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. As Jesus celebrated the Last Supper in his final days, it makes sense historically to have Easter fall shortly after Passover.
The symbolism of spring giving birth to new life is also connected closely to Easter, as Jesus gives eternal life through his death and resurrection. The blooming of flowers and the birth of newborn animals at springtime is thought to symbolize the resurrection.
Spring is bursting with promise. I gratefully witness it in my own garden. As a gardener, I anticipate, appreciate and relish this rebirth. The first week of March, I await my ospreys. The first week of April, I await my asparagus. The world continues.
There is also symbolism in the Easter egg. At the Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolized new life. In Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden during Lent, and it is believed that the Easter egg tradition celebrated the end of the privations of Lent. The Easter egg symbolized new life and fertility and, for this reason, was used in many ancient cultures in their spring festivals. The egg was a pagan symbol of the rebirth of the Earth in spring celebrations and was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Hawthornes are having a traditional Easter meal, meaning it’s rife with symbolism. We’re having lamb and spring vegetables. One of the first plants that resurrects itself in the spring garden is asparagus, so I’m using asparagus from my garden in my risotto. I’m planning a green pea and asparagus risotto with lemon accents.
For my lamb dish, I am, untraditionally, NOT making it the way I always have — the way Mama Hawthorne did. I have always, like my mother, poured boiling water over the lamb. I was fascinated watching the red meat shiver, contract, and seize up as the hot water scalded the meat.
I’m not doing that this time. I’m going rogue and marinating the lamb overnight, then searing the lamb in hot oil and butter. I use the butter for flavor and the oil to raise the smoke point of the mixture. By itself, butter burns at high heat. Add in some type of oil to raise the smoke point so you can use hot temperatures to sear the lamb all over.
I will do the searing in an iron skillet, adding in red wine and beef broth to scrape up the goody bits — or as those in the heat of the kitchen know as the fond, which makes for a delicious gravy.
Ingredients for lamb
1 5-6 pound leg of lamb, bone in
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup red wine
6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 TB fresh rosemary
2 TB fresh thyme
2 TB fresh oregano
2 TB fresh mint
1 TB Kosher salt
1 TB coarsely ground pepper
Make a spice rub with the garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper and rub all over the lamb.
Place lamb in large plastic bag and pour in lemon juice, olive oil, and wine.
Squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can, seal, and let the lamb marinate in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight. When you think about it, go massage the lamb, redistributing the marinade.
Discard marinade. Pat lamb with paper towels. Let lamb come to room temperature before cooking.
Set an iron skillet over medium high heat, add some butter and oil — butter for flavor and oil to raise the smoke point of the butter. Sear the lamb all over.
To sear lamb, or any meat for that matter, wait for a wisp of smoke to emanate from the butter/oil mixture on your hot iron skillet. When you see the wisp, place the lamb in the hot oil. Leave it alone. Resist the urge to move the meat around. If you try to move the meat, it will stick to the pan and tear.
Wait two to three minutes, then carefully move the meat. When it’s ready, it releases itself from the pan. Turn and sear on all sides. This will take several minutes.
When you’re through searing, you should have some goody bits in the bottom of the pan. Add a little beef broth and red wine to scrape up these pieces and you’ll have the fixings of a nice gravy. Be sure to watch the level of broth during cooking so it doesn’t cook off. Add more liquid as needed. You always want to have liquid in the pan.
Set the lamb in a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake until lamb is to your liking. I like my lamb medium and that translates to 25 to 30 minutes per pound or an internal temperature of 160 degrees. I find that an oven-proof thermometer is invaluable when roasting meats. Be sure the thermometer does not touch the bone and, very importantly, do not remove the probe when you take the meat out. You’ll lose wonderful juices.
When the internal temperature reaches 160, take the lamb out, remove it from the pan and let it rest for at least 15 minutes before carving to let the juices redistribute in the lamb. If you slice meat immediately upon taking it out of the oven, you will lose all that wonderful juice. Let meat rest.
Position the roasting pan or iron skillet on your stove burners and add beef broth to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula to release and incorporate the drippings.
