MY YOUTH IN UPDATE NEW YORK included meals made by a mom who was not an adventurous cook, so “exotic” meats were rarely served. If lamb made it to the table, it was a platter of well-done and reasonably priced shoulder chops that required a good dousing of mint jelly. When Easter rolled around, we had ham, studded with the ubiquitous whole cloves and canned pineapple slices placed snugly with toothpicks. My grandfather was a Methodist minister, so the emphasis, I suppose, was more on the resurrection than on the repast.
We always had simple scalloped potatoes that, oddly, were made with milk instead of cream, which I guess helped keep me pious and away from the sin of gluttony. I do remember a few years when a fancy Easter egg–shaped ice cream cake, stuffed with jelly beans and covered with green coconut, appeared. That was special. And of course, the great thing about ham is that there were always leftovers for sandwiches.
Wondering what other families had—the great ham-or-lamb holiday debate—I posted the question on social media and received a healthy response from more than 100 fellow foodies. Ham reigned as king, with 55 votes, while lamb, both legs and chops, weighed in at 38. Folks who celebrated Passover preferred brisket, and everyone liked deviled eggs and scalloped potatoes, to round out the menu. A few surprising options? Turkey noodle casserole, green chile kugel, barbecue, pheasant, and rabbit (that one’s a bit macabre around Easter Bunny time, right?).
New Mexico has both lamb and pork ranchers who offer multiple local options one can consider instead of store-bought varieties. The ones I’ve encountered promote sustainability and humane practices along with other positive buzzwords, such as “product traceability” and “transparency in the marketing.” A quick search for a state-originated ham producer turned up nil, although one pork provider did offer to cure a pig for me should I be able to supply one. (I couldn’t.) A smaller provider required preordering in the fall. Other pork cuts, though, are available.
Historically, the reasons why lamb and ham are popular during this time of year vary. In a religious sense, lamb has always been considered an Easter and Passover dish. For Christians, Jesus is the “lamb of God,” and the dish is considered a tribute to or remembrance of his sacrifice. Among Jewish people, the connection comes from lamb blood that was smeared over doorways by the Israelites to save them from destruction.
But there’s an agricultural sense to these holiday meats as well. Lambs are born in the spring. Ham was traditionally made from pigs fattened with apples and acorns in the fall. Before refrigeration, the meat needed to cure during colder months and was ready to eat by spring.
Whichever holiday you celebrate, and whatever meat graces your family table, give it some New Mexico flavor this year.
I think osso buco—Italian for “bone with a hole”—made with lamb shanks is so much tastier than the traditional version, made with veal shanks. You may find shanks that are crosscut as in the traditional veal version (ask your butcher), but whole shanks work, too. Check the meat after two hours; you don’t want the lamb to fall completely off the bone but to pull away easily. Serve with a potato side dish or wild mushroom risotto. Osso buco is great for entertaining. You can cook it completely, then rewarm when you’re ready to serve.
This tasty green chile–stuffed pork loin has a crunchy crust that helps keep the meat moist while roasting. Consider serving it with a simple sauce made by combining equal parts sour cream and salsa verde (Herdez is a popular brand). You can find queso fresco in most grocery stores near the cream cheese. Pepitas are often sold in bulk; I prefer the salted version. (Still determined to roast a ham? Start with spiral-cut. For a zippy norteño glaze, add ground New Mexico red chile to maple syrup or honey, or combine orange marmalade with canned chipotles.)
These rich and creamy scalloped potatoes are a perfect side dish for your favorite lamb, pork, or other protein. Using a mandoline to slice the potatoes works well. For my vegetarian friends, I grill a thick slab of olive-oiled and well-seasoned eggplant and serve that as a “steak” to accompany this dish.
Where’s the Meat?
How to put locally grown lamb and pork on your holiday table.
This is a partial list of New Mexico meat suppliers. Many of their products are sold in stores, and some of the ranchers ship, too. It’s best to contact them directly and establish a relationship in case you need to preorder for next year’s production. All the ranchers I spoke with were more than happy to talk about their growing and processing methods.
High Country Meats, Ratón. Pork and beef. 575-445-2449
Night Sky Lamb, Melrose. Lamb, including skilpadjies, a South African meatball. 575-749-7626
Dunhill Ranch, Magdalena. Lamb and beef. 575-854-2847
Shepherd’s Lamb, Tierra Amarilla. Lamb, pelts, wool, blankets. 505-795-3671
Talus Wind Ranch, Galisteo. 505-982-7782