Growing up in Ohio, Easter was one of those holidays that didn’t have a strong food tradition.
Thanksgiving had its turkey; Christmas had its ham; even the Fourth of July had its hamburgers and hot dogs on the barbecue. But except for chocolate eggs and bunnies, Easter was a culinary hodgepodge of whatever my mother felt like cooking on any given year – although strawberry shortcake was the typical dessert.
It wasn’t until I was adult that I decided to adopt lamb as the regular Easter dish in my household. Lamb is the traditional dish of Easter in many Christian cultures, particularly in central and eastern European countries, and Jesus is also often referred to as the Lamb of God. Lamb is also linked to springtime, when Easter occurs, and spring lamb is some of the best lamb you can get. All of those reasons played a part in the selection of lamb as my traditional Easter dish, but there was one other important reason as well: I love eating lamb and I don’t tend to cook it a lot otherwise.
I’ve cooked lamb several different ways for Easter, but my favourite method in on the barbecue grill and my favourite recipe is melt-in-your-mouth lamb kebabs.
I start with a leg of lamb, the size of which depends on how many people I’m serving. Figure on roughly 3/4 pound of bone-in meat per person, so a three-to-four pound shank half leg of lamb will serve about four or five people and a seven-to-eight pound full leg will serve eight to 10 people. To really make the meat tender, it needs to be marinated overnight before cooking, so plan accordingly.
If possible, have the butcher de-bone the leg, but if that’s not possible, you’ll have to do it yourself. The meat will also need to be trimmed of as much fat and membrane as possible in any case.
After the meat is trimmed, cut it into small 1 to 1 and a 1/2 inch cubes.
Then comes the most important part, and the part that is left up to each individual cook, the marinade. Marinades should have an acid base of vinegar or citrus and can include whatever herbs and spices you like. I love to experiment with marinades, but one of my favourites for lamb combines olive oil, sour (Naranja) orange juice, fresh pressed garlic and fresh chopped rosemary leaves.
Put the trimmed and cubed meat in a plastic Zip-lock bag and pour the marinade over it. If left overnight, the result will be tender and flavourful meat that will really almost melt in your mouth after cooking.
I grill the meat on bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water. In between cubes of meat on the skewers, I put pieces of onion and sweet pepper – red and green – on an alternating basis.
I cook the kebabs directly over medium-hot charcoals with the grill lid down, but this can be done on a gas grill as well. For medium-rare to medium, figure on an internal meat temperature of 150 to 160 degrees.
For those who like a smoky taste in their meat, wood chips can be added directly to hot coals or in a wood box in gas grills. Hickory goes well with lamb and is readily available here in Cayman. Cherry wood, if you can find it, gives a lighter flavour of smoke and is also a good match for lamb.
The kebabs can be served on the skewers or, to make it easier, taken off the skewers and on a platter or in a serving bowl.
As for side dishes, I almost always serve lamb kebabs with a recipe called Armenian rice pilaf. It’s a simple dish to prepare. Start by melting 1/4 cup of butter in a medium-sized pot. Add a half cup of dry orzo or thin spaghetti broken into one-half inch strips. Cook over low heat until the pasta turns golden brown. Add two cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Add a clove of pressed garlic, 1/4 cup of pine nuts, and one cup of white rice, then cover the pot and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed. Remove the pot from the heat and let it stand covered for five minutes, then fluff with a fork. I usually double the recipe because it is delicious as leftovers.
I also serve the meal with a garden salad and a green vegetable, usually asparagus that has been grilled after being brushed with sesame seed oil.
For dessert, I like using fresh strawberries, and something as simple as strawberries and cream is a perfect end to an Easter meal.