Years ago, I was in Delphi on Easter Sunday. It was in the 1960s, before the days of mass tourism. The main street was closed off, because the road was being used by villagers who set up their fires to spit-roast whole lambs with herbs from the surrounding maquis. The smell was wonderful - and so was the hospitality: we were all invited to join in the eating, dancing and singing. There was a real sense of a Christian festival, of joy, of release from the privations of Lent. And so my Easter menu is always roast lamb. Until this year.
For the past few years, our daughter Lettice has played a huge part in making the Easter feast - she lays the table beautifully with flowers and chocolates; she helps prepare vegetable dishes; and, crucially, she makes the last-minute gravy. She's in South Africa, teaching in a township school, the first time she has been away for Easter. So a new plan, new traditions. The boys laid the table: an austere arrangement of cutlery and glasses, nothing more. And I made a gently spiced lamb stew, with cinnamon and saffron, chocolate and dates. Seriously delicious. Alfred insisted on roast potatoes (some things are not allowed to change), but this would be better with couscous, rice, or even mashed potato.
The recipe is adapted from Willie Harcourt Cooze's excellent book Willie's Chocolate Factory, in which all sorts of surprising foods are given the cacao treatment. Once you've got over the initial shock, you realise that good cacao is a fabulous flavour enhancer, up there with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Willie's cylindrical bars of cacao are, without question, a must-have in my kitchen - and, although they are expensive, as with good balsamic, a little goes a very long way.
Lamb with dates and chocolate
Enough for 4-6 people (I'll add notes at the end about scaling this up for a crowd).
1 kg lamb leg slices
2 chopped onions
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp saffron threads
3 cloves garlic, chopped
25g finely grated cacao
200g tomatoes, skinned and chopped
stock to cover
100g pitted dates
Put everything apart from the dates into a casserole dish, cover with stock, and simmer with the lid on for an hour and a half. Add the dates and simmer for half an hour with the lid off, so that the sauce can thicken.
NOTES: this simple recipe lends itself well to scaling up. I used tinned whole tomatoes (if you use their juice, you'll hardly need any stock), one can per 1.5kg lamb. I also used tinned Spanish onion, which I often do when I'm mass catering, at the same rate. Saffron is an essential element to the success of this dish: mine was highly scented & from Iran - anything less pungent, and you'll need more. AND, this is better made a day ahead: I put the dates in at the end of the first cooking stage, cooled the pan, and then reheated slowly the next day without the lid.
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