Ingredients for Lemon Spring Risotto
2 TB unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
juice and zest of one lemon
¼ cup white wine
1 quart + vegetable or chicken broth, heated
6-8 asparagus spears, cut into ¼-inch pieces
½ cup peas (I use frozen peas, never canned. There’s a big difference.)
¼ cup heavy cream
2 TB butter
¼ – ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground salt and pepper to taste
Risotto is an Italian rice dish. It is not a type of rice; it is a method of preparation. Risotto uses a specific type of rice and cooking technique. Risotto must be made using a short-grain rice.
In the 1300s, a plump, round, short-grained rice that would become the main ingredient for risotto was cultivated in the Po Valley in northern Italy. Arborio rice, the traditional rice for risotto, is named for the town of Arborio in the Po Valley. Actually there are three main varieties of rice from which to choose: arborio, vialone nano, and carnaroli. The only one I’ve seen in markets here is the arborio rice.
All three of these rices are high in a starch called amylopectin, which dissolves in the cooking process, giving risotto its characteristic creamy texture. Arborio is the best-known rice in the U.S. for risotto. It has a slightly larger grain that allows it to easily absorb liquid, thus resulting in the creamy texture risotto is known for. Do not go to the grocery store looking for rice labeled “risotto.” Look for arborio rice. Remember, risotto is the technique, not the rice.
So what is the technique? Mind you, it’s a technique of love. You’ll need a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan and a wooden spoon. In a separate saucepan, heat about 1 quart of stock. Hot stock is essential here. Cold stock would result in hard, undercooked grains. Of course, homemade stock is preferable, but I know not always practical. I would recommend a low-sodium vegetable stock for most risottos. Otherwise, match the stock to the risotto you’re making, for example beef stock if you want a hearty meat risotto.
A risotto cannot be hurried along. First the rice must be toasted in butter and/or olive oil. I like to start with sautéed onions for extra flavor. Cook the onions for about two minutes, letting them sweat, but not brown, then add in the rice and toast for one to two minutes in the fat and onion mixture. You want to coat the rice with fat to prevent it from absorbing the liquid too quickly.
When the rice is toasted, add in some white wine, the lemon zest and the lemon juice. The wine is quickly absorbed by the rice, infusing the wine flavor in the rice. The key now is to gently simmer the rice while stirring and gradually add the hot stock to the rice, no more than 1/4 cup at a time, making sure the liquid is completely absorbed before adding more. This allows the rice to slowly absorb the liquid and to slowly release its starch, creating the creamy texture characteristic of risotto.
Be sure to constantly stir the risotto, especially along the edge of the pan to prevent it from sticking. Generally, risotto takes about 30 minutes. Start taste-testing it after about 20 minutes. Add freshly ground salt and pepper to taste. Cooked risotto should be creamy, but the rice should be al dente, meaning cooked, but firm to the bite.
Before I get to the al dente point, I like to add in whatever vegetables I’m using in the last couple of minutes. And that’s the beauty of risotto. Today I’m using frozen peas and fresh spring asparagus since it’s coming up in my garden and is bountiful and inexpensive in your grocery stores now; but feel free to experiment with all types of seasonal flavors.
A summer risotto could include squash and zucchini, and fresh-flavored herbs such as basil, mint, and parsley or spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. A more robust risotto could be made with fall and winter vegetables — say sweet acorn squash, an earthy Swiss chard and more savory herbs like rosemary and sage. Risotto can be anything you want it. That’s the beauty of risotto.
To finish off the risotto, remove it from the heat, add in a nice bit of butter, some heavy cream, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This adds an extra silkiness and flavor and helps bind the ingredients together. You may want to garnish with a sprinkling of parsley or mint. For a special Easter touch, I’m serving my Lemon Spring Risotto mounded in a lemon cup, symbolic of the Easter egg.
For Rosie’s step-by-step instructions for making her lamb and her risotto, please bunny-hop over to Rosie’s Easter Celebration blog post.
Happy Easter from the Hawthorne home to yours. And please visit with Rosie at Kitchens Are Monkey Business.