Easter in Melbourne
Melbourne is where I was born and raised by Lebanese parents, a rag trading father with an impossible appetite, and an elegant Arabic coffee drinking mother who was the first to fill my yearning belly, although if the truth be told, she wasn’t actually the greatest cook in the world, I dare say.
The greatest food-packed childhood memories I have are celebratory lunches at my grandparents’ house during the Christmas and Easter holidays. Even as a little boy, food was very much the centre of my life and I was fascinated by all the activity surrounding its preparation. To be honest, back then, my intentions were simple and I was much more interested in putting delicious things in my mouth than helping to prepare them.
For the Lebanese, huge family celebratory feasts are abundant, with an extraordinarily large amount of food on offer, with the table piled high with sambousak (meat or cheese pastries), cabbage rolls, roz a djej (chicken with rice), tabouleh and fattoush. For us, it’s not really a celebration unless there is clearly far too much food for any reasonable group of people to finish.
However, Easter’s real pièce de resistance is Ouzi, whole baby lamb, slow roasted with garlic and lemon, filled with Lebanese style nut rice. Even as I write this I am craving that melt-in-the-mouth lamb. Abundance aside, it was at this table that I also learnt the importance of generosity. In the Middle East, food is a gift and an expression of love. With family members it’s about comforting, nourishing and healing; with friends and guests it’s about welcoming, sharing and embracing. Once learned, this is a lesson that is hard to forget, and even now, I find it hard to keep my portion sizes economical!
GREG MALOUF’S Marinated Middle Eastern Style Baby Lamb
2 lamb legs (around 1.5‐2kg) with shank, cut at ball joint
2 8-point lamb racks from the neck end (Frenched if possible)
FOR THE MARINADE
4 cloves of garlic crushed with 2 tsp sea salt
The juice and peel of 2 lemons
1 tbsp ground allspice
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
250ml olive oil
FOR THE STUFFING
80g pine nuts
80g shelled pistachio nuts
80g blanched whole almonds
80ml olive oil
150g lamb mince
1 brown onion, finely diced
650g short grain rice
1L chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp cracked white pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed with 1 tsp sea salt
The juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ cups fresh coriander, roots removed
1 Blend the garlic, lemon juice, allspice and thyme with the olive oil to prepare your marinade.
2 Smother the lamb in the marinade, cover and allow to rest overnight.
3 Preheat the oven to 220C.
4 In a heavy based baking tray, heat the olive oil and sear all the joints of lamb until rich brown in colour. Season with sea salt and cracked pepper.
5 Cover the baking tray with foil and roast the legs for 50 minutes to an hour.
6 Add the racks covered in foil in the last 20 minutes of cooking, then remove from the oven and allow to rest in a warm place, covered with foil.
7 While the lamb is roasting, prepare the rice.
8 Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy based pot and sauté the onions and minced lamb until the onions are soft and the meat has browned.
9 After around 4 minutes, add the rice and boiling chicken stock.
10 Turn the heat down to a simmer, add the cinnamon stick and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 14 minutes.
11 Fry the nuts separately in 100ml olive oil until golden brown.
12 To serve, turn the rice out on to a large serving platter and sprinkle with the nuts.
13 Cut the lamb racks into three and carve the shoulder meat for each person, arranging the lamb pieces around the rice. Pour the juices from the roasting pan into a smaller pan and quickly bring to the boil, adding the garlic paste and lemon juice.
14 Pour the gravy over the lamb and garnish the whole platter with fresh coriander.
15 Serve with thick yoghurt and a fresh green salad.