Happy Easter

What comes in your mind when you think of Easter? Seeing your family? Gifts – at least for the children? A good meal? Well, usually I would subscribe to that. This year, however, everything is different. I was on call on Easter sunday, so I spent the whole day as well as the whole night in the hospital. These are the moments when I do hate my job. At least, my dear colleagues and I managed to have a nice Easter dinner. I was responsible for the main course and what else would I choose for this occasion but a delicate piece of lamb?

There is a long tradition of having lamb on Easter. Many associate this tradition with Christian symbolism. Lambs are vulnerable and defenseless, they cannot escape animal predators nor a human slaughter. That made the lamb a symbol of Jesus, who, innocent, sacrificed his life for mankind.

This story is rather romantic, but certainly not the whole truth. Like in any other religious tradition, there is a very profane background to it. Why did people start to eat lamb in spring season centuries ago? Because they were faced with an overabundance of lamb meat, and they didn’t have a freezer. Sheep mate in the fall, and lambs are born five months later. The shepherd now has to decide how many lambs to bring up. And of course, the others are killed and eaten.

For our Easter feast at the hospital, I chose a leg of lamb, which I cooked at low temperature. First, I considered sous-vide cooking, but then I decided in favor of low temperature cooking in the oven. This approach is much less sophisticated than sous-vide, but it works better when you depend on kitchen equipment which is not your own.

But this post shall not be about low temperature cooking again. Instead let’s talk about salting. There is an ongoing discussion on when to salt meat. In advance? After searing it? At the end? For many years, we have been taught that pre-salting will dry out the meat. However, the voices in favor of pre-salting are getting louder and more. When you salt meat, it is pretty easy to see that water leaves the meat. But is it really true that this leads to dry meat or is that view too simplicistic?

Let’s start with an accepted truth. When you salt at an early stage, this gives the salt more time to penetrate deeply into the meat and not just only coat the surface. Salt is important for flavor, and therefore the meat will taste much more savory and intense. This is where all agree. But what about moisture? Does pre-salting dry out the meat? One of the most prominent advocates of pre-salting is chef Judy Rodgers from the famous Zuni Café in San Francisco. She claims that the opposite is true. According to her, pre-salting should lead to a more tender and juicy piece of meat.

Is the fear of drying out just born from a legend which is passed from generation to generation, but which no one has ever really questioned? In fact, recent scientific investigations have shown that pre-salting might lead to higher water retention both in larger pieces of meat and in ground meat. How could that be? When you look through the internet, you might find explanations like “the water that has been drawn from the meat by the salt reenters the meat afterwards and is thus not lost”. Well, this can hardly be a good explanation. Of course, the brine penetrates the meat, this is how taste is improved. But where is the link to water retention? I guess it is more about a change in water binding capacity of myofibrillar proteins due to different ion concentration. This is just a guess, but I find it more reasonable. Anyway, pre-salting or not is an exciting issue and we still have to learn a lot about it. But one thing I know for sure: the leg of lamb, I prepared, was both incredibly tender and succulent.

Leg of lamb – low temperature cooked

Serves 4-6:
1 leg of lamb (1.5 kg)
8 garlic cloves
5 rosemary sprigs
3 tsp. coarse sea salt
300 g tomatoes
200 g carrots
150 g shallots
6 tblsp. oil
200 ml red wine
400 ml lamb broth
salt
black pepper
1 scant tsp. cornstarch

Cut off the skin and gross connective tissue parts from the leg of lamb. In anatomic terms, I removed everything until and including the fascia lata. Take care not to cut into the muscles, the fascia lata can be dissected bluntly in most parts. Simply slide your finger under it and detach it from the muscle strands underneath. Do not discard the cut-offs, since their collagen and fat will later add depth to the sauce.

Peel 4 garlic cloves, strip the needles off 2 rosemary sprigs. Finely chop garlic and rosemary, then crush them in a mortar together with the sea salt. Thorughly rub the leg of lamb with the mixture, put it into a plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and close the bag with a knot. Let rest refrigerated overnight.

On the next day, take the meat out of the fridge to let it come to room temperature (which will take about 2 hours). Then strip excess spices from the meat, since they will become bitter when the meat is seared. Do not wash the meat, but dab it dry with paper towels very thorougly.

Cut tomatoes, carrots, shallots, and the remaining garlic cloves into coarse pieces, you don’t even need to peel them. Preheat your oven to 80 °C.

Heat 4 tblsp. oil in a large iron pan. Fry the leg of lamb from all sides over moderate heat until brown. Remove the meat from the pan, discard the frying fat. Heat the remaining 2 tblsp. oil in the pan, brown the vegetables and the lamb cut-offs from all sides. Add the remaining rosemary sprigs, put the leg of lamb on the vegetables. Cook, uncovered, in the oven for 3-5 hours. The meat will be medium at 58-60 °C core temperature, and almost well done at 65-70 °C.

Take the leg of lamb out of the pan, hold warm in the oven. Put the pan on your stove, deglace with red wine, bring to a boil. Strain, then add the lamb broth to the sauce. Boil down to 200 ml. Season with salt and pepper. Mix cornstarch with 2 tblsp. water, slightly thicken the sauce with it.

I served the leg of lamb with a classic gratin dauphinois (potatoes gratiné) and green beans. If you wonder how I made a gratin dauphinois while the oven was occupied with low temperature cooked meat, let me tell you a trick. Start with the gratin, but take it out of the oven after three quarters of the cooking time, I’d say after 40 min at 200 °C. Cover it with aluminium foil and put aside. Now decrease the temperature of the oven to 80 °C and cook the meat. Return the gratin to the oven about 30 min before the meat is done.

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