In our time spent living in Italy, Easter never brought out adults dressed as a bunny or baskets filled with that annoying plastic grass, or sickly sweet yellow marshmallow candy. Easter in Italy means a celebration of family and life and a time to get together and eat what they have always eaten in Italy on Easter Sunday – succulent, baby lamb. Being of Italian descent, both of our families have also always eaten lamb at Easter. My grandmother’s version resembled and tasted something like a roasted pair of my grandfather’s shoes and growing up I always thought that’s what lamb tasted like – old and leathery and dry as sand. That’s until I spent my first Easter with Melissa’s family, whose annual tradition included a marinated leg of lamb grilled over a wood fire that was meaty and juicy with a hint of gamey flavor.
We had been hearing a lot lately about spring baby lamb and we thought that it would be fun to try out. After some research online, we quickly discovered that we weren’t the only ones thinking about eating baby lamb on Easter Sunday, as all online purveyors seemed to be sold out. We gave a call to Ron, our local butcher, and he was able to track one down for us from a small sheep farm in Massachusetts. It was a 40lb four month old baby lamb that had been milk fed its entire life. I jumped on it and made an appointment with him to show me how to break down the carcass.
In our small Connecticut town, we are extremely fortunate to have great places for sourcing excellent, top quality food. We do our grocery shopping here the old-fashioned way, avoiding supermarkets all together, by patronizing our local fishmonger, bakery, farm market, and butcher. Each has their own personality and character and shopping there gives us a greater sense of community and place as well as a connection to what we are eating.
Ron’s shop, Forte’s, has been in our town since the eighties, and his family has a long history of butchery. His grandfather originally had a veal slaughterhouse a few towns over from ours and Ron’s father built the business up into a thriving enterprise, becoming known for their superior veal. Once a week they would head to the cattle auctions where they would purchase their animals and truck them home and break them down the carcasses and prepping them for distribution. The meat would then be sold to supermarkets and small grocery stores throughout the northeast. Towards the early eighties the landscape of grocery shopping in America began to change with the arrival of the behemoth one stop shopping supermarket. These new mega stores did their own purchasing of livestock and butchering, slashing their costs and eliminating the need for the mom and pop slaughterhouses and butchers. What soon followed was the rise in inferior meat from grain fed fattened animals injected with steroids and hormones and the American diet became hooked on cheap meat.
Today, Forte’s thrives as Ron and his family, continues to do what they have always done by providing high quality meats and service. I met with Ron the Friday before Easter and was greatly impressed with both his patience and skills as he deftly broke down the baby lamb while explaining each step. The lamb was broken down into a variety of cuts and pieces and in less than an hour; I had an entire baby lamb vacuum sealed in individual bags and ready for cooking.
For Easter, we marinated one of the legs overnight in Melissa’s family’s traditional recipe of white wine, garlic, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and lemon zest. The next day fresh lemons are sliced thinly and placed on top of the leg for a few hours before grilling it over a wood fire. The meat was excellent and tender but its flavor was what really struck us as something great. It was lean and not at all fatty, sweet and aromatic and not at all gamey, and definitely different than any lamb we had ever eaten. Surprisingly, we had some meat left over that was close to the bone and the next day we made a hand cut lamb ragu with peas that got us excited for Spring. We hope it does for you too.
Recipe: Spaghetti with Lamb Ragu Peas and Mint
- 2 Tbs. Olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, fine dice
- 6 scallions (white part only) thinly sliced
- 1 medium clove of garlic, sliced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 lb lamb meat, diced small (from either the leg or blade chops)
- 2 Tbs. chopped rosemary
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 6 canned plum tomatoes crushed with their juices
- 8 oz. English peas
- 12 oz. spaghetti or linguini
- 2 Tbs. thinly sliced mint leaves
- Freshly grated pecorino cheese for serving
In a heavy duty large sauce pan or Dutch oven heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and scallion and cook until tender, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes Season the lamb with salt and pepper and add to the pan along with the rosemary and cook until the lamb browns lightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in the white wine and simmer vigorously until reduced by half. Stir in the plum tomatoes, a generous pinch of salt, cover, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the lid, stir in the peas and continue cooking until the peas are tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve a 1/4 cup of the pasta water, and then drain the pasta in a colander.
Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat. Add the reserved water if the mixture seems a bit dry. Serve in shallow bowls and sprinkle with the mint. Serve with freshly grated pecorino on the side.