Which will you serve at your festive Easter meal this year: ham or lamb? The holiday may start with dyed eggs, chocolate bunnies and a trip to church, but the centerpiece of the day is the meal that often features one of these two meats.
We talked to two experts about why this is and how best to enjoy both.
“I love Easter, because it gives us the opportunity to cook two of my favorite meats, lamb and ham,” said David Cook, chef instructor and co-owner of Gather Food Studio & Spice Shop. “Americans used to consume a lot of lamb. But according to the American Lamb Board, the average American only eats around a pound or less of lamb a year, compared to pork consumption at around 50 pounds a year.”
Historically, lamb was the main course for Easter, which falls at the same time of year as the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the liberation of Israelites and their exodus from Egypt.
“The sacrificial lamb has always been an integral part of Passover, from a shank bone on the Seder plate to a roast on the dinner table,” Cook said. “Right around the time of World War II, lamb (was) raised for two things, wool and meat. But as the demand for wool was replaced by the use of synthetic fabrics, and rations for soldiers were primarily from mutton — an older, more mature lamb — the demand and taste for lamb in America started to diminish.”
Cook especially loves to prepare roasted leg of lamb or a crowned rack for special occasions. For the leg, he suggests making small holes in it with a thin, sharp knife and then stuffing the holes with herbs and garlic cloves and slow-roasting it.
“This is one of my favorite ways to cook a leg,” he said. “This gives the lamb even more internal flavor and makes for a delightful appearance when you slice it.”
Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, has her own ideas for cooking lamb.
“Leg of lamb is the most traditional cut served at Easter celebrations. Both bone-in and boneless roasts are perfect for feeding a group,” she said. “I love to butterfly a boneless leg and have my husband grill it, so my ovens are freed up for sides.”
She makes a simple marinade for the leg out of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs including mint.
“Mint jelly used to be a traditional condiment to serve with lamb, and mint does go very well with the lamb flavor,” she said. “We like to modernize the pairing with fresh mint in marinades or serve a mint pesto with your holiday lamb to please all generations.”
Cook also dresses up the mint jelly addition to lamb dishes.
“A lot of people serve lamb with a side of mint jelly, but that’s so old school,” he said. “For a beautiful color explosion, try a sauce like a roasted carrot beurre blanc, or pairing it with a freshly minced gremolata. The earthiness of the fresh herbs and the citrus zest will really enhance the natural flavors of lamb.”
For smaller gatherings, Wortman goes with a rack of lamb.
“It’s another great choice for Easter and special occasions, especially if you have a smaller group,” she said. “One rack has eight chops that will serve four people and will cook quicker than a leg roast. Loin chops are super easy and great on the grill and the perfect 4-ounce serving. They are done in about 10 minutes.”
For medium rare, the USDA recommends an internal temperature of 145 degrees after the lamp rests 30 minutes covered with foil. Using a good meat thermometer, Wortman said, will ensure the lamb is cooked to your liking without having to poke or cut into the roast.
“If pork is more your thing, you are not alone,” Cook said. “Hams are particularly popular for Easter dining.”
He explained that before every house had a refrigerator, pigs were typically slaughtered in the fall. Meats had to be salted or sugared and curried to preserve them.
“The pork would cure over the winter and be ready to cook in the spring, just in time for Easter,” he said. “Other types of hams we love to enjoy on Easter are smoked or even studded with whole spices, and then sauced with our favorite glaze.”
Ham by far is probably the easiest entrée to prepare. Because it’s been cured, smoked or baked it’s considered pre-cooked and ready to serve. You can doll it up with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, topped with a brown sugar glaze and warmed. With spiral cut hams available, you don’t even need to slice it.
Regardless of which meat you choose, make a lot so you can enjoy the tasty leftovers.
“Ham sandwiches are gold, but you can also chop it up and add it to your favorite scalloped potatoes for a cheesy ham and potatoes you’ll never forget,” Cook said. “Or even switch out the chicken for ham in your next pot pie. My favorite is homemade ham and pineapple personal pizzas using naan bread.
“For the leftover lamb,” he continued, “make gyros instead of buying them. Or chop up the lamb into bite-sized pieces and stew them in tomato sauce to put over pasta for a new spin on an easy weeknight ragu. You could also replace the beef with lamb and make a filling lamb stew.”
If all this has made deciding between the two meats even more difficult, there’s nothing stopping you from preparing both! It’s doubtful that any of your guests will object.
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