The most iconic food of Pesach, the Jewish festival celebrating the Children of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, is usually thought of as matza, the flat crispy unleavened bread that Jews eat for the entire week of the festival instead of normal bread and which its consumers either love or hate. But in reality, the most important culinary icon of this festival is roast lamb, commemorating the lamb’s blood that the Children of Israel were ordered to paint on their doorposts in order to ensure that the Angel of Death ‘passed over’ their houses during the tenth and most dreadful plague, the slaying of all the first born sons of Egypt. And as soon as the newly liberated Jews had set up the Tabernacle, the mobile predecessor of the Temple in Jerusalem, they started sacrificing an unblemished lamb on the anniversary of the Exodus, a sacrifice that had to be eaten that very night together with the matzot that they had baked in a hurry when they fled from slavery.
Today, there is no Temple in Jerusalem and so Jews no longer sacrifice animals on festivals: the only people who continue to sacrifice lambs on Passover are the Samaritans, a small group who are probably descended from the biblical Jews taken into slavery by the Assyrian empire in 772 BCE and who practice a more ancient form of Judaism. But Jewish traditions die hard, and the ancient Temple services continue in modified form to this day, whether through prayer services or, in the case of Pesach, through the symbolic place given to a burnt lamb bone on the Seder table, where every Jewish family annually recreates both the Exodus and the Temple service that celebrates it.
The lamb bone, over-roasted in the oven to symbolise the lamb roasted on the altar, is usually replaced for reasons of convenience and price by a chicken or turkey bone. But it is still raised for all the participants in the meal to see, and referred to as the ‘Pesach,’ the sacrificial lamb; and it is common for Jews, especially those of Middle Eastern origin to actually have roast lamb as part of the feast. In fact, it is not unusual, especially in more religious families, to buy a baby lamb on the hoof a week or two before the festival and have it slaughtered specially for the occasion: I have even seen a lamb being led on a leash up one of the main roads in Jerusalem a few days before Pesach, unaware of its planned role in the annual Jewish psychodrama of national liberation. Modern consumer culture has, of course, taken over in Israel and so people usually buy their lamb shoulders or quarter lambs from the supermarket or butcher; and now that imported lamb has become common, it has become much more popular on the festival table.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have roast lamb on the Pesach table this year, as we were guests. So we made up for it by making our own to celebrate the last day of the seven-day festival, which commemorates the crossing of the Red Sea. We had two frozen quarter-lambs in the freezer, and one of them, which fit the roasting pan perfectly, turned into the following culinary wet dream (see below). The recipe was not authentically biblical, but taken from one of the books of the celebrated Spanish restaurant in London, Moro. However, since the Jewish influence in Spain was so strong for centuries, and still persists in all sorts of subtle ways, it is arguable that this is an original Jewish recipe, not least because the chickpeas on which the lamb was served are a staple part of the Middle East diet. The cavolo nero that was served on the side, however, wasn’t especially authentic: I needed to use some from the garden before it turns into a tall tree.
(Lamb with Chickpea Puree and Hot Mint Sauce) From Casa Moro: The Second Cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark
1 shoulder of lamb, about 1.6 - 1.8 kg (3.5 - 4 lbs)
Sea salt and black pepper
4 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste with a pinch of salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/2 medium red onion, finely grated
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 quantity Chickpea Puree (see below)
1 quantity Hot Mint Sauce (see below)
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan. If you are using a shoulder, score the surface very lightly 1-2mm deep in a 1 cm criss-cross pattern to help the marinade penetrate the meat.
Mix all the marinade ingredients together except the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and rub all over the meat. Now add the olive oil (it can prevent the acidity of the lemon and vinegar from penetrating the meat), and leave to marinate for a minimum of 2 hours, turning occasionally, or in the fridge overnight.
Preheat the oven to 160C (325F). Cook the lamb for a minimum of 3 hours, adding a small glass of water (125ml or 1/2 cup) to the pan after the first 30 minutes and each subsequent hour. Baste the lamb every 45 minutes. To test if the lamb is ready, insert a wooden skewer in the centre: if the meat is soft and has a lot of give, then it is done. Let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.
450g dried large chickpeas
Pinch of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
Half a medium onion or 1 head of garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1-1/2 rounded teaspoons cumin seeds, roughly ground
30 threads saffron, infused in 2 tablespoons boiling water
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Place the dried chickpeas in a bowl, cover with cold water, add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, and soak overnight.
Drain the chickpeas, rinse well, and place in a large saucepan with the half of an onion or 1 head of garlic. Cover with 2 liters (2 quarts) of cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, skimming off any scum, and cook for 1-2 hours or until soft and tender. Drain the chickpeas, saving about 1 cup of cooking liquor. You do not have to remove the skins on the chickpeas.
Place the chickpeas in a food processor and puree the chickpeas until quite smooth. Add enough cooking liquor or water so they are similar to wet mashed potato. Set aside.
Just before serving the lamb, in a medium saucepan, heat up the olive oil over a medium to high heat and add the onion, garlic and cumin. Fry, stirring until the onion and the garlic are evenly golden brown. When ready, add the chickpea puree and the saffron infusion. Simmer for 5 minutes and sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm, sprinkled with the chopped parsley.
Do not worry if the mint becomes discoloured; it is just the action of the vinegar.
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Sea salt and black pepper
Place a small saucepan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes until golden brown. Add half of the mint and all of the cumin. Fry for another minute and then add the vinegar. Simmer for 30 seconds more and remove from the heat. Stir in the remaining mint and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot over the lamb.