The Easter table's main attractions — lamb by the leg, ham bigger than a diver's helmet — are built to feed a crowd. But options for a modest holiday gathering can be rustled up more easily these days, thanks to the availability of tidy lamb roasts in netting and an up-and-coming fresh ham alternative.
Spring is the season to buy fresh lamb, as you'll be rewarded with more flavor than a frozen cut yields. The shoulder is a juicier and chewier cut than the leg, so slow-roasting and braising are the optimal ways to cook it. A rolled-and-tied boneless leg needs to spend less time in the oven per pound than a shoulder, and it cooks more evenly than a butterflied leg with its thick and thin sections of meat. It can be trimmed to fit almost any appetite, but via your butcher or local farmers market purveyor you'll find a less expensive alternative in the lamb breast — the flat and fatty cut atop lamb ribs. It can be rolled as well, and is even more receptive to developing flavor through spices and stuffing.
The headliner of chef Will Morris's Easter menu at Vermilion in Alexandria, Va., this year will be tender, rosy slices from a boneless lamb roast rubbed with a paste of garlic and mint. He has streamlined the preparation with a relatively short time for flavor infusion and exterior slathering only; no need to unroll the roast you bring home. He turns pan juices into a jus while the meat rests.
Ham, the huge cut from the pig's hind leg, became an Easter tradition because the legs that were hung in the fall to cure in smokehouses would be ready by spring. Fresh hams are more available but are still a rare find in grocery stores because they are more perishable than other large cuts of pork. Their size is the main drawback; at 20 to 25 pounds, fresh ham is a tough choice for a smaller crowd.
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For the past few years, Wagshal's Market butcher Pam Ginsberg has offered butterflied and rolled front-leg sections of pork as a fresh ham alternative. They have less girth and, to her mind, more flavor than what comes from the back leg. If you're familiar with the anatomy, you know she's cutting into the source of the picnic/butt/shoulder. You can call it a ham roast and excuse any nitpicky terminology types from the table.
She likes stuffing it with leeks before tying the roast tight, tight, tight — three knots and pulls of the twine each time. It's enough to cause the skin to gather. Speaking of, a benefit of this cut is that fat cap and skin, which keeps the meat moist as it cooks and, treated to high heat at the end, is rendered crispy enough to cut into bits and make one decadent garnish.
Now's the time to place your orders with producers and butchers, and to explore ways to use smaller cuts.
Garlic and Mint Roasted Lamb
6 to 8 servings
If the lamb roast comes in cotton netting, you can leave it on. If the netting is elastic or made of nylon, it's best to remove it and tie the roast with kitchen twine.
You'll need an instant-read thermometer.
MAKE AHEAD: The lamb rubbed with paste needs to rest for 2 hours at a cool room temperature.
For the lamb
8 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 ounces fresh mint leaves
Leaves from 1 sprig rosemary, coarsely chopped
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (about 1 tablespoon)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
One 4-pound boneless leg of lamb roast, tied or in cotton netting (see headnote)
For the jus
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium carrot, scrubbed well and coarsely chopped
1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
Freshly ground black pepper
For the lamb: Combine the garlic, mint, rosemary, lemon zest and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper in the bowl of a mortar and pestle or in a food processor; grind or pulse for 20 seconds, then add the oil. Grind or pulse to form a paste.
Lay the roast on a platter lined with plastic wrap, fat side down. Rub all the paste into the meat all over; let it rest at a cool room temperature for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat a stove-top-safe roasting pan over medium-high heat. Once it's quite hot, add the lamb, fat side down first; sear until golden all over, turning as needed. Transfer to the oven; slow-roast for 2 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 140 to 145 degrees (medium-rare). Carefully pour the pan juices into a large liquid (heatproof) measuring cup.
Let the meat rest for 30 to 45 minutes; meanwhile, make the jus: Combine the oil, carrot, onion and celery in medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until softened. Add the wine and stir with a spatula, dislodging any browned bits. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the wine has reduced by half. Stir in the reserved pan juices and the broth. Reduce the heat to medium; cook for 10 to 20 minutes, or to the desired consistency (the longer you cook the jus, the more concentrated its flavor will be but there will be less of it). Strain, if desired, discarding the solids. Taste and season with salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Transfer the lamb to a cutting board; discard the netting or twine. Cut crosswise into thin slices and serve warm, with the jus.
Nutrition: Per serving (based on 8): 420 calories, 47 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
From Will Morris, executive chef at Vermilion restaurant in Alexandria, Va.
Ham Roast With Leeks
6 to 8 servings
You'll need to order this skin-on cut from a butcher. If you don't plan to stuff it, have the butcher tie the meat into a rolled roast for you. You'll need an instant-read thermometer.
Serve with spring vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes.
MAKE AHEAD: The pork needs to marinate in the refrigerator for 8 hours, or up to overnight.
For the meat
4 to 6 limes
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon dried sage, crumbled between your fingers
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
One 6 1/2-pound skin-on fresh picnic, pork butt or shoulder, butterflied (see headnote)
4 cloves garlic, cut into very thin slices (optional)
For the stuffing
1 large or 2 small leeks (trimmed), white and light-green parts
2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the meat: Cut the limes in half and squeeze their juice (to taste) into a mixing bowl. Toss in the spent lime halves, then add oil, sage, cumin, thyme, salt and pepper, whisking to incorporate.
Invert the ham roast so it's skin side down, on a platter. Use a knife to slash sections of meat, to help even out the surface. Pour the marinade evenly over. Then make small cuts for inserting all the thin slices of garlic, if using. Lay the spent lime halves so their pulp is touching the meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours, or up to overnight.
For the stuffing: Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly to remove any grit. Pat dry and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices, placing them in a mixing bowl as you work. Add the celery and thyme, then drizzle with the oil, tossing to coat.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread a large sheet of plastic wrap on a clean counter top.
Place the pork on the plastic wrap, skin side down, with a short side parallel to the edge of the counter. Distribute the leek mixture evenly over the meat. Carefully roll the farther, short edge tightly toward the center, then fold the near short edge over the first roll, so the skin shows on top. Some of the leeks may fall out the ends; either push them back in or add to the roasting pan.
Use kitchen twine to tie the meat at 2-inch intervals (a total of about 6); start the first tie just off-center, and work out toward the edges on both sides. Pull and knot as tightly as possible, a few times for each one. The knots should line up on the side. Do not score the skin.
Transfer to a roasting pan, placing 3 of the spent lime halves and 1/4 cup of the marinade in the pan as well (discard the rest of it). Roast for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the internal temperature registers 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Increase the oven temperature to 475 degrees; continue to roast for 20 minutes, or until the skin is nicely crisped and the internal temperature of the meat is 150 to 155 degrees. Strain and reserve the pan juices in a fat separator cup, if desired, for serving. Let the roast rest for at least 30 minutes.
When you're ready to carve, discard the twine. Make a horizontal cut to slice off the skin and its fat, which should come away in a single piece. If desired, cut this up into small bits and gather in a bowl, to use as a garnish. Slice the roast thinly. Serve warm.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
From Pam Ginsberg, of Wagshal's Market in Northwest Washington.