Lamb Easter: Had it with ham? A tasty change of menu will give you the holiday touch without much fuss.

CELEBRATING WITH

March 26, 1997|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Nothing against ham, but the main reason those pre-baked sliced porkers keep popping up on holiday dining tables is convenience. Sure, they're tasty. But what if you're burned out on the Holiday Ham? Is there another shortcut to Easter dinner?

Try lamb. Not the traditional roasted leg of lamb, which demands lengthy cooking, oven monitoring and complicated carving. We're talking either no-fuss, butterflied leg of lamb or lamb chops.

These cuts take a fraction of the time to prepare, yet they're every bit as flavorful, particularly when grilled.

Round out the menu with some equally easy spring dishes -- all with do-ahead components -- such as a rice pilaf casserole, green beans strewn with golden bell pepper strips, rolls from the market and a no-guilt strawberry-topped cheesecake.

Although oven roasting is the traditional Easter lamb preparation, grilling or broiling a boned and butterflied leg or chops makes sense.

Most butchers will be happy to bone and butterfly a lamb leg, which typically runs about five pounds. It takes about 20 minutes per side to cook.

Choice 1 1/2 -inch chops -- loin and rib -- cooked medium rare, will take four minutes grilling or broiling per side.

Whatever the cooking method, seasoning should be simple, says Steve Robbins, a Dallas restaurant meat supplier.

"I like lamb because it tastes good without any more than a few spices in it," Robbins says.

Instead of marinating the lamb, he uses herbes de Provence, garlic slivers and cracked black pepper before grilling. "Marinating disguises the flavor of what you're cooking," he says.

To complement the lamb's strong and distinctive flavor, serve a rice pilaf studded with sweet golden raisins and nuts. This version can be made up to a day ahead and reheated in the oven or microwave.

Similarly, green beans with gold bell peppers can be assembled in minutes before serving if the green beans are blanched the previous night.

Cap the meal with light lemon cheesecake, which combines cream cheese, yogurt and egg whites that won't leave you racked with guilt. Not too much, anyway. Besides making a fitting conclusion to a heavy meat meal, the cheesecake earns high marks for convenience. It can be prepared two days in advance.

Grilled lamb chops with garlic and rosemary

Makes 8 servings

8 large cloves garlic, minced

8 tablespoons dried or fresh rosemary leaves, crumbled

2 to 4 teaspoons coarsely round black pepper (or to taste)

8 rib or loin lamb chops, 1 1/2 inches thick (about 4 pounds)

Combine garlic, rosemary and pepper, and press into both sides of lamb chops.

Heat coals on grill or heat broiler. Grill or broil the chops over high heat, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.

For butterflied leg of lamb (about 5 pounds): Press seasonings into flesh on all sides. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Prepare hot coals. Brush with olive oil. Grill 20 minutes on each side, basting with olive oil. Check for doneness after 30 minutes cooking time: It should feel springy to the touch for medium to medium-rare; if finger makes an indentation, cook it longer.

Per serving: 545 calories; 41 g fat; 160 mg cholesterol; 113 mg sodium; 68 percent calories from fat

Rice pilaf

Makes 8 servings

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup pine nuts (see note)

2 cups long-grain white rice

4 cups liquid ( 1/2 chicken broth and 1/2 water or water only)

1 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons grated orange peel (colored part only)

2 tablespoons orange juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

In heavy-bottom saucepan, melt butter. Add onions and pine nuts. Stir constantly until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add rice and stir well to coat with butter. Cook 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add liquid and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until rice is just tender. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Fluff rice with a fork and transfer to bowl. Add raisins, orange peel, orange juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Turn into an ovenproof casserole and cover tightly with aluminum foil. (May be prepared in advance to this point and refrigerated overnight.) Bake for 20 minutes or until rice is heated through.

Note: You may substitute chopped pecans or slivered almonds for pine nuts.

Per serving: 337 calories; 11 g fat; 55 mg cholesterol; 500 mg sodium; 29 percent calories from fat

Buttered green beans with yellow bell peppers

Makes 8 servings

1 1/2 pounds green beans

2 large yellow bell peppers, cut into 2-by- 1/4 -inch strips

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon finely minced mint

salt and pepper to taste

Cut green beans on the diagonal into 2 1/4 - to 3-inch lengths.

In large saucepan of boiling salted water, boil beans 3 to 7 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain beans in colander, refresh them under cold water and drain well. May be prepared to this point and refrigerated.

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