No doubt by now you have the menu planned for Easter and have bought what you need. If not, here’s a popular Gallic choice: gigot d’agneau, leg of lamb. It’s a firmly established French tradition, and there is rarely much deviation. But, to mangle the title of a nearly 100-year-old song, 50 million French carnivores can’t be wrong.
Interviewing French friends and perusing a few popular French cooking magazines confirms that the classic Easter menu begins with asparagus, moves to the lamb course and ends with chocolates, typically egg-shaped. One headline pronounced: “Easter without lamb is like Christmas without bûche de Noël!” After a warning to avoid overcooking it (“too cooked, it loses its tenderness and finesse”) were 48 recipes for leg of lamb in various guises. Another magazine offered 60.
Not everyone cooks the leg, of course, but nearly everyone eats some kind of lamb dish, whether braised with spring vegetables or cut into chops and pan-seared. But leg of lamb doesn’t have to be reserved for just Easter: it’s appropriate for any special dinner party, or any occasion when you want an impressive main course. The technique is simple, but the result is very flavourful.
Throughout France, the standard way to prepare a leg of lamb, after first asking the butcher to trim away excess fat, remove the hip bone and tie it up, is to make a couple dozen little slits in the surface of the roast with a sharp knife. Into each, you insert a small garlic clove, or a garlic sliver, if the cloves are large. Then, you shower it all over with salt and pepper and massage the seasoning into the meat. I like to line the roasting pan with a hefty pile of thyme and rosemary branches to perfume the lamb as it roasts.
Leg of lamb and beans is a classic combination, one I admire. In France, dried flageolet beans, small and pale green, are a common accompaniment, or fat dried white coco beans. I often use cannellini or gigante beans. The mingling of rich pan juices with the soft creamy beans is rather intoxicating.
Serve this festive leg of lamb and beans combination all year round, along with whatever seasonal vegetables you fancy. Right now, for instance, buttered baby carrots or turnips seem perfect to me, as I anticipate the arrival of peas, asparagus and leeks at the market. And, far off on the horizon, the Francophile fantasy – ratatouille – awaits.
Leg of lamb with savoury beans
Serves: 8 to 10
Total time: 2 hours, plus marinating
For the beans:
450g flageolet or white beans, such as cannellini
2 whole cloves
1 medium onion, halved
2 bay leaves
1 large carrot, cut into 5cm chunks
1 whole head garlic, cut in half horizontally
1 small fistful of thyme sprigs
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp finely cut chives
1 tsp grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper, to taste
For the lamb:
1 (3.6-4.1kg) leg of lamb, bone-in, trimmed and tied (a butcher can do this)
6 medium garlic cloves, cut into quarters lengthwise
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium onions, halved crosswise
2 celery stalks, cut into 8cm-long pieces
2 thyme bunches
2 rosemary bunches
470ml dry white wine
680g small, young carrots
2 tbsp unsalted butter
Watercress, for garnish (optional)
Put the beans in casserole dish or heavy-bottomed pot. Add 1.9L water and place pot over high heat. Stick 1 whole clove into each onion half. Add onion, bay leaves, carrot, garlic, thyme and salt. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to a bare simmer and cover with lid ajar (the slow simmer keeps the beans from bursting). After 30 minutes, taste the bean broth, and add salt as necessary. Cook for about another 30 minutes, but check for tenderness after 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let beans cool in their cooking liquid (you may cook the beans several hours, or up to 1 day, in advance).
Meanwhile, prepare the lamb: with a sharp paring knife, make 24 small slits over the surface of the lamb. Using your fingers, push a garlic sliver into each slit.
Season the leg generously all over with salt, then sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon black pepper. Drizzle with about 2 tablespoons olive oil, and massage oil and seasonings all over the meat. Leave at room temperature for at least an hour. (Alternatively, wrap and refrigerate the seasoned leg for up to 24 hours. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)
Heat oven to 240C. In a sturdy roasting pan, arrange the onions and celery. Lay down the thyme and rosemary branches and set the lamb leg on top. Roast, uncovered, for 20 minutes, then add wine to the pan and turn heat to 180C. Continue cooking, basting the roast occasionally, until the internal temperature reaches 55C for medium-rare or 60 for medium, which will take up to 1½ hours.
Transfer the roast to a cutting board and keep warm, tented with foil, for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the onions, celery, thyme and rosemary from the roasting pan and discard. Skim fat from surface of pan juices.
Set pan over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Taste and adjust with a splash of water if the pan juices are too salty.
While lamb is resting, boil carrots in well-salted water until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain, toss with butter and keep warm.
Reheat the beans in their broth, then drain reserving bean broth for another use. Remove and discard onion, bay leaves, carrot, garlic and thyme. Put beans in a warm serving dish. Toss beans gently with the parsley, chives, lemon zest, olive oil and pepper. Reheat pan juices, strain and pour into a serving vessel.
Carve the lamb and arrange on serving platter along with the carrots. Garnish with watercress, if desired.
© The New York Times