Meat of the season

Henri drinks to spring and grills a little lamb

Photo by Paul Sableman (via Flickr)

“Dost thou know who made the lamb?” a laughing child once asked of me. Though charmed by innocence so mild, “Of course, you twit!” I said.

—Henri, with apologies to William Blake

While chilly early April rains, however brief, recently assailed Henri’s unguarded soul, he is pleased to report that he survived and is of relatively sound mind and spirit, thanks largely to late-night viewings of Easter Parade and Yentl and to the shipment of Saint-Émilion that arrived from Bordeaux in February—and to three Costco bottles of Grey Goose vodka.

In fact, for the first time in years, Henri actually has a case of printemps fever, brought on in no small part by the vibrant dogwood blossoms and the lush and nascent greenery of Bidwell Park—and, I must confess, by the fervidly spare attire of some of its young visitors.

But spring means something else, too—especially to the cook and the gourmand. It means lamb.

Traditionally, lamb is served this time of year for two reasons: 1) Before improved animal husbandry and imports from other parts of the world (particularly New Zealand, whose spring is our fall), lamb was available only in spring; 2) to Jewish and Christian faiths alike, lamb is an important part of the season’s principal religious holiday meal. At Passover, it symbolizes the lamb, as described in Exodus, that was slain for each household in order that the “Angel of Death” would pass over and not kill that family’s first-born son. Christians serve lamb at Easter as, according to Corinthians, it symbolizes Christ himself, the “sacrificial lamb”—whose Lord’s Supper, or Last Supper, was, according to many religious scholars, very likely itself a Passover meal.

Lamb is enjoyed and celebrated throughout the world. In North Africa, it’s often sweetened with fruit or honey or cooked in stews with garbanzos, onions, olives, nuts, dates and mint. Greeks serve it with a cucumber-and-yogurt sauce, and in many Middle Eastern countries (Muslims can eat beef and lamb, but not pork), it’s curried or served on skewers as kabobs. American favorites include leg of lamb, rack of lamb and lamb chops.

Henri recently had the privilege of overhearing local chef extraordinaire and bon vivant Deni Ladimieux holding forth on Irish lamb:

“In Ireland,” he said, waving a glass of pinot noir, “the gents needed the wool to keep warm; that and whiskey of course, so they ate the pigs. But in the spring, with the sun at their back and faced with a twinning, they took a chance and killed the wee one, because lamb blood was rare, sweet, fresh and safer than pig’s, and the meat smelled good with wild rosemary, leeks and onions—the lamb small enough to roast over the open fire, the fat married to the peat and sweet marjoram. Their children literally honed their teeth on lamb chops and the skinned leg bones, and it became a formidable genetic force in the trenches of gastronomy.” Monsieur Ladimieux then looked across the room at Henri—what all did he know?—and continued.

“And for the wine? A nebbiolo, either Barolo or Barbaresco, with tight berry tannin, leather, honed to a point to cut right through the succulent fat on the tongue.”

Henri would have spilled his Tanqueray and tonic right then and there had there been any left. He took a breath to regain his composure, set his glass down on a table, and hastened an exit. On the way home, I stopped for a bottle of Barolo, and drank most of it while grilling the lamb that I had, coincidentally, been marinating.

Henri’s grilled spring lamb

Trim excess fat from one butterflied leg of lamb and place lamb in large, sealable plastic bag. In a large bowl, mix four cloves minced garlic, 1/2 cup dried rosemary, 1/2 cup lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground anise, and one cup plain yogurt, and pour into bag with the lamb. Set in large pan and refrigerate overnight.

Drain lamb, saving marinade, and place on grill over rosemary sprigs. Cook for about 50 minutes, or to 140 degrees, marinating every 10 minutes or so.

Serve with rosemary-and-butter sautéed new potatoes, green beans or asparagus, a crisp green salad and warm French bread.