Weekend food with Darina Allen: Spring into the season with Easter lamb

Happy Easter to you all! What extraordinary weather we’re having as we spring into Summer and back into Winter again. 

Just a few mornings ago there was a bitter frost and then a glorious Summer day…..The leaves of my poor little beetroot seedlings got frizzled in the garden so I hope they’ll recover.

This weather ‘roller coaster’ is kinda spooky. 

Normally the pale yellow stalks of sea kale are in season in April but this year we’ve been harvesting them from under the cloches for over a month. 

Even more extraordinary is our asparagus crop, usually in season in May. 

This year we ate the first meal at the end of February and have had several cuttings since.

Super charged, climate change whether cyclical or man-made or a combination of both is a terrifying reality. 

But, as a consequence, this Easter we can enjoy not just the first of the rhubarb but both Irish asparagus and the last of the seasons sea kale.

In every village shop and on the high street, the shelves are groaning with Easter eggs, ever cheaper and, if the truth be known, less good chocolate in many. 

I can’t help thinking about the poor cocoa bean farmers, who are forced to take less and less for their raw materials – price takers, not price makers…

As with Christmas, the blatant excess and consumerism makes me deeply uneasy. 

Somehow it makes me focus even more on the true meaning of the Feast of Easter. 

I vividly remember a time when we all fasted throughout Lent and took on a penance. 

Then there was the satisfaction of having kept to our resolution and the joy of the first bite of an Easter egg on Easter Sunday after Mass.

I hope I’ve managed to persuade you by now to have a little moveable chicken coup on your lawn — you can enjoy dipping those tender asparagus spears into a freshly boiled egg.

We’ll roast a shoulder of Easter lamb and enjoy it with the already prolific spearmint in the herb garden and then of course there will be a juicy rhubarb tart. 

I’m using the Ballymaloe cream pastry recipe, it sounds super decadent and is but it’s extraordinarily good and super easy to make so don’t balk at the ingredients — just try it!

Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb with Wild Garlic Champ and Myrtle’s Mint Sauce

Serves 8-10

Shoulder of lamb is easily available and here the shoulder is cooked whole with just a sprinkle of sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. 

If the shoulder is excessively fatty, as may be the case later on in the lamb season, trim some of it off, or ask your butcher to do it for you.

1 whole shoulder of lamb on the bone, weighing 3.6kg (8lbs)

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Place the lamb shoulder in a wide roasting tin or oven tray with the skin side up. 

Score the skin several times to encourage the fat to run out during the cooking and to crisp up the skin. 

Season with salt and pepper. 

Place in the oven and roast for 30 minutes before turning the temperature down to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3 for a further 3½ hours.

To test if the lamb is cooked to a melting tenderness, pull the shank bone and it and some of the meat should come away easily from the bone.

When the lamb is cooked, remove from the oven. 

There will be plenty of fatty cooking juices. 

Strain these off the roasting tin through a sieve into a bowl. 

Keep the lamb warm in the oven with the temperature reduced to 100C/200F/Gas Mark ¼.

When the fat has risen to the surface of the lamb cooking juices, skim off the fat carefully and thoroughly with a large spoon.

Bring the juices to a simmer and taste and correct seasoning.

To serve the lamb: A tongs or serving fork and spoon is the best way to remove the meat from the bones. 

Prise largish pieces off the bones and serve on hot plates with some of the hot cooking juices.

Wild Garlic Champ

Serves 4-6

A bowl of mashed potatoes flecked with wild garlic leaves and a blob of butter melting in the centre is ‘comfort’ food at its best.

1.5kg (3lb) unpeeled ‘old’ potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks

Add 50-75g (2-3oz) roughly chopped wild garlic leaves

350ml (10-12fl oz) milk

50-110g (2-4oz) butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets.

Pour the milk into a pot and bring slowly to the boil. 

Add the wild garlic leaves to the milk just as it comes to the boil. 

Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse. 

Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and wild garlic, beat in the butter. 

Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. 

Serve in 1 large or 6 individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre. 

The mash may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. 

Cover with parchment paper while it reheats so that it doesn’t get a skin.

Mint Sauce

Makes about 175ml (6fl oz); Serves about 6

Traditional mint sauce, made with tender young shoots of fresh mint, takes only minutes to make. 

For those who are expecting a bright green jelly, real mint sauce has a slightly dull colour and watery texture.

25g (1oz) fresh mint, finely chopped

1 tablespoon sugar

110ml (4fl oz1) boiling water

25ml (1fl oz) white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put the freshly chopped mint and sugar into a sauce boat. 

Add the boiling water and vinegar or lemon juice. 

Allow to infuse for 5–10 minutes, before serving.

Easter Rhubarb Tart

Serves 8-12

Ballymaloe Cream Pastry

This pastry keeps in the fridge for up to 6 days.

110g (4oz) cold salted butter

110g (4oz) plain flour

150ml (5floz) cold cream

Filling

680g (1 1/2lb) red rhubarb

275-340g (10-12 oz) sugar approximately

Egg Wash

1 beaten free-range organic egg with a little milk, to glaze

Equipment

1 x 23cm (9 inch) tin with 4cm (1½ inch) sides

First make the pastry. 

