Pane di Pasqua & Grilling and Roasting Lamb
When we in the United States think of Easter we think of chocolate Easter bunnies and multi-colored eggs dyed in pale blues, greens and reds. In the very most conservative regions of Christianity, especially in the Greek Orthodox areas and in more conservative Italian or Catholic places, the Easter eggs are dyed only one color—red—symbolizing the blood of Christ. Italians celebrate Easter with Pane di Pasqua, a special sweet dough often flavored with anise and citrus, which is braided and then formed into rings, with the colored eggs embedded in the dough before baking. Some Italian regions take it up a notch by making the bread using 33 very thin layers of dough, symbolizing the number of years Christ lived. We have all enjoyed the Christmas tradition of panettone, originating in Milan. But did you know that there is also a traditional Easter bread made with a similar style of dough in the shape of a cross? There are many recipes for delicious and decorative Easter breads.
However, if there is one food that is emblematic of Easter in the Christian world it is lamb. I am not sure how or where the tradition began, but one can only recall the biblical admonition of “Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world.” One can conjecture however that in many cultures, Lent meant “no meat,” so after weeks of a diet of carbohydrates, vegetables and seafood, it is fortuitous that Lent was ended with a celebration of roasted meats. And of course, it is also the start of spring, and the young lambs, tender and tasty, recently born, are available for roasting. In my Nonna’s house, a capretto (roasted baby goat) might also have been served. I can remember a baby goat being bought and raised in the farmyard until large enough to make the Easter meal. There are so many techniques to prepare the roasted lamb or goat for Easter, and they can be applied year-round to preparation of these delicate delicious meats. So let the roasting and grilling and feasting begin!
ROASTING & GRILLING AROUND THE WORLD
“Asado” is the traditional Argentine method of roasting meats, and for Easter it means a whole baby lamb or goat. If you would travel to Argentina at any time of the year, you would find fire pits full of glowing coals. Around the pit would be skewers of meat stuck in the ground vertically, the coals radiating heat outwards to slowly roast the upright meat stakes. This method of roasting allows the fats to drip down as the meat roasts, serving two functions: first, the dripping fats baste the meat and keep it warm and moist, and second, the fat finally drips off reducing the fat content of the meal. The skewers might have whole beef rib roasts, or thick-cut Florentine steaks. When roasting the whole baby lamb or goat, the entire body of the animal is attached to a steel frame consisting of one vertical stave with crossbars near the top and bottom, so the animal’s legs can be stretched out and tied on it in the shape of an X. This frame bearing the whole animal is stuck in the ground vertically around the fire pit. The meat only requires pre-seasoning with salt, pepper and herbs such as rosemary and sage. When done, the whole animal is removed from the frame and placed on a carving table and carved for the enjoyment of guests—enough for a large gathering of family, neighbors and friends.
Arabic Clay Oven Asado
Arabic cuisine also uses this method of roasting meats vertically on a large skewer, but the skewer is put into a clay oven and sealed, letting the meats roast slowly until pull-of-the-bone tender. Remember, in Arabic culture it is common to use the fingers of the right hand to eat, not knife and fork, so if the meat is not tender and cooked until it falls off the bone then it is difficult for the diner to choose selections bite by bite. Each diner has a bowl of ground cumin and the selected morsels of meat are dipped in the spice before being consumed.
In Italy and Greece, and also in America, the large pieces of meat are skewered on a horizontal spit and roasted over hot coals or in front of an infrared unit on the back of a gas grill. In the Greek islands it is traditional to also roast the organ meats skewered on a spit and tightly wrapped with lamb or goat intestines. “Caul fat,” the thin, lacy membrane which surrounds the internal organs of some animals, is also used as a netting to encase the smaller pieces of meat. So the offal meats come out like a sausage when finished, and is sliced for a first course.
Tuscan Grill Roasting
This the predecessor to our home grills or barbeques, the flat grill traditionally over wood. It is still the preferred way to cook a beefsteak Fiorentina, which is a three-inch thick cut of steak, always cooked rare over wood coals on a grill. This method is also great for spareribs, butterflied leg of lamb, splayed chicken, and sausages, as well as for the humble hamburgers.
For centuries ovens were prohibited in homes due to the fact that fire was such a danger, and whole cities could be burnt to the ground if a home caught fire. Usually towns had neighborhood “roasters.” In France the roasting guild had a name, Rôtisseurs, and the largest gourmet society today in the world is La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. A nonna would prepare the Sunday roast or the bread at home, and then carry it in a clay vessel or on a cutting board to be roasted in a communal oven in her neighborhood. Today we have roasting pans and modern ovens. Same technique though.
Pizza Oven Roasting
As more and more of us get pizza ovens for our homes or back yards an interesting way to roast is to take the meat to be roasted—beef, lamb, pork, chicken, etc.—and put it in a cast-iron pan for roasting in a hot wood-fired pizza oven. The high heat makes the meats crisp more quickly, at which point they have to be covered with a lid or foil to prevent burning while they finish roasting. The wood fire gives the meats a delicious flavor. I find the smoked flavor can be further enhanced by using, as the basting liquid, Scotch whisky or mezcal, both “smokey” alcohol beverages. I think it goes without saying that one should never use “artificial smoke” with its chemical off-flavors.
