‘One of the most obvious Spring delights is lamb,” Maggie Beer wrote in her wonderful Maggie’s Farm (Allen & Unwin). Yes, Spring lamb is young, fresh and delicious — just like our Australian cuisine.
Interestingly, in Australia’s first cookery book, The Colonial Cookbook (For the Many as well as for the 'Upper Ten Thousand') published in 1864, author and 'Australian aristologist', Edward Abbott confirmed the preference of the era for mutton over young lamb. “The sheep is in its best condition as food when about five years old,” he wrote. “It is sapid, full-flavoured and firm without being tough; and the fat has become hard. If younger than three years, [lamb] is deficient in flavour and its flesh is pale.” An inventory of the livestock at Sydney Cove on the 1st of May 1788 noted (among the horses, cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, geese and ducks) a grand total of 29 sheep. By the 1840s, the growing wool industry brought about an enormous surplus of mutton, so it came to be part of the staple Anglo-Australian diet: mutton, damper and tea, three times a day!
Towards the end of World War II, Australian tastes changed in preference for morsels of sweet, tender lamb, once considered a seasonal luxury. In fact, there was such a turn around in thinking that, for a time, mutton was associated with poverty and inferiority. While there are still those who prefer the stronger flavour of mutton, now about twice as much lamb as mutton (if not more) is consumed in Australia.
In the epilogue to her autobiography, I Sang for My Supper (Lansdowne), cookery doyenne Margaret Fulton cites an event from the late 1950s that she says has stuck in her mind. "Driving back to Sydney from Bowral via the coast, we came down the winding road over the mountain towards the settled area around Wollongong. It was a Sunday, about midday, and what hit us head-on was an overpowering smell of roast lamb. Every household in the Illawarra district, it seemed, was cooking roast lamb. And that's the way it used to be in most parts of Australia; the family gathering around the dinner table at lunchtime on Sunday for a meal of roast lamb with all the trimmings."
The way Australians cook and what we eat has come a long way since those days, but it is not unfashionable to serve a roast leg of lamb for Sunday lunch or dinner. Ask your butcher or supplier for expert advice, but as a general rule lamb leg and shoulder are ideal for roasting. Look for firm, pinkish meat with visible marbling and a layer of creamy white fat. Cooking times will vary, depending on how well done you like your meat. Roast in a preheated oven at 230 degrees C for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 180 degrees C. For medium, roast for 25 minutes per 450g plus an additional 25 minutes. For well done, allow a cooking time of 30 minutes per 450g plus an extra 30 minutes.
Lamb is versatile, cooks quickly and adapts well to the diverse cooking styles and flavours of Australia’s multicultural palate. Lamb cutlets are one of my favourites. Cutlets come from the best end of the neck and with most of the fat trimmed you are left with tender meat that can be dressed to make a memorable main course. A rack of lamb is the cut formed from the animal’s ribs. Trimmed of almost all fat, a rack is ideal for roasting — either bound in a circle and stuffed as in a traditional Crown Roast, or interlocked to form a sword-like 'Guard of Honour'. Pop some sprigs of rosemary, garlic cloves onto the rack and drizzle with lemon juice. Cutlet racks can also be grilled or pan-fried. Once cooked, carve into individual ribs and serve on a bed of vegetable mash or with a fresh salad.
LEMON-BASTED LAMB CUTLETS
8-12 Spring lamb cutlets
juice of two lemons
olive oil for brushing
Trim any fat and gristle from the lamb cutlets. Brush each cutlet with a little lemon juice and olive oil. Leave to marinate for as long as possible. Cook cutlets under a preheated grill till well browned on one side. Turn and brush with a little more lemon juice and oil. Cook until nicely done. Serve immediately with springtime potato salad and steamed baby vegetables or a mixed green salad topped. This recipe will feed four.
ROASTED NUT OF LAMB WITH VEGETABLES
400-500g nut of lamb
1 small clove garlic, sliced into tiny slivers
1 sprig fresh Rosemary
a little olive oil
2 Desiree potatoes
1 small sweet potato
small wedge of pumpkin
2 baby onions
Preheat oven to 205 degrees C. Cut tiny slits into the lamb nut with a sharp knife and carefully press a sliver of garlic and rosemary sprig into each one. Sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper. Place the lamb into the centre of a non-stick baking pan. Next, prepare the vegetables. Peel the onions, pumpkin, potatoes and sweet potato. Using a sharp knife, cut the pumpkin, potatoes and sweet potato into small, even-sized chunks. Place the prepared vegetables into the baking pan, around the lamb and sprinkle with a little sea salt. Drizzle the meat and vegetables with olive oil. Roast at 205 degrees C for approximately 30-40 minutes (less for rare meat). Remove the lamb to a warm carving tray and rest for 10-15 minutes. Cook the vegetables further during this time, tossing to ensure even browning. Slice the roasted lamb and serve with the vegetables on a platter. This recipe will feed two.
LAMB KEBABS & CHILLI YOGHURT DRESSING
450g lamb fillet or trim lamb, cubed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)
fresh lettuce, thinly shredded
1 large tomato, thinly sliced
2-4 slices Lavash flat bread (optional, or serve on a bed of rice)
Chilli Yoghurt Dressing (combine and chill)
1/2 cup natural yoghurt
1/2 teaspoon chilli paste
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
Combine lamb, lemon juice, pepper, olive oil and garlic. Cover and marinade several hours or overnight. Thread lamb equally onto skewers. Grill or bbq for several minutes till cooked and tender, turn occasionally. Place lettuce and tomatoes on one end of the lavash bread and top with kebabs. Remove skewers, spoon on the yoghurt dressing and roll up the lavash bread around the lamb and salad. If you prefer, serve the lamb on a bed of rice topped with the dressing. This recipe will feed 2.
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.