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Shake a leg

The long Easter weekend is the ideal time to try roasting a leg of lamb with a lemon twist.

During the coming four days of holiday I look forward to indulging in copious amounts of chocolate, and cooking the Easter family feast. What I will be most pleased to see the back of are hot cross buns, which have turned the once-a-year-Good-Friday-treat of my childhood into a three-month supermarket-led assault on the senses. It’s crass commercialism, defying seasonality and pre-empting special foods for festive occasions – so I’m completely over the fruity buns, however good they might be.

Lamb will be on my menu. In Mediterranean countries most families roast a leg of lamb, or spit-roast a whole young spring lamb or kid, in celebration of Easter and the arrival of spring. The Jewish community also includes lamb on Seder menu of Passover, which falls within a few days of Easter. Friends in Melbourne tell me their streets reek of roast lamb at Easter.

Here in New Zealand our lamb is no longer spring lamb in April, but it is old enough to have developed more flavour and is at its peak for roasting. If you’re looking for true spring lamb, you’ll have to wait until early October when the season stretches through to Christmas. In my opinion, that’s the only time rare, very pink lamb is acceptable – pale, tender and subtly flavoured.

The meat industry calls the sheep meat we eat “lamb” until the little beasts reach their first birthday, when it becomes “hogget”. After another year or two of growth it becomes “mutton”, which requires longer, slower cooking. However, there’s a load of confusion, as lamb has become the general term for most sheep meat. Whatever your preference, the meat can be delicious when cooked perfectly.

I like my roast lamb cooked with the tang and scent that’s delivered by adding preserved lemons with fresh thyme from my garden, then cooking it over sliced potatoes with cloves of roast garlic. Preserved lemons are one of my favourite pantry items. My first acquaintance with this salty, perfumed condiment was in Moroccan cooking where it adds distinctive flavour to tagines and other dishes. I was thrilled when I tried Chris Ludbrook’s artisan preserved lemons, bottled on her family farm in the Far North.

Ludbrook is a much-fêted artisan food producer, who has built a following for her jellies, jams, and preserves. She married into a family that has continuously farmed in the Ohaewai district since 1860. Quick to recognise the potential of wonderful fruits grown in the district on various orchards, she put them to good use, selling to local delicatessens and to guests who visited her lodge.

The production of her best seller, the preserved lemons, has stepped up to more than 1500 jars a year, plus many catering-size pouches for the restaurant trade. She sends them to specialty food stores as far away as Invercargill. She buys in yen ben lemons, which, with their firm but thin skins, are perfect for her product.

Her gleaming jars of lemons are produced traditionally – cut into pieces, packed with salt and topped up with lemon juice. Ludbrook adds a few secret ingredients, such as spices and bay leaves, but she admits the lemon and salt combination is so strong, they’re more for appearance than flavour. Once opened, the jars sit happily on the pantry shelf.

To use them, discard the soft interior and chop or slice the skin finely. This can then be added to roast lamb, chicken or pork and brings a wonderfully elusive flavour to stews and casseroles. Vegetables in a stir-fry will perk up with a little chopped lemon skin, and it also enlivens stuffings, couscous, fish and shellfish fritters. An easy gremolata to serve over fish can be made by chopping Italian parsley, garlic and preserved lemon and mixing it with a little extra virgin olive oil. Once you’ve tried them, you may become addicted to the flavour, like me.

This dish will be the centrepiece of our Easter feast. The potatoes (red rascal) hold their shape beautifully and become flavoursome as they absorb all the lamb drippings.

Easter Leg of Lamb with Preserved Lemon, Thyme and Potatoes

  • 1 leg of lamb, shank end attached

  • 1 preserved lemon, pith removed

  • ½ cup freshly picked lemon thyme leaves

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • freshly ground black pepper

  • 1kg scrubbed waxy red potatoes

  • 1 tsp sea salt flakes

  • 1 bulb garlic

  • 1 cup light chicken or vegetable stock

  • 1 tbsp flour

  • 1 fresh lemon cut into wedges for garnish

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Trim the lamb of any excess lumps of fat, and make 4 or 5 shallow scores across the surface of the skin on each side. Cut the lemon into tiny dice, and roughly chop the thyme leaves, discarding any stalks. Press the lemon and thyme with 2 tablespoons of the oil over the skin of the lamb, making sure some is rubbed into the scored surface. Grind a generous amount of black pepper over the whole leg.

Slice the potatoes thickly (about 2-3cm slices), then place them in the bottom of a heavy roasting pan and toss with the remaining oil and the salt. Separate the garlic cloves but leave the skin on and scatter them among the potatoes. Place the leg in the centre of the dish, with some potatoes directly underneath, and the rest sitting around the lamb. Pour in the stock and place the dish in the oven.

After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 175°C and cook for 1½ hours. Adjust the time to suit the size of the leg – if it’s more than 2kg, it may need an extra 15-30 minutes. If you like your lamb well cooked, take a little longer. Remove the dish from the oven and place the leg and potatoes and most of the garlic on a warmed serving dish. Cover lightly with foil. You may like to turn the oven off and return the lamb there to keep warm while it rests.

Place the roasting dish over a heated element on the stovetop, and stir the flour into the pan drippings, stirring constantly and adding a little water to make a sauce or gravy. When it is thick and bubbling, it is ready.

Carve the lamb into thick slices on the dish, with the potatoes. Pour over the gravy and serve with steamed green beans, peas and baby carrots and lemon wedges.

Wine match: An intensely savoury Wai­rarapa pinot noir.

Supplier details: finefoods.co.nz.