Every holiday has its own natural rhythm and Easter is no exception with a generally leisurely pace. That cadence naturally extends to the meal, which for chef Jonathan Waxman of New York City’s acclaimed Barbuto means an afternoon-long feast. That’s not a big surprise, given that few chefs do leisure as well as Waxman. He’s not only a James Beard Award winner, but earned the nickname “Obi-Wan Kenobi” on Top Chef Masters, for his slow and steady work during the show’s different competitions.
Easter reminds Waxman, who trained in Italy, of Florence—“where they have a better time at Easter than Christmas, with fireworks!”—and the tiny fishing town of Porto Ercole. His ideal holiday menu includes a delicious take on the traditional leg of lamb and early spring strawberries. The best part about his menu? The heavy lifting can be done days in advance—all the better for you to relax.
Waxman likes to start his holiday early and begins serving food around 11. When his guests walk in, he hands them a glass of pink Champagne or rosé, which sets a festive mood. For appetizers, he likes to keep things simple, since the main dish is substantial. “I love grilled bread smeared with goat cheese and either sun-dried tomatoes tossed with olive oil or a little prosciutto,” he says.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, Waxman recalls there were “an admixture of things that really influenced me… Mexican, Italian, French, Jewish, American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.” And what he likes about cooking a leg of lamb, is that it appears in a wide variety of dishes served around the world. When Barbuto opened, the menu featured a seven-hour-roasted leg of lamb that, he says, “I think to this day is one of the best dishes we’ve ever done.”
Studded with garlic, shellacked with red wine, olive oil, and sherry vinegar, and laced with rosemary, it will perfume a kitchen. The giant roast, served at the table right in its braising dish, is “the greatest thing in the world to eat,” says Waxman.
While his leg of lamb recipe (see below) is super-simple, it does require a couple days of prep time. But on the other hand, the leftovers will be delicious. “It actually tastes better three days later,” says Waxman. He likes to plate the lamb with polenta or mashed potatoes, butter noodles, and string beans, buttered peas, or “any of those Easter-style things,” he says.
What’s for dessert? “Strawberry shortcake, of course!” says Waxman. After all that meat and bread, you’re not going to want a heavy dessert. Keep it light and seasonal. He makes a lightly sweetened polenta, cutting it into rounds and topping it with sweetened strawberries and blueberries, whipped cream, and a dusting of powdered sugar. But you could just as easily whip up your own favorite rendition of strawberry shortcake.
Leg of Lamb
Note: Start marinating meat one to three days before you want to serve it.
By Jonathan Waxman
2.5 whole heads of garlic, divided1 Tbsp Sherry vinegar2.5 cups Red wine, divided3 branches rosemary, divided.25 cup Olive oil, plus more for panOne bone-in leg of lamb (approximately 8 lbs)Fresh-cracked pepperSea or Kosher salt2 Onions, slicedSpecial equipment: one large re-sealable bag
Smash one whole head of garlic, keeping cloves in their skins. Add to bag along with half cup of red wine, vinegar, rosemary, and .25 cup olive oil. Rub whole leg of lamb thoroughly with salt. Add to bag, seal, removing as much air as possible, and place in refrigerator. Turn once a day for one to three days. (Three days is ideal.)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Discard marinade. Remove lamb from refrigerator, dry it, and season all over with salt and pepper.
Slice 4-5 garlic cloves very thinly. Using paring knife, put slits in skin of lamb all over, adding slivers of garlic to each slit. Rub a tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a roasting pan or Dutch oven. Add leg and brown on each side, turning leg every 15 minutes, for 45 minutes.
Lower heat to 325 degrees. Add whole head of garlic, smashed, to pan along with one sprig rosemary, 2 cups of red wine, and enough water to get up just to the top of the leg so there is a little island of lamb sticking out. If you have a lid for your pan, put it on. If not, tinfoil or parchment paper is fine. Put in oven for about 5 hours, leaving lamb alone unless liquid looks like it’s getting low. If so, add water. Lamb is done when you can use a fork to poke it and a bit of meat immediately falls off. Allow to sit for a minimum of an hour outside the oven.
Serve lamb with strained pan drippings, polenta, mashed potatoes, or butter noodles, and string beans or buttered peas.