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Thursday, March 24, 2005 12:00 pm

appetite 3-24-05

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Many foods are associated with the Easter holiday — ham, coconut cake, marshmallow-chocolate eggs — but one of the most traditional of all is lamb. Even so, it usually doesn’t top the list of most popular dishes and is not typically found on local restaurant menus, even at Easter.

In fact, even though rosemary leg of lamb will be part of the Easter brunch menu at the Crowne Plaza, it’s the only time of year the dish is served. And the hotel restaurant is one of only a few restaurants offering the item for Easter brunch on Sunday, March 27.

“I feel it’s a traditional part of Easter,” says Crowne Plaza executive chef Richard Long. “It has a following for some people. We thought long and hard about putting it on the menu because we didn’t sell a lot last year, but I think it’s well worth having. We sell about half the amount we cook, but I think you have to give people a mix in variety. Some people really like it.”

Long prepares the deboned leg of lamb by rubbing it with rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper, then roasts it in the oven for about 20 minutes per pound of meat. It’s then carved and served with mint jelly and fresh mint sauce made with vinegar water, sugar, and chopped mint.

Long, a native of England, has been a chef at the Crowne Plaza since its opening in 1997. Although lamb is not as common here as pork or beef, he says it’s gaining in popularity as people try it and realize that it’s easy to prepare. “It’s the same as turkey or roast; it just takes a little longer to cook,” he says. “I see it more and more in the stores these days. I think it’s a different taste profile, and people are not used to it. But as people travel and taste it elsewhere, they come home and want to try it.”

According to the American Lamb Council, American lamb is a prime source of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals. A three-ounce serving provides 43 percent of an adult male’s Recommended Daily Allowance for protein. Lamb is also high in B vitamins, niacin, zinc, and iron. Compared with other meats, lamb contains very little marbling (internal fat throughout the meat). An average three-ounce serving has 176 calories — or 7 percent of the average daily caloric intake recommended for a 23- to 50-year-old man. A lamb leg contains 162 calories, 6.58 grams of fat, and 2.4 grams of saturated fat. The same amount of chicken contains the same number of calories, 6.32 grams of fat, and 1.74 grams of saturated fat.

So if it contains all these nutrients and tastes so good, why isn’t it served frequently? Local chefs say it’s expensive and not easy to get a high-quality product without much fat. Turasky Meats, which sells meat products to retail and wholesale customers, sold a small amount to wholesalers this year for the Easter holiday but usually doesn’t offer lamb.

“We sell a very small amount. This time of year, we’ll bring in leg of lamb for wholesale accounts,” says owner Joe Turasky. “Lamb is very expensive this year, more so than usual. We were kind of shocked at the price of lamb.” A boneless leg of lamb was priced at $8.99 a pound, which was a $1 more a pound than last year. However, it’s comparable in price to the seasoned prime rib Turasky’s offers for the Easter holiday, which is more popular.

“Consumption of lamb is very low compared to beef and pork,” he says. “It’s sold throughout the year, but there’s not as much lamb out there in the marketplace. We will get a few requests but not enough to warrant keeping it on hand all the time.”

The most popular ways of serving lamb are lamb chops, a rack of lamb, or leg of lamb. You can prepare a boneless lamb, but if that’s not available, you can debone and roll it yourself to make it easier to serve.

If you’re cooking lamb at home, Long advises roasting a leg, which is the easiest to prepare and contains the most meat. Coating the meat with herbs reduces the smell, which some people may find offensive, he says. He likes to serve it in the traditional way, accompanied by fresh mint sauce. Lamb may be served with seasonal spring dishes such as roasted asparagus, fruit salad, or wild-rice salad.

Although lamb is scarce on most local menus, two local downtown restaurants do serve it year-round. At Maldaner’s, chef Michael Higgins prepares a braised lamb shank cooked in lemon and milk with Spanish green olives, garlic, and rosemary and served with mashed potatoes. Lamb will also be on the Easter-brunch menu this year. Augie’s Front Burner offers a lamb rack grilled with fresh herbs and natural jus on its regular menu but won’t be open for Easter brunch. Gateway to India also offers lamb in its curry and tandoori dishes, in which the meat is marinated with spices like mint, cilantro, ginger, garlic, and yogurt and then roasted slowly in a traditional Indian clay oven.

You can try lamb at these restaurants:

• Crowne Plaza, 3000 S. Dirksen Parkway. Easter brunch will be served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, March 27. Reservations are suggested. Call 217-585-2824 for more information.

• Maldaner’s, 222 S. Sixth St. Easter brunch will be served, and reservations are suggested. Call 217-522-4313 for information.

• Augie’s Front Burner, 109 S. Fifth St. Closed Easter. Call 217-544-6979 for more information.

• Gateway to India, 3115 Chatham Rd., 217-726-6890.

• Lime Street Café, 951 S. Durkin Dr., 217-793-1905. Easter brunch will include lamb.

• Soirée Bistro, 2824 Plaza Dr., 217-546-4460. Soirée Bistro’s regular menu includes lamb chops.

Celebration Leg of Lamb

Ingredients
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Whole bay leaf, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
6 to 9 pounds American lamb leg, bone-in

Directions
In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, oil, garlic, pepper, ginger, bay leaf, thyme, sage, and marjoram. Place lamb on rack in roasting pan. With sharp knife, make frequent slits in the surface of the lamb. Move knife from side to side to enlarge the pockets. Rub herb mixture into each slit. Rub any remaining mixture over roast. Roast in 325-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes per pound or until meat thermometer registers 145 degrees for medium-rare, 160 degrees for medium, or 170 degrees for well-done. Remove roast from oven, cover, and let stand 10 minutes. Internal temperature will increase by approximately 10 degrees. Pan drippings may be used in gravy or skimmed and served au jus.

— Recipe courtesy of American Lamb Board

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