For a lot of places throughout the western world, lamb is to Easter what turkey is to Thanksgiving.
The South is not one of those places.
When I was growing up, lamb was rare in all but a few Southern markets – and I don’t mean the degree to which it was cooked. Outside those markets, the best one could hope for was frozen imported lamb as uneven in quality as it was availability.
How, then, did it come to grace my own family’s Easter table? The short answer is my mother loved it. The long answer is that lamb has not always been scarce in these parts.
Annabella Hill, whose iconic Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1867) gave us a rare and important portrait of Antebellum Georgia cookery, wrote about lamb in a very off-hand way, suggesting that it was commonplace in her day. Nearly a century later, Mrs. Dull, the woman who set the modern standard for Southern food writing with her 1928 classic Mrs. Dull’s Southern Cooking, wrote that “Lamb is plain, everyday food.”
Somewhere between Mrs. Dull’s generation and mine, this plain, everyday food fell out of Southern favor. Except in Kentucky, where raising sheep endures, parts of Georgia, and in communities with large populations of Greek immigrants, fresh lamb was nowhere to be found, and even frozen lamb was hard to come by.
Regardless, when it could be had, my mother’s Easter centerpiece was lamb. It probably owes a little to the fact that my mother was from a pocket of Georgia where lamb stayed commonplace, and a little to the fact that my father is a minister.
Relax: we’re not headed into the deep waters of theology. Dad’s seminary was in Louisville, Kentucky, and while there, he served a church in Summerville, a farming community where most everyone raised sheep.
Young seminary students don’t get paid much, but those families were generous with what they had. And what they had, throughout the spring, was lamb, and plenty of it. It was as sure a sign of spring as daffodils in the garden. When my parents moved into a part of the South where lamb was less plentiful, it became our special occasion food.
And all that, my friends, is why there will be lamb rather than ham on my family’s Easter table.
Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint
My Dad is a Baptist preacher so, needless to say, this is not Mama’s recipe. But never mind: what the bourbon adds in flavor is subtle but lovely, and by the time the roast is done, there’s not enough left to scandalize the congregation.
Serves 8 to 10
1 small whole leg of lamb (about 7 pounds)
Salt and whole black pepper in a pepper mill
½ cup chopped fresh mint or ¼ cup crumbled dried mint
½ cup bourbon
Madeira Pan Gravy (recipe follows)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 500° F. Trim the excess fat from the lamb, but leave a thin layer of at least 1/8 inch. Wipe dry and liberally rub it with salt and several generous grindings of black pepper, then pack the mint over the entire surface. Lightly butter the bottom of a roasting pan and put in the lamb, fat side up.
Roast in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until well-seared and lightly browned. Remove and pour the bourbon over it. Return it to the oven, reduce the heat to 375° F. and roast, basting occasionally with pan juices, until done to your taste, from 15 minutes per pound for medium-rare to 25 minutes per pound for medium well.
Let the roast rest for 20 minutes at room temperature before carving it.
Madeira Pan Gravy
Makes about 2 cups
½ cup Madeira
2 cups beef or lamb broth
Degreased pan juices from Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Put the roasting pan over direct medium high heat. Add the Madeira and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue. Boil 1 minute and add the broth and pan juices. Bring to a vigorous boil and cook until reduced by about half, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat and swirl or whisk in the butter until it is incorporated. Taste and adjust the seasonings and pour into a warmed sauceboat.
Food Editor’s Note: We had our photo shoot for spring content 10 days ago and made sure we shot Damon’s Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint early in the first day of shooting so the crew could have lamb sandwiches for lunch. This recipe is to die for! I had mine open face on just baked bread from Back in the Day Bakery with two spoon fulls of the Madeira Pan Gravy. Thank you Damon!
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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