My mother used to say that there was nothing to beat Irish lamb and she was right. It is simply delicious and, of course, it comes to mind at this time of year, as Easter is upon us. When I was young, lambing took place earlier than it does now, the supply of the meat in March/April was consequently greater and this presumably explains why in recent years, it is so much more expensive at Easter time than it used to be. Indeed, it is so expensive that I baulk at the price and buy year old lamb. I still find it mouth-watering and am immediately swept back to childhood and the haunches of lamb that used to grace the table on Easter Sunday.
There are obviously many ways of serving lamb. I live alone and often resort to chops, which I leave sitting for a few hours in a marinade of crushed garlic, rosemary, salt and olive oil before grilling them. I also cook various stews and then divide them into single portions and freeze them. A roast leg of lamb is a family favourite but this is hardly a dish suitable for one or two people, especially if you are like me, and don’t particularly like cold lamb the following day. However, this consideration should not deter you completely from choosing the roasting option. If you live alone or there are only two of you, why not roast a small rack of lamb ? My butcher is quite happy to sell me a rack with say, six chops. I just pop it into a pre-heated hot oven and roast it for about 20 minutes. Served simply with mint sauce, it is to die for.
In the Orthodox Church, Easter is the main feast day of the year and even more so than here, lamb is traditionally eaten on Easter Sunday. I recall being on the Greek Island of Cos for Easter many years ago and that memory is redolent with the smell of roasting lamb on spits. But there is another lamb dish that is forever associated with Greek cuisine and that, of course, is moussaka, made with minced lamb, aubergines and cheese. I first ate it as a student in Athens and in the process of wooing my wife, it was the first dish I cooked for her. In the late 1960s in Ireland, this was seriously sophisticated cuisine, she was suitably impressed and, as it advanced my cause, I have always retained a special affection for it. Rachel Allen largely inspired this recipe for moussaka.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
675g minced lamb
1 glass of white wine
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
Good pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of ground allspice
1 generous tbsp marjoram, chopped
1tsp thyme, chopped
1 large bay leaf
Approx 6 tbsp olive oil
3 aubergines, cut into 1cm-thick round slices
For the Topping
50g parmesan cheese, grated
150g gruyère cheese, grated
3 egg yolks
You will need an oven-proof lasagne dish about 30x20cm in size.
Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large saucepan.
Add the onion and garlic, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook gently for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft.
Add the minced lamb and continue cooking until browned. Add the wine, bring to the boil and then add the tomatoes, spices and herbs. Bring back to the boil, reduce the heat, put on the lid and allow to simmer for about 45 minutes. Then remove the lid and increase the heat for a further 15 minutes or so, watching it carefully as you do. The mixture should then have very little liquid left.
While the mixture is simmering, you can get on with preparing the aubergines.
Dry the aubergine slices with kitchen towel and then brush lightly with olive oil before placing them under the grill.
Cook on both sides for about a total of 8-10 minutes and then set aside.
Then to the topping, which involves making a cheese sauce.
Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour. Stir on the heat for a couple of minutes and then gradually whisk in the milk. Continue to whisk to get rid of any lumps and cook on the heat until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the parmesan and half the gruyère cheese and season with salt and pepper. Allow to cool for a minute or so and then beat in the egg yolks. Set aside until you are ready to assemble the moussaka.
Cover the base of the oven proof dish with a third of the mince mixture and then cover with half the aubergine slices. Repeat the layers, ending with the last of the mince. Then pour over the cheese sauce and sprinkle with the remaining gruyère cheese.
The moussaka is now ready but if you wish, you can slip it into the fridge for up to a day or two. Thus, although like lasagne, moussaka is a bit fiddly, it has the advantage that it can be prepared well in advance. – When you are ready to cook it, just place in an oven preheated to 180°C for 50-60 minutes, until bubbling and golden. Sit for five minutes before cutting into squares and serving.
Wherever you are at Easter enjoy yourself and if you are eating lamb, let me leave you with a final word of advice. My wife’s Scottish grandmother was a friend of Queen Victoria’s housekeeper in Balmoral. She it was who revealed that Victoria, that queen of decorum and of all that is right and proper, always ate her lamb chops in her fingers. Go for it !