THE CONTROVERSIAL POINTS OF GRILLING AND ROASTING
If one topic is controversial and will always start an argument among chefs and cooks it is: Do you salt first, or do you salt later in the roasting or grilling process? One argument against early salting is that it dries out the meat by pulling out moisture and should, therefore, not be done. The other side of the argument is that salting is like brining, and the salt will allow the seasonings to penetrate the meat, and ultimately the moisture will be drawn back in. So all you can do is experiment to determine which you like better. My own approach is to salt early and let the meat absorb the salt.
Pepper, on the other hand, can be burned by high heat, and grilling and roasting is done usually over hot coals or wood or in a hot cast-iron pan. The burned pepper will take on burnt flavors or become bitter. Most chefs agree that the better practice is to add pepper for grilled and roasted meats just before serving.
High Heat or Low Heat
Again, you can start fights over this one! Use high heat first to crisp the skin of chicken or to caramelize (Maillard reaction) the surface of a roast or steak and then lower the temperature for the final cooking. The argument is that this develops flavors—however, if meat is kept over high heat for too long the outside surface will burn before the interior is properly cooked. The opposing argument is that the crisp exterior creates a barrier to heat penetration and prevents proper cooking—thus the “searing” process is best done last as a finishing step, after first cooking the meat to desired doneness at a low temperature. The argument in favor of this process is that meat cooked at too high a temperature will get tough due to the high heat causing contraction of the muscle fibers, which do not properly relax afterwards and therefore using low heat first is gentler resulting in more tender meats.
Early in my cooking career I always used high heat first to sear the meat, and then finished with low heat. Later, I adopted the “low heat first” method, which is more suited to our home ovens. Now, with my pizza oven, I am going back to the “high-heat-first method,” keeping in mind the rôtisseurs, the communal bakers. They would stoke up their stoves, then cook or bake the food needing the highest heat first, and then as his wood fire cooled down, he could slow-cook the rest.
One needs to experiment and learn which works best for you, your equipment, and the foods you prefer. Note that the “very high heat, very fast sear” method is going to produce very rare meat (which I love) unless the cooking is then finished at lower temperature. Ever see recipes where the notes say “move the meat to the cool side of the grill to finish cooking”? That is the high-heat-first technique.
Seasoning Meats for Roasting and Grilling
In my Nonna’s house, “seasoning” meant one thing and one thing only. Make slits in the meats, insert rosemary and garlic, coat the meat with olive oil and salt, then roast or grill. Whether she let the meat marinate first or go directly to the fire was a decision I think often made depending on the time of day and how far in advance she started cooking. Olive oil and salt with rosemary was also used for basting while cooking.
Do you have a butterflied leg of lamb and do you like mint jelly with your lamb? Well roast your lamb with mint. Fill the cavity of the butterflied leg (the space where the bone was) with mint, tie the lamb back into the shape of a roast, and marinate it in mint sauce before roasting. Chicken is roasted or grilled of course with the garlic and rosemary technique, but try filling the cavity of the chicken with sage leaves and lemons. You can also put sage under the skin next to the breast meat. Do you have a whole salmon or sea bass? Stuff it with onion, rosemary and tomatoes (sliced or whole depending upon size of the tomatoes and the fish), and roast or grill it. Instead of using a roasting rack, amp up the flavors by making a bed of onions and rosemary wood upon which the meat rests while roasting in a pan. Last, try fully covering the meat or fish with kosher salt and then roasting. This traps the juices—wonderful!
Each of these different methods, techniques and seasonings are interchangeable depending what you the chef desire for the finished preparation for your enjoyment or the enjoyment of your guests.
Each of these methods, techniques and seasonings will give different flavors and textures to your preparation. It all depends on you, the Chef! So go ahead, “play” with your food preparation style, and you will learn from experience! But most importantly, just ENJOY!
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
- Ovens and grills that are too hot will over-caramelize the meat, giving it a more “charcoal-like” exterior. This becomes a heat barrier and will cause the interior to cook less quickly while at the same time continuing to “burn” the surface.
- When heat is moved from the hot part of the grill to a cooler part, the chef is hedging against the burning that occurs when the meat is left too long on the hot part.
- Moving the meat from the hot part to the cooler part of the grill is often accompanied by putting a dome lid ‘‘““‘‘over the meat, much like the cover of a wok, and this turns the cooler part of the grill into an oven. The chef has more control with this heat and it is changing the cooking process from grilling to roasting.
- Use a meat thermometer and undercook the meat a little. The internal temperature goes up slowly, and the meat will finish the cooking process while “resting” away from the heat source. Otherwise, the meat will be overcooked—tougher to chew and less juicy, which of course is less appealing.
- Let the roasted or grilled meats rest after cooking so the juices are reabsorbed into the meat rather than flowing out when the mean is carved.