A New Mexico Easter

Gourmet Girl - March 25, 2013

The Easter feast has long featured lamb and we've got some of the best lamb in the world right here in New Mexico.

It's Easter week, a holy time for many filled with ritual and traditions, including the Easter Sunday feast, typically featuring lamb as the main dish accompanied by the flavors of spring, from asparagus and baby onions to carrots, eggs and baby greens.

Lamb has long been associated with Easter. It represents Jesus and his death on the first Passover, and Christians traditionally refer to Jesus as "the Lamb of God."It has also been considered a lucky omen to meet a lamb, especially during Easter time. An old superstition holds that the devil could take the form of every animal except the lamb, because of its religious symbolism.

Lamb has been served for the Easter feast for centuries. In the 7th century, Benedictine monks wrote a prayer of blessing for lambs, and whole lambs are still served in some Benedictine monasteries The Pope added a whole roasted lamb to his Eater dinner a few hundred years later and today, lamb continues to be served at the papal Easter diner. In the 10th century, many Easter feasts featured whole lambs and desserts later featured cakes baked in the shape of a lamb. Today, lamb is served in a variety of ways at Easter, from roast leg of lamb to rack of lamb, lamb chops, grilled lamb even lamb barbecue.

In New Mexico, we're lucky to have some of the best lamb I've ever tasted, raised in the wild pastures of the San Juan Mountain foothills in the northern part of the state by Antonio and Molly Manzanares, owners of Shepherd's Lamb. Their certified organic, grass-fed lamb is sweet and succulent, tender and flavorful, redolent of the aromatic grasses they feed one moving from one grazing ground to another as the seasons change.

Ranching is in the blood of both partners in this business. Antonio's grandfather Carlos ran his own band of sheep in the same Tierra Amarilla area before his grandson and wife inherited the place. Molly's father was the cattle foreman for the Bond and Son Cattle Company in the Valle Grande before moving the family to Chama to ranch there.

The Manzanares started their flock with just 30 ewes. Today, they have about 1,000 ewes and they've expanded Shepherd's Lamb to include a line of organic wool and yarns. You can purchase your Easter lamb from Shepherd's Lamb this Saturday at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market.

Here are some lamb recipes that make the perfect entrée for your Easter dinner. For more recipes and info about Shepehrd's Lamb, visit www.organiclamb.com.

Rosemary Leg of Lamb (courtesy Shepherd's Lamb; serves 8-10)

1 boneless leg of lamb (5-6 pounds)
4-5 sprigs fresh rosemary
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons French (gray) sea salt
2-3 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 325° F.

Pat roast dry on all sides with paper towel. With a knife, begin making tiny incisions ½ inch wide and ¾ inch deep about 2 inches apart over the entire leg of lamb.

Break the sprigs of rosemary and thyme into 1-inch pieces. Stuff a piece of rosemary, thyme, or garlic into each incision in the meat (Try to distribute the three ingredients evenly throughout the leg of lamb.). When all the incisions are filled, rub olive oil over the roast, coating it evenly. Rub the sea salt and black pepper into the meat on all sides.

Place the roast in a large baking dish. Roast leg of lamb until internal temperature reaches 135° F (medium rare) or 140° F (medium) - about 20 minutes per pound. Remove the leg of lamb from oven, tent it with aluminum foil, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.

Lamb Chops (Courtesy Shepherd's Lamb; Serves 2)

2 lamb chops
¼ c. olive oil
2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. dried rosemary leaves
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper

Mix all ingredients except for lamb chops together well to create the marinade.

Place chops in a pan or large plastic bag; pour marinade over chops and marinate for 1-1 ½ hours.

Preheat grill or broiler. Grill or broil loin chops for 3-4 minutes per side, or until meat is still slightly pink in the center. Allow meat to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Lamb Green Chile Casserole (Courtesy Shepherd's Lamb; Serves 4-6)

1 lb. ground lamb
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ tsp. salt

1 can condensed mushroom soup
½ c. milk
1 package corn tortillas
¼ - ½ c. green chile (to taste)
1 ½ c. shredded cheese

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Cook ground lamb, onion and salt in a large skillet until lightly browned. Drain well. Remove from heat.

Mix 1 can of condensed mushroom soup with ½ c. milk until smooth. Pour ¼ of the mushroom soup mixture into the bottom of an 8 x 8 baking dish. Line the bottom of the pan with corn tortillas, overlapping if necessary.

Spoon half of the lamb mixture evenly over the corn tortillas. Spread half the green chile over the lamb mixture. Sprinkle with ½ c. cheese. Pour another ¼ of the mushroom soup mixture over the top and add another layer of corn tortillas. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of corn tortillas. Pour remaining mushroom soup over the top and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Cover and bake 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 5-10 minutes more or until hot and bubbly.