Sieve the flour into the bowl of an electric food mixer. 

Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour using the paddle attachment until the mixture forms a coarse texture (slow speed and then a little faster). 

(DO NOT over mix, if you do the mixture will form a shortbread like ball.) 

Pour the cold cream into the coarse mixture and mix on a low speed until a smooth pastry forms. 

Wrap the pastry in parchment paper and chill overnight.

Always roll cream pastry straight from the fridge. 

If the pastry comes to room temperature it will be too soft to handle! 

Roll out half the pastry to about 3mm(½ inch) thick and line a round tin measuring 20.5 x 30.5cm (8 x 11.5 inches).

Slice the rhubarb into 1 cm rounds, fill the tart and sprinkle with the sugar.

Roll the remaining pastry, cover the rhubarb and seal the edges. 

Decorate with pastry leaves. 

Paint with egg wash and bake in a preheated oven 180C/350F/gas mark 4 until the tart is golden and the rhubarb is soft (45 minutes to 1 hour). 

When cooked, sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar.

Note: This tart can also be filled with Bramley apples, gooseberries and elderflower, Worcesterberries, damsons, plums, blackberry and apples, peaches and raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries as they come into season.

Easter Eggs Benedict with Asparagus

Serves 4

This recipe is a combination of two forgotten skills: poaching eggs and making Hollandaise sauce (which also involves eggs). It is the perfect breakfast for a lazy weekend.

4 - 8 organic eggs

4 slices good sourdough bread a homemade yeast bread

butter

12 stalks of asparagus

Hollandaise Sauce

2 organic egg yolks

125g (4½oz) cold butter, cut into dice

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

First, make the Hollandaise sauce and keep it warm. Poach the eggs. 

Meanwhile, toast the bread. Slather a little butter on the hot bread and lay 3 slices of cooked asparagus on the base. 

Prop a beautifully poached egg on top and coat generously with the Hollandaise sauce.

A classic Hollandaise is based on a reduction of dry white wine, vinegar and finely chopped shallots. 

In the version we make at the Cookery School we simply emulsify rich butter with egg yolks by whisking and then sharpen with a little lemon juice. 

Unless you have a heavy-based saucepan, don’t attempt this recipe without a bain-marie. 

Even on the lowest heat, cooking a Hollandaise sauce in a pot that isn’t heavy-based may scramble the eggs.

Once the sauce is made, it must be kept warm, though the temperature should not go above 80C (180F), or the sauce will curdle. 

A thermos flask can provide a simple solution on a small scale; otherwise put the sauce into a Pyrex jug in a saucepan of hot, but not simmering, water. 

Hollandaise sauce cannot be reheated very successfully so it’s best to make just the quantity you need. 

If, however you have a little left over, use it to enrich other sauces or mashed potatoes. 

When it solidifies, it makes a delicious Hollandaise butter to melt over fish.

Put the egg yolks in a heavy, stainless-steel saucepan on a low heat or in a bowl over hot water. 

Add 2 teaspoons water and whisk thoroughly. 

Add the butter bit by bit, whisking all the time. 

As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece. 

The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water to cool it quickly. 

Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. 

Finally add the lemon juice to taste.

If the sauce is slow to thicken it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. 

Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to coating consistency.

It is important to remember that if you are making Hollandaise sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. 

If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand, then it is also too hot for the sauce.

Another good tip if you are making Hollandaise sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so you can plunge the base of the saucepan into it if becomes too hot.

To prepare and cook the asparagus

Hold each spear of asparagus over your index finger down near the root end, it will snap at the point where it begins to get tough. 

Some people like to peel the asparagus but we rarely do.

To boil

Tie similar sized bundles of asparagus in bundles with raffia. 

Choose a tall saucepan.

Cook in about 2.5cm of boiling salted water (1 teaspoon salt to every 600ml) in an oval cast iron casserole. 

Cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until a knife tip will pierce the root end easily. 

Drain and serve immediately as above.

Hot Tips

Claire Ptak – Owner of Violet Bakery in London

Remember that cake ... Claire Ptak has gone from running a successful — if comparatively hidden — gem of a bakery on a quiet residential street in Hackney, east London, to the internationally known mastermind of the cake served at the royal wedding of Meghan and Prince Harry. 

Claire has been to the Ballymaloe Cookery School several times before and each time she leaves we have a few more of her delights to add to our repertoire. 

Now Claire is coming once more to the school on Saturday 11th May, to show us all how to make the wonderful treats.

Places filling up fast, contact www.cookingisfun.ie or call 021 4646785 to book a place.

Michelin-starred Caines coming to Co Laois

Michelin Starred Chef Michael Caines of Gidleigh Park in the UK is to join Sam Moody in Ballyfin in Co Laois to cook up a feast.

Head to beautiful award winning Ballyfin, in Co Laois for an exciting event on the Thursday, April 25.

Executive Chef Michael Cains from Gidleigh Park in Devon will join resident Chef Sam Moody and his team for an evening of exceptional gastronomy and hospitality.

For more information check out www.ballyfin.